As the name indicates, bridge pose in yoga connects the opposite ends of the body. From the feet firmly planted in the earthly realm, the torso arches over the expanse of earth below, transporting energy to the upper chest, neck, and head.
The Sanskrit name for Bridge Pose in Yoga is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana.
“Setu” means “bridge”
“Bandha” means “lock”
“Sarva” means “all”
“Anga” means “limb”
“Asana” means “pose”
The sages have long maintained that we are citizens of two worlds, the inner and the outer, and to live harmoniously we must build a bridge between the two. Yoga is the technology for building that bridge between the mundane and the divine, between the isolated little self and the universal consciousness.
Most of us are more familiar with our individual identities and the primitive urges than we are with the realm of the divine. And since the instinctive realm is very much the realm of the body, the nervous system, and the emotions, the practice of asana which works so powerfully and directly in the physical plane is the perfect place to begin our bridge pose in yoga.
Benefits of Bridge Pose
- The bridge pose improves circulation and alignment in the lower back and pelvis.
- It helps the energy flow through the chest, pelvis, abdomen, and legs.
- It also strengthens the abdomen, back, and thighs, especially the lower back and buttocks.
- It opens the shoulders and chest, stretches the neck, and gives many of the benefits of inverted postures without the stress and strain on the neck. (Inverted postures increase the blood flow back to the heart and improve digestion, as well as help to regulate blood pressure and the functioning of the thyroid and parathyroid glands in the throat.)
Although the easier variations of the bridge pose in yoga are appropriate for almost everyone, be cautious if you have neck problems, high blood pressure, heart problems, detached retina or glaucoma, or an ear or sinus infection. In general, the pose should be comfortable and you should be free from strain in the neck or a feeling of unpleasant pressure in the head.
How to Do The Bridge Pose
Here we have described 6 variations of bridge pose in yoga with step-by-step guide:
1. Building the Bridge Pose
We’ll start with the easiest of the bridge pose in yoga variations. Begin by lying on the floor with your arms alongside the body. Bend the knees and bring the feet to the floor close to the pelvis, hip-width apart . Make sure the feet are pointed straight ahead and the knees track directly over the feet. This can be a little tricky—the feet and knees may feel straight and square even when they’re not, and you can’t see them. A second pair of eyes may help.
Now resolve to keep your thighs and feet firm and straight, then lift the pelvis up off the floor. Press down through the arms and continue peeling the spine up off the floor, lifting the chest up and toward the chin. Lift the sacrum into the body and stretch the pelvis up.
Don’t let the knees splay out. Press the inner edges and the balls of the feet into the floor to lengthen the inner thighs and keep the thighs aligned. Keep the pelvis expanding upward and the sternum moving toward the chin. Let the back of the neck lengthen as the shoulders move down and into the floor. The whole spine lengthens.
Stay in the pose enjoying your breath and feeling the posture unfold for half a minute or so. Then, keeping the legs and pelvis actively firm, release the spine to the floor gently and slowly one vertebra at a time from the neck down, until finally the sacrum rests on the floor. Soften the abdomen and the legs and relax.
2. Hands Clasped Bridge Pose
When the hands are clasped under the body the bridge becomes a great preparation for or replacement for the shoulderstand. This version stretches the arms and intensifies the stretch to the neck and shoulders, and requires and develops the flexibility and alignment in the upper back, shoulders, and neck demanded by the shoulderstand and plow.
Come into the posture as for the first version. Then, to align the upper body, shift your weight slightly to the right and draw the left shoulder blade down and in, bringing the left arm further under the body, and rolling to the outer edge of the left shoulder. Then shift to the left and do the same on the right side. This movement opens the chest and upper back.
Now interlace the fingers and press the palms together. Squeeze the upper arms toward each other, bringing the elbows closer together. Keep the full length of the arms on the floor and press them into the floor. You should be on the outer edge of the shoulders—the upper back and neck may not touch the floor at all, and the upper spine lifts toward vertical, just as it does in the shoulderstand. To come out, release the hands and arms alongside the body and lower down as before.
If your shoulders are too stiff to clasp the hands, practice the first version of the bridge, and work to bring the arms closer together. Practice the bridge pose instead of the shoulderstand until the shoulders open up enough to keep the neck from bearing weight in the shoulderstand.
3. Hands on Ankles Bridge Pose
The bridge pose in yoga is also a backward-bending posture and by catching the ankles with the hands, you accentuate the backbending aspects of the pose. This version of setu bandhasana can be an effective preparation for the more demanding wheel posture, or a stage from which you come into it, as the lower body is already in position for the wheel.
