Align: Setu Bandhasana

A highly therapeutic pose, setu bandhasana, or bridge pose, is suitable for most beginners.

Functions of the Pose

Balance strength and flexibility

Bridge pose lengthens the front of the body and strengthens the back, but attention and care must be take to lengthen and strengthen evenly, without letting areas (like the lower back) collapse or engaging others (like the external hip rotators) to the point of strain.

Expand the front body

The openness of the chest and belly in this pose create room for deeper, more satisfying breath, and can also improve posture, especially for those who tend toward kyphosis in the thoracic spine (rounding of the upper back). 

Promote function of abdominal-pelvic organs, thyroid and parathyroid, and lymphatic system

Especially when practiced as a supported, restorative position, the back-bending and inversion of setu bandhasna promote circulation to and relieve restriction or inflammation of digestive, reproductive and endocrine organs and promote lymphatic flow from groin to the chest and neck.

Finding the Pose

  1. Lie down on your back with knees bent and palms up by your sides.
  2. Keeping your knees and feet hip width apart, and maintaining the natural curves of the low back and neck, begin to lift the hips up.
  3. Press into the feet and shoulders to lengthen the front of the body. Begin to externally rotate the arms, rolling the upper arms out and under to expand the chest. This helps to adduct and depress the scapula and bring the spine away from the floor.
  4. Breathe in the lifted position several breaths, then slowly lower through an exhale and relax with knees bent and feet on the floor.
 As the pose becomes more open, students may try bringing the palms to the sacrum for more lift.

As the pose becomes more open, students may try bringing the palms to the sacrum for more lift.

Tips & Modifications

Some students will find it easier to engage the triceps and create more lift in the chest if they clasp their hands underneath their backs and press into the floor with fists and shoulders. 

As students achieve greater extension through the spine and hips, the hips will be high enough for them to bend their elbows and place their palms under the sacrum. This provides a bit more leverage for bringing the elbows close, bringing more of the spine of the scapula to the floor (and lifting the thoracic and cervical vertebrae away)

Blocks can be useful tools in this pose. Holding a block between the thighs or feet helps remind the practitioner to initiate the movement from the strength of the legs, and to keep the adductor muscles and pelvic floor engaged, and to prevent overuse of the external hip rotators to bring the hip into extension.

A block can also be placed under the sacrum (at the lower or middle height for most students) to support the hips and make the pose more restorative in nature.

 Block held between knees to activate inner thighs and reduce external hip rotator activity.

Block held between knees to activate inner thighs and reduce external hip rotator activity.

 Block placed under sacrum. A bolster can also be used for this quieter, restorative variation.

Block placed under sacrum. A bolster can also be used for this quieter, restorative variation.

A variation of this pose for therapeutic practice is dwi pada pitham, two-legged table. It looks much like regular bridge pose, but focuses on steady, controlled movement with the breath. Typically it is practiced moving up into bridge through the inhale, and back down to the floor through the exhale, sometimes pausing for a set of breaths at the top or bottom. Arm movement is occasionally added, in which the arms move in an arc overhead (to full shoulder flexion) with the inhale, and back to the original position with the exhale.

Muscle Actions

  • The hamstrings, gluteus maximus, adductor magnus and gracilis work to lift the hips while holding the knees hip-width apart. The psoas and iliacus complex is lengthened.
  • The rhomboids, levator scapulae and rotator cuff externally rotate the arms, and the triceps brachii, teres major and posterior deltoid muscles engage to press the arms and shoulders toward the floor as the chest lifts.
  • The spinal extensors work to bring the thoracic and lumbar spine into flexion, and resist excessive flexion of the neck.

Benefits

  • Expands the thoracic cavity, providing more room for breath.
  • The inversion, extension of thoracic cavity and shoulders and flexion of neck promote immune system function. It can also help relieve acute symptoms of sinusitis.
  • The supported version of this pose, using a block or bolster under the sacrum, can be therapeutic for digestive distress or menstrual cramping. Start with the block at the lower or middle height and rest in the position for one to five minutes.
  • Mild back-bending poses can relieve back pain and strengthen muscles and bones of the spine to reduce osteoporosis.
  • Setu bandhasana has revitalizing qualities, as it is a slight back-bending pose and gently compresses the adrenal area.

Precautions

Take care of the position of the neck, especially for beginning students. Ideally, the the natural curve of the cervical spine is preserved and the entire spine is lifted away from the floor.

Students with history of neck pain, injury or surgery (cervical fusion), or who have risk/signs of osteoporosis in the cervical spine, may need to place a blanket under the shoulders to reduce neck flexion, or even to come gently in and out of the posture several times rather than holding the position. Depending on severity of injury, this pose may need to be entirely avoided.

For students with relatively tight iliopsoas muscles, the lumbar spine area will tend to accept most of the extension of this pose and may be stressed by hyperextension. Encourage students to draw the tailbone upward if the curve of the low spine is exaggerated, or if the line of curve from knee to shoulder appears broken by the degree of flexion at the hips. It can also help to place a block between the thighs or encourage engagement of the bandhas.

Sequencing Tips

Setu bandhasana is a great beginner's pose to introduce before urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) or salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulderstand) as it allows the student to be relatively supported while exploring elements of the more advanced postures. It also provides opportunity for a teacher or student to determine readiness for the these postures. Setu bandhasana is actually a "beginner" version of the pose setu bandha sarvangasana, in which the hands support the back and legs are extended with feet on the floor.

Elements of bridge pose include shoulder extension, extension (arching) of the upper spine, and hip extension. Bhujangasana (cobra pose), anjaneyasana (low or high lunge), virasana (hero pose) and ustrasana (camel pose) are all excellent preparatory postures. Apanasana (wind-relieving pose) and a reclined twist (preferably with shoulders in some degree of flexion, perhaps elbows bent and palms up) are excellent counter-poses. However, it is most beneficial to rest for a few breaths with the spine in a neutral position, simply lying on the back with knees bent or even in supta baddha konasana (reclined bound-angle pose), before moving into hip and spine flexion.

Especially in restorative classes, bridge has a cooling, quieting effect. It is a wonderful pose to do directly before savasana, or in the few poses preceding relaxation.

Additional Resources:

For teachers: Assessing Student Alignment in Bridge Pose (video by Yoga International)

Yoga Anatomy-2nd Edition
By Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews