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The first time I saw someone practicing with a yoga wheel, and it was probably on instagram, I was somewhat unimpressed. As a former (perpetually sore) college athlete, I was familiar with the idea of rolling out a tired back on cylindrical foam rollers, exercise balls, or more traditional back stretchers. I figured the yoga wheel was just a fancy bolster and that it’d soon disappear just as any other trend or fad should (speaking of which, I’m still impatiently awaiting the day I don’t run into a felt wide-brimmed hat at Whole Foods).
Well, it’s been months (years maybe) and the popularity of the yoga wheel has only grown – and not simply because it’s so fashionable. What I’d failed to notice, and what many other yogis miss, is that the yoga wheel isn’t just some restorative, feel-good prop. It definitely can be, but what distinguishes it from a bolster or a foam roller, for example, is that it can be used to strengthen and even deepen your yoga practice. Because it’s so similar to other spherical props, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when yogis began making use of wheels to modify their practice. The yoga wheel as we know it today, however, with it’s hollow center, narrow body, and modest height, is a relatively recent innovation. According to Sri Dharma Mittra, it was in 1978, while strolling around NYC’s Chinatown, that he envisioned the first modern yoga wheel. He writes: “… there was a store where they had thick industrial plastic (plexiglass) cut to all sizes. There was a small piece–about six inches in diameter from a larger tube that I thought would be perfect for opening the back and stretching the entire body.” Mittra brought the makeshift prop to his yoga studio and it was an instant his with his students.
Since, the yoga wheel has evolved from plexiglass, to plastic, and now, to cork, and it can be found in a range of sizes accented by various colors and designs. It’s uses, however, are what make it an incredible tool for yoga practitioners at every level. Though yogis are continually experimenting with how to get the most out of their yoga wheels, the majority use them in backbends such as Kapotasana (pigeon pose), Urdva Dhanurasana (full wheel), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose). The yoga wheel is also commonly used as a base for Pincha Mayurasana (forearm stand), Vrscikasana (scorpion), and the hollow back variations associated with each. The yoga wheel can be a great addition to restorative postures as well, providing rest for you arms in Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) or a stretch for your neck and spine in Supta Baddha Konasana (reclining bound angle).
There’s a reason why we say we’re unwilling to “bend over backwards” when we’re avoiding doing something uncomfortable. Backbends are tough. It’s for that reason the yoga wheel was created and why it has become such a popular tool for so many yogis. It’s great for warming up, getting deep into your muscles at the end of your practice, and for a little extra support when trying something new. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a yoga wheel for a spin and see how it enlivens your practice!
About the Author: Melissa Lynn is a writer, yogi, and coffee fanatic from Southern California. A former Division I athlete, Melissa earned her BA in History at Stanford University, worked as a paralegal in Washington, DC, and happily traded pencil skirts for spandex to become a full-time yoga instructor. She is an avid traveler and you can learn about her experiences abroad on her personal blog and website at TheTravelingAmericano.com