Often taught as a beginner’s backbend, Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) can be overlooked by long-time yoga students. But this pose—a forward bend and inversion wrapped up in a backbend—offers a host of benefits, not to mention numerous possibilities for advanced explorations. That makes Setu Bandhasana an ideal pose to practice daily. Here’s why:
First, Setu Bandhasana is an excellent antidote to common everyday activities: sitting at a desk or computer, hunching the shoulders and reaching the arms forward. It’s especially helpful for training the shoulder’s rotator cuff muscles. Not so obvious is that Bridge Pose is a good backbend for counteracting stress. While most backbends are stimulating, Setu Bandhasana helps balance—or “bridge”—the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) divisions of the nervous system.
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During Setu Bandhasana, the head is essentially in a forward bend, with the occipital area at the base of the skull (where the parasympathetic nerves, including the vagus nerve, are concentrated) pressed into the floor. In addition to toning the vagus and massaging the thyroid area (two of the pose’s forward-bending benefits), Setu Bandhasana’s backbending and inverting aspects help counter prolapse of the pelvic and abdominal organs.
You can up the inversion effects by practicing Bridge Pose with the feet on a chair or wall. Or use pillows or bolsters to transform your Bridge Pose into a restorative version and make it part of a post-work or pre-bedtime routine. More advanced variations, including Eka Pada Setu Bandhasana, emphasize the pose’s strengthening effects on the leg and shoulder muscles.
Hand placement in Bridge Pose varies according to teachers and traditions (palms flat or up, fingers interlaced, supporting the lower back, grasping the ankles, etc.). But no matter where you where you place your hands, move first from the shoulders to rotate the arms externally—that is, turn the elbow creases up toward the ceiling. Take care not to overstretch the ligaments at the back of the neck, and lift the chest toward the chin (rather than chin to chest), creating space between the neck and the floor while you progress in the pose.
Most importantly, resist the urge to thrust the hips up, as it compresses the lumbar area. Instead, go deeper, fine-tuning your awareness of the psoas muscles. Distribute extension (the back-bending part of the pose) evenly, from the tailbone to the neck. Backbends are front-body openers: Soften your belly enough to allow the navel to descend on the exhalations, as you re-anchor through the feet, legs and shoulders.
Balance strength and relaxation by thinking of a suspension bridge: Too much tension, and the cables snap. Too little and the bridge collapses. Build a better Bridge Pose by engaging the feet (practicing pada bandha) and stabilizing the pose from the inside out, without hardening the gluteal muscles or rectus abdominis. As you take the time to explore the different actions in the pose, the bandhas engage naturally, without requiring will or effort. Can you sense the difference in pranic flow as you adjust?
The steadiness of a solid Setu Bandhasana is ideal for self-observation; the flip side is that it can tempt you to “zone out” in the pose. So don’t just go to your comfort place and hang out. Train your awareness to move lightly from the hips to the knees to the shoulders to the spine, etc., without getting stuck in one place or wandering away to your grocery list, evening plans, or your neighbor’s Bridge.
Because of proportion, flexibility, injuries and other considerations, everybody’s Bridge Pose is different. Be observant and stay in your swadharma. Practicing a long Bridge Pose can lead to valuable insights about the nature of the mind—you might be surprised by what you find on the other side.
Where has your Bridge Pose taken you?