Four Reasons to Replace Upward Facing Dog With Locust

Senior Yoga Medicine teacher Rachel Land explains why more locust can be good for your body—and your backbends—and offers several variations that you can integrate into any vinyasa practice.

I’m a big fan of active heart-openers like locust (salabhasana) and cobra (bhujangasana) for awakening neglected muscles on the back of the body and opening the chest. However, when I teach them in class, many students automatically move into upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), perhaps considering it a stronger or more “advanced” pose.

Given today’s increasingly sedentary lifestyle, we spend so much time sitting in spine and hip flexion that the muscles on the back of the body (especially the glutei maximi, posterior deltoids, infraspinati, mid and lower trapezii, and rhomboids) tend to weaken and the muscles on the front of the body (especially the anterior deltoids, pectorales majores and minores, and the hip flexors) tend to shorten or tighten.

Backbends are incredibly beneficial to counter these tendencies. And while up dog is certainly a good backbend option, it's possible to rely on gravity to create the backbend by drawing down on the pelvis and legs. In contrast, options like locust or cobra strengthen the back body because they entail using muscular effort to lift against gravity. In my opinion, locust offers even greater benefit than cobra because when practicing locust, we don't even use our arms to help us lift!

In fact, I've found four compelling reasons to substitute locust for a few of your regular up dogs.

Reasons to Practice More Locust

1. Gluteus Maximus and Hamstring Strength

One of the many negative side effects of sitting too much is gluteus maximus and hamstring inhibition. The more time we spend sitting on the glutei maximi and hamstrings instead of standing, squatting, or walking, the more these vital muscles tend to atrophy—losing not just strength but also circulation and sensitivity. Plus, thanks to a reflex called “reciprocal inhibition,” the chronic tension that sitting creates in our hip flexors (including the psoas muscles) hinders their opposing muscles—the glutei maximi and hamstrings—from firing efficiently.

Why does this matter? The glutei maximi and hamstrings play a key role in hip and lumbar spine alignment. When they are weak and the hip flexors are tight, the pelvis tends to tilt anteriorly (tip forward) and the lumbar curve tends to deepen. The reverse can occur too, though less frequently, where the hamstrings and glutei maximi are overly tight (though usually also weak) and pull the pelvis backward into posterior tilt.

While gluteus maximus and hamstring stretches can be helpful for posterior pelvic tilt, both imbalances can be improved by strengthening these muscles, as we do when we lift the legs in locust. That's because engaging the glutes and hamstrings in a healthy way helps to maintain a neutral pelvis and lumbar spine and good biomechanics in all the surrounding muscles.

It is, of course, possible to engage the glutei maximi and hamstrings also in upward facing dog, but because the backbend there is largely created by the pull of gravity, engagement is not a given. (And on the flip side, engaging the glutei maximi too much can cause our thighs to turn out, potentially putting pressure on the sacrum). Locust offers the perfect position to train the gluteus maximus and hamstrings to counter the effects of sitting, because engaging these muscles in the pose is mandatory; with the positions of the spine and pelvis fixed by the floor, only glute and hamstring engagement will enable us to lift our legs.

2. Posterior Shoulder and Back Strength

While there’s nothing wrong with rounding the spine at times (as in child’s pose, or balasana for example), we also know how unhelpful slumping can be. When the weight of the head and shoulders shifting forward becomes chronic, it changes the biomechanical forces on the spine, loading the intervertebral discs and compressing the lungs and digestive organs. Slumping may also weaken the muscles on the posterior shoulder and mid-back (including the rhomboids and the middle and lower trapezii) and shorten the muscles on the anterior shoulder and chest (like the anterior deltoids and pectorales majores and minores). Besides accentuating slumped posture, this imbalance can create undue wear and tear on the shoulder joints when weight-bearing on the hands, as is frequently done in vinyasa yoga.

All heart-openers recreate space for the lungs and belly, hence their reputation for energy- and mood-lifting. However, only active backbends that lift the chest and shoulders against gravity without the help of the hands, like locust, will awaken the muscles on the posterior body enough to re-set posture and prevent slumping. Especially helpful are locust variations in which the arms are lifted off the floor and externally rotated: cactus arms, arms along your sides with palms facing down, or arms extended alongside the ears with palms facing each other. These variations utilize the external rotators of each upper arm bone, or humerus (the infraspinatus and teres minor), and add extra length to the internal rotators (including each subscapularis and pectoralis major).

3. Helpful Habits for Heart-Openers

We know that backbends open up the front body, creating space for better breathing, digestion, mood, and energy. But in my experience, as students move into deeper backbends they often experience back-body compression. What we sometimes forget in the quest to “advance” our practice is that the health benefits come not from going more deeply into a pose but by choosing poses we can practice regularly enough to promote good posture.

Because we don’t use our hands to lift our chest in locust, we can rise into a backbend only as deeply as our posterior body strength allows. This gives us a safe place to learn beneficial patterns, three in particular, that can then be applied to deeper backbends.

• Posterior pelvic tilt: A subtle backward movement of the top of the pelvis (called a posterior pelvic tilt) can be hugely helpful during locust to engage the glutei maximi, hamstrings, and lower recti abdominii, setting us up for hip opening rather than spine compression. You can feel this in locust by pressing your pubic bone into the floor as if trying to draw it toward your navel; notice how that action tones your lower belly, lengthens your hip flexors, and creates spaciousness across your low back and sacrum.

Locust is helpful for practicing a more subtle gluteus maximus activation that retains neutral thigh position, thanks to the tactile feedback of the floor.

• Hip rotation: So far, the gluteus maximus has been discussed in its role as a hip extensor (moving the thigh behind the body), but it also acts as an external rotator (turning the thigh out). Different areas of this large muscle play different roles; for most of us the upper fibers of the gluteus maximus around the sacrum (which favor hip external rotation) dominate the lower fibers over the sit bones (which favor hip extension). You’ll see this pattern in backbends like bridge (setu bandhasana), camel (ustrasana), and wheel (urdhva dhanurasana): When external rotation dominates, the knees spread wide apart and the glutes clench around the sacrum. Locust is helpful for practicing a more subtle gluteus maximus activation that retains neutral thigh position, thanks to the tactile feedback of the floor.

To get a sense of this, start prone, with your legs and tops of your feet on the floor. Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can and notice how your legs tend to turn out, how your pinky toes lift away from the mat, and your inner thighs move toward the floor. Relax your glutes, and try again, this time pressing evenly into all ten toes and encouraging your inner thighs to spiral toward the ceiling. Notice that your glutes feel active, but broader and softer than the “clench.” Slowly float your legs up. Don’t worry about how high they lift, focusing instead on continuing to turn your pinky toes toward the mat and your inner thighs toward the ceiling, tapping into the more subtle use of the glutei maximi as hip extensors.

• Core activation: The transversus abdominis (TVA) is our deepest abdominal muscle, wrapping around the waist like a corset to blend into the fibrous sheath of thoracolumbar fascia on our lower back. Unlike the other abdominal muscles, which create movement in the spine, the TVA hugs the abdomen in, creating a feeling of length from tail to crown that can be accessed in any spine position, including backbends. To experience this in locust, imagine drawing your front hip bones toward each other to firm your belly and narrow your waist. Even as you rise into a backbend, the intention is to feel a sense of support or length, rather than pressure or contraction, in your spine.

It’s relatively easy to learn and use these movement patterns in locust, and putting them together can make a huge difference in how you experience deeper backbends as well.

4. Upper-Body Strength

On the surface, upward facing dog may seem like a stronger pose than locust, because less of the body rests on the floor. But that appearance can be deceptive. Bear in mind that the only way to transition from locust right into down dog (as you would if you were replacing an upward dog with a locust in a sun salute) is to do a push-up—to use the chest and arms to lift the body off the floor. Push-ups are one of the most popular body-weight exercises around; done effectively with a neutral spine, they offer excellent training for the pectorales majores (chest), serrati anterior (side ribs), anterior deltoids (fronts of shoulders), the triceps (backs of arms), and the abdominal muscles.

Given the number of sun salutations in the average vinyasa yoga class, there are multiple opportunities to build upper-body and core strength—simply by swapping out a few upward facing dogs for locust pose and its bonus press-up.

On the surface, upward facing dog may seem like a stronger pose than locust, because less of the body rests on the floor. But that appearance can be deceptive.

How to incorporate locust into your sun salutations

To substitute locust for upward facing dog in your vinyasa, begin your sun salutation as you normally do, exhaling to lower into chaturanga dandasana. Rather than straightening your arms to rise to upward dog, continue to lower to the mat. Point your toes, sweep your arms along your sides, and anchor down through your pubic bone to tone your lower belly. On your inhalation engage your back body to lift your arms, shoulders, chest, head, and legs off the floor. As you exhale, bend your elbows to replace your hands under your shoulders, tuck your toes, and press back up through plank to meet the regular vinyasa in downward facing dog.

If you’re substituting locust for upward dog in a standard vinyasa, you may have only one breath to hold the pose, but you’ll reap more benefits by staying longer when you have the time—build up to a minute, or five to eight smooth breaths, before releasing. If you get bored with traditional salabhasana, here are some variations to play with.

Locust Variations

T-shape and cactus arms 

Lying on your belly with legs hip-width apart, spread your arms straight out to the sides at shoulder height with palms turned down. Engage your glutei maximi and hamstrings to lift your legs, then squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other, activating the muscles between the scapula and the spine (including the rhomboids and middle trapezii) to float your arms away from the floor. If you feel your shoulders moving toward your ears, creating tension in your neck, try to keep your neck long and smooth, and your shoulder blades subtly gliding down your back. Notice how these actions help to lift your sternum, almost as if the scapulae are scooping your heart forward.

From locust with T-shape arms, bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle so that your fingertips point toward the head of your mat. Externally rotate your upper arms, levering your elbows toward the head of the mat and the backs of your hands toward the ceiling. Your forearms may not actually move, but focus on the muscles on the back of your scapulae (infraspinati and teres minor muscles), engaging them in order to draw the heads of your arm bones into the center of the shoulder socket, broadening your collarbones.

Superman and star 

From you set-up position on your belly, extend your arms alongside your ears, turning your palms toward each other to soften tension in the neck. From that position, lift your arms and legs off the floor. Notice how moving the weight of your arms farther from your midpoint challenges the posterior shoulders and upper back.

From Superman, open your arms and legs out to 45-degree angles, creating a star or X-shape. Feel how the new shape awakens new muscles, including the latissimi dorsi (which extend along the side ribs and low back) and glutei medii (on the sides of the hips).

Then notice how bringing your arms and legs back to their starting position changes the emphasis on the adductors (inner thighs) and pectorales majores (chest). 

Side bend 

Set up with your arms alongside your torso with palms facing down. Lift your arms and legs, and then contract one side of your body to create a crescent shape, engaging the obliques on the side waist and glutei medii on the side of the pelvis, as well as the quadratus lumbora on the lateral lumbar spine—all vital spine and pelvis stabilizers.

If this feels easy, try the same side-bending action from Superman (arms alongside your ears) to add extra load.

Opposite arm and leg 

Set up with arms extended alongside the ears, palms facing toward each other; then lift and lower the opposite arm and leg, alternating arms and legs as smoothly as possible to avoid rocking from side to side. The contralateral movement pattern (i.e., opposite arm and leg) promotes better coordination between upper and lower body. You may notice that one side feels easier or lifts higher than the other; focus on creating balance and symmetry between the two sides.

Bent knees 

While many of us have weak hamstrings, yoga often focuses more on hamstring flexibility than hamstring strength. Salabhasana with straight legs is a great way to activate the gluteus maximus and the upper hamstrings, which create extension at the hip joint; but try bending your knees to further challenge your lower hamstrings, which create flexion at the knee joint. You may find that your knees tend to splay, so that your feet move toward each other; try to keep your feet, shins, and knees tracking hip-width apart to pinpoint the work in your hamstrings.

In the context of sun salutations, I rarely see salabhasana offered as anything other than a modification for students who can’t (or just don’t) practice urdhva mukha svanasana. While upward facing dog has a well-established place in vinyasa practice, locust (along with cobra) seems to have been relegated to the status of a basic backbend for beginners.

While locust does instill habits that are incredibly helpful in deeper backbends, it’s so much more than a beginner’s option. Practiced regularly, locust offers potent benefits of its own—the potential to improve posture, shoulder, and spine mechanics; to increase upper-body strength; even to facilitate deeper breathing and better digestion. These benefits, as well as the joy of simply moving the body in varied ways, makes it well worth your while to incorporate locust into your vinyasas!

Photography: Andrea Killam

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Rachel Land

Rachel Land

Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine teacher offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as travelling the world as a Yoga Medicine teacher trainer. Passionate about... Read more>>