Yoga students tend to fall into one of two camps – those who love forward bends and those who are better arching back. I fall into the former camp; touching my toes has never been a problem. But when I first started practising yoga 17 years ago, a stubbornly tight upper back inhibited my ability to practice the kind of backbends that teachers such as Kino MacGregor make look so damned easy.
But over time, my backbends have developed more fully. Regular practice has been key. So too has been the work I do with a little-used (in the UK at least) prop called the Yoga Wheel. Circular in shape, it varies in size (I use Yoga Design Lab’s yoga wheel that costs £46 and measures 13 inches in diameter).
Used properly, it can help students work on opening the front of the body (hip flexors, abdomen, chest and shoulders) as they relax and release into the fullness of a backbend without fear or uncertainty. Rolling on the wheel and massaging the spine also is a great cure-all after a long day at the office spent hunched over a computer. My yoga-hating husband actually LOVES doing this first thing in the morning.
Below are five ways that I use the wheel and are ordered from easiest (good for beginners) to hardest (for those with an advanced yoga practice).
1. Rolling on the wheel
The ultimate antidote to a forward-hunching spine that comes from too much texting and working deskbound.
Place the feet hip distance apart and position the wheel under the contours of your spine with the pelvis lifted away from the floor. Slowly roll back and forth by pushing into the feet.
Close the eyes and bring your attention to the muscles that line the length of the spine.
Do you feel it more on one side of the spine or the other?
MORE GLOSS: The yoga teachers' pick of the best yoga mats
2. Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero’s Pose)
If you have knee injuries, place one or two blocks beneath the sit bones to widen the angle of the knee joint. Relax back, either supporting the head with your hands or letting the head drop down to the wheel itself with the arms splayed out wide.
3. Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulder Stand)
If you have a neck or shoulder injury, place one or more blocks beneath the shoulders so that the back of the neck is lifted away from the floor.
4. Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose)
This is hard, but fun to try. Practice next to a wall so that you can catch it when you lose balance (trust me – you will).
5. Kapotasana (Pidgeon Pose)
This is an advanced backbend that requires a good amount of core strength, long hip flexors and open shoulders. Practice with caution – the moment you feel any pinching in the lower back as you move into this posture, you should come back up. In this video, I’m joined by my dog Molly.
Genny Wilkinson Priest (Instagram @kapotasanagenny ) is Yoga Manager at Triyoga, London and also teaches Ashtanga, Hot Yoga, Vinyasa Flow and General Yoga.
On 14 January 2018, she will be teaching a workshop, "Beginner's Guide to the Yoga Wheel" at Triyoga in Camden from 10-12pm You can sign up here.