We do upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) many times during a vinyasa practice, while rarely taking time to explore it in detail. If we slow down and deconstruct the pose, piece by piece—from optimal feet placement to optimal head placement, and everything in between—we’ll learn how to break harmful habits and build an up dog that’s more safe, sustainable, and supportive.
Let’s explore the basic pose setup. Then we’ll discuss some common up dog errors and how to address them, helping you to find your strongest urdhva mukha svanasana yet.
Though upward facing dog is commonly practiced after chaturanga in a vinyasa flow, starting from a prone position (lying on your belly) can be a nice alternative. It can also be particularly helpful for exploring upward facing dog as a pose of its own, as opposed to always viewing it as a stopover in the plank-to-chaturanga-to-upward-facing-dog-to-downward-facing-dog sequence.
Start by lying on your belly with feet just slightly apart, and bring your hands to the floor with your fingertips in line with your lower chest. Keep the fronts of your shoulders lifted away from the floor (so your shoulders aren’t rounding forward). Hug your elbows in toward one another so that they’re not splaying out. Press the tops of your feet down into the floor so that your kneecaps lift up off the floor, ensuring that you have strong, energized legs right from the beginning.
Then, press into your hands and lift slowly, starting first with your head and upper chest, then straightening your arms a little more and lifting your ribs, belly button, pelvis, thighs, and finally, knees. Once you’re in upward facing dog, bend your elbows a little bit, roll your inner elbows forward toward the thumbs (to get the upper arm bones to rotate externally), and then straighten your arms again.
When you straighten, be attentive that your elbows not overextend—that is, that they don’t lock into a position where the elbows appear to bend backward. Retrain your body’s understanding of “straight” arms to be upper arm bones in a vertical line with lower arm bones. Think “straight” in terms of the geometrical definition, rather than a feeling in your joints.
Mistake 1: Externally Rotated Legs One thing that often happens in up dog is that the legs tend to roll out (externally rotate), which can compress the lower back. One sign of externally rotated legs can be seen in the feet: With external rotation, your weight tends to roll more toward the big-toe sides of the feet. Another sign of external rotation is that the glutes tend to clench quite a bit. We don’t want maximal recruitment of the glutes in upward dog because that can contribute to lower back discomfort in the pose. On the other hand, when the legs are neutral and balanced (without excessive rotation in either direction) and with all five toes of each foot pointing straight back, then we’re encouraging sub-maximal recruitment of the glutes.
How to address: Set up the pose with the tops of your feet on the floor and all of your toes pointing straight back. Press the root knuckles of your pinky toes down into the floor ("root knuckle" refers to the joint between the metatarsals of the fifth ray of the foot), and reach back through your big toes as if you want to lengthen your big toes to the wall behind you. Then press your hands down, lift your head, lift your chest, lift your lower ribs, lift your belly button, lift your hips, lift your thighs, and lift your knees, coming into the pose. Once you’re in the pose, continue pressing the pinky-toe knuckles down while lengthening the big toes back. By applying these two simple cues (bases of the pinky toes rooting down and big toes lengthening back), you may discover that you’re no longer clenching your bottom, and you have a little more space (less compression!) in your lower back.
Mistake 2: Slacking in the Core Sometimes we forget to engage the upper part of the legs and abdomen in up dog, and we lose the support of the front body, which can also cause us to collapse into the lower back.
How to address: Come into the pose as described above, remembering to root the pinky-toe knuckles down. Then, firm up your legs by engaging the fronts of your thighs, while drawing your belly button in and up to engage your abs.
Mistake 3: Shrugging the Shoulders Up Toward the Ears Collapsing into the pose and allowing the shoulders to hike up creates a lot of unnecessary tension—and tends to be quite uncomfortable! If you regularly practice this way, you may understandably find yourself dreading upward facing dog.
How to address: Push your hands down into the floor, broadening your chest and creating more space between your shoulders and ears. Make your neck as long as you possibly can, and keep your chest moving forward.
Mistake 4: Tossing the Head Back I think upward facing dog gets a bit of a bad rap simply because it’s called upward facing dog. Perhaps that makes us think we need to literally point our faces up toward the ceiling. But doing that creates a lot of tension in the back of the neck.
How to address: Here’s a helpful exercise you can practice before up dog to get a sense of what healthy head placement feels like. Come to a kneeling position and clasp your hands together behind your neck—almost as if you want to make a brace for your neck between the base of your skull and the tops of your shoulders (as though you’d like to immobilize the vertebrae between the skull and the shoulders). With those vertebrae as still as possible, gently nod your chin up and down a bit to find the amount of movement possible for you by just moving that top joint (the atlantoaxial joint, formed by the first two cervical vertebrae). In fact, most of the movement that’s possible in your neck actually comes from that first joint.
Another way to find that healthy head placement is to put your fingers just barely inside your ears and experiment with lifting (extension) and lowering (flexion) your chin; if you thrust your chin forward or tuck it under in a way that would create tension in your neck, you will notice that your ears slip off your fingers. The amount of upward tilt you can manage without moving your ears ahead of your fingers is as much extension as you need in upward dog.
Practice this head placement while in up dog (without sticking your fingers in your ears, obviously!). When you are sure there’s no compression at all in the neck, you can lift your eyeballs up to the ceiling—bringing your gaze up, as you may have been taught to do, without turning your whole face toward the ceiling.
You want to be able to breathe, and ultimately, to be comfortable in your upward facing dog. May these tips help you find a well-rounded pose that is both effortful and easeful.