Start on the floor as before—the feet close to the hips, hip-width apart and aligned forward. Grasp the ankles with the hands. (If necessary, lift the hips slightly and then catch the ankles.) Lengthen the lower back by squeezing the buttocks, and lift the pelvis, stretching the thighs away from it.
Use the hands on the ankles to draw the shoulders down as you lift the rib cage and arch the spine up. Focus on keeping the thighs and feet parallel, arching evenly through the spine, and pressing the sacrum up and the rib cage toward the head. Come out by releasing the ankles, then lower the spine from the top down, one vertebra at a time.
4. Back-Supported Bridge Pose
In this variation of the bridge pose in yoga, you can work the opening in the upper back and pelvis by supporting the pelvis with the hands. After coming into the simple bridge shift the weight to the right, bend the left elbow, and bring it under the pelvis, placing the heel of the hand under the left hip. Now shift your weight onto the left side, and in the same way bring the right elbow and heel of the hand under the right hip. Then settle into the stretch.
You may find that this version lifts the pelvis a little higher than the others, giving you a bigger stretch through the abdomen and upper back. Because the pelvis is supported, this version requires less strength to maintain, and you have an opportunity to enjoy the deeper stretch.
To work on the strengthening aspects of this supported bridge, slide your hands to the lower ribs, bend the right thigh toward the chest, and then straighten the right leg to vertical. Keep the pelvis and the right hip lifting strongly, the back arched, and the left leg strong, with the ball of the left foot pressed firmly into the floor. Reach up with the right leg as strongly as you press down with the left. To come out, bend the right knee to the abdomen and then lower the foot to the floor. Repeat on the other side.
5. Setu Bandhasana
When the bent-knee variations of the bridge pose in yoga are comfortable, you may want to try it with straight legs. Supporting the back with the hands as high up the back as possible, straighten first one leg and then the other by inching the feet away from the pelvis. Press the soles of the feet into the floor, especially the inner edges of the feet, and bring the feet closer together. The buttocks and inner thighs work strongly.
Keep the chest lifting by pressing the shoulders and arms down. Resting on the shoulders and the feet, the body inscribes a smooth arc from the toes to the top of the torso. Breathe and enjoy the flow of energy through the legs and pelvis, and up the spine as the abdomen and chest expand. Come out of the posture by walking the feet in to the pelvis, releasing the hands, and lowering the pelvis and spine to the floor.
You may want to bring the knees to the chest to release any tension in the back. Or, if you are enjoying setu bandhasana, try lifting one leg before you come out.
Come into this version as you did the other one-legged version—bend the right knee to the torso, then straighten the leg vertically. Lift the pelvis and extend up through the lifted leg, and down and out through the straight left leg. Rotate the left leg slightly inward to keep it from rolling out. Enjoy, then bend the knee and lower the foot to the floor. Repeat on the other side.
6. With the Shoulderstand Bridge Pose
Assuming you have a strong shoulderstand, an alternative and interesting way to come into setu bandhasana is from that posture.
When you are in the shoulderstand, support the upper back with the hands. Press the chest and pelvis forward, arching the back, and bend the knees so the feet reach toward the floor. Then gently lift the pelvis more strongly toward the face to counter the weight of the feet as you lower them to the floor. Lift the hips, and position the feet and arms as before to come into your choice of bridges.
If lowering both feet at the same time seems ungainly, practice lowering one leg at a time, bending the opposite thigh over the abdomen to counterbalance the lowering leg. Keep the pelvis lifted and the back arched.
Once in the bridge, try lifting back into the shoulderstand by pushing off from one foot, bringing the other knee over the abdomen, and then straightening into the shoulderstand. Moving from the shoulderstand to the bridge, back to the shoulderstand, and then into the plow a number of times develops flexibility and strength in the lower back.
In your practice, the bridge pose should be done with the shoulderstand-plow series, or in place of the shoulderstand and plow if those postures are inappropriate. Done after the plow, the bridge complements the plow by gently stretching the spine in the opposite direction. Be sure to finish this inverted sequence with the fish pose, which counters the effects of the plow-shoulderstand-bridge by stretching the neck in the opposite direction.
A Bridge to Holy Ground
In the esoteric sense, an unenlightened person is controlled by the presiding forces of the material world—states of consciousness which are said to be associated with the lower end of the spinal column. Bridge pose in yoga physically strengthens the connection between the lower body and the heart, throat, and head, which are associated with the enlightened divine planes of consciousness.
The bridge pose grounds and integrates us—reaching into the realm of the slumbering cosmic energy and bridging the gap between our mundane world and the sacred extrasensory superconscious world, reminding us that we are indeed citizens of two worlds.