If your hips are really high, you might bend your arms at the elbows and bring your hands to your low back. If you do this, make sure you have your hands just like in shoulder stand, with the thumbs out. Having the thumbs in puts them in a vulnerable position.
From here you keep your chin tucked just slightly into jalandhara bandha (chin lock) to extend the back of your neck. Then, keep pressing down through your feet, arms, and shoulders while you continue to lift your hips and press gently forward through your knees.
Eventually, and you may not believe me now but I promise it is true, this pose can be restful. It’s strengthening to the back, abdominals, and legs. It increases flexibility in the neck and chest. And it’s an inversion, raising the heart above the head, so it has all the benefits I talked about last week that go along with that.
Coming out of Setu Bandhasana needs to be as slow and mindful as getting in to it. Take each piece in reverse. Release your hands; wriggle your shoulders out; role the spine down from the upper back to the sacrum taking the time to feel the articulation of your spine; extend your legs. Stretch lengthwise and maybe twist if that feels right, and then come into knee-to-chest (Apanasana) and rock around.
History of Setu Bandhasana
That might not be what we're used to, but you have to admit, it makes a lot more sense for it to be called "bridge."
In Sivananda Yoga, when you look up Setu Bandhasana, you find instead Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, a pose that comes after Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and Halasana (plow) and leads into Matsyasana (fish). From shoulder stand, you bring your feet down one at a time, into what most Hatha Yoga teachers now call bridge pose, then walk the feet out into what looks just like the easier version of Iyengar's Setu Bandhasana above. This is one of my favorite sequences in Sivananda.
Setu Bandhasana is not an old pose. It comes from the merging of Hatha Yoga with various fields of physical culture in the early 20th century. The fact that it has been modified over time to accommodate less flexible and strong bodies only shows that Yoga is not a static discipline.
Even within the last ten years there’s been a change in the way we teach bridge pose. It used to be taught that we should start with the heels as close to the seat as possible with the goal of grasping the heels or ankles once the hips were raised. That is what she’s doing in the photo at the top of this post. Look at her knees. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the tendons and ligaments of the knees in this position, with the knees in front of the ankles.
For safety, it’s now recommended that the heels be directly under the knees, just like in warrior poses, to avoid that strain.
Another variation, one which turns bridge into a restorative pose, is to use a block under the sacrum. Then experiment with extending one leg at a time or both. This brings the body into a supported version of the Sivananda style bridge. Bridge is said to help with digestion, and in this position you can see why.
Maybe our bridges don’t look so much like bridges anymore. But they truly are bridges to a better life, strengthening and lengthening the spine to help us into more comfortable, longer, and deeper meditation sessions. The first Hatha yogis developed the asana so the physical body would be strong enough to endure the spiritual awakening of the Kundalini. Bridge might not be an ancient posture, but it’s certainly a useful one, whatever your goal.