When I was nineteen I had the good fortune to work with a remarkable Russian ballet teacher. Having propelled myself into the study of dance at the late age of seventeen, I felt an urgency to progress quickly. But when Mia Slavenska first set eyes on me, she announced that I should forget everything I had learned and start over. Although I was capable of extending my leg in the air over my head and holding it there, she suggested that I work with my foot no more than six inches off the floor for a year. She declared that I was lifting my leg from “the wrong place” and explained that doing something wrong over and over again would forever sabotage my success, while doing something correctly even once would bring immediate strength and allow me to progress quickly. “You cannot lie with movement,” she declared, and with that our lessons began.
When we are always focusing on the place we would like to be there is no true and honest place from which to begin the journey.
More than twenty years later, I see that same urgency in the eyes of many ardent yoga students. The mind has set its sights on the future of the posture, and the present reality is ignored in anticipation of something better. Paradoxically this “something better” that we are striving for almost always takes us further away from ourselves. When we are always focusing on the place we would like to be there is no true and honest place from which to begin the journey. If we cannot feel our way into the tangible sensation of the moment, we cannot respond to the body’s messages with skillful action. Instead we get lost in our intellectual constructs about where we think we should be.
The posture we will explore in this column, the upward-facing dog pose (urdhva mukha shvanasana), requires us to respond honestly to where we are or pay the price in discomfort and back pain. In particular, we will explore when it is appropriate to bring the head and neck into extension, and how to do this in a way that distributes stress evenly throughout the spinal column. We will learn the upward-facing dog in stages. The four variations first presented are designed to work as “preflight checks”; each is a prerequisite for the next stage, and you should be comfortable with them before you proceed to the complete posture. As you work through the variations, be on the alert for neck or lower back pain. Any pain, however slight, in these areas is an indication that you are outside an optimal and healthy threshold for your body and should return to earlier variations. Even if you have already been working with the complete posture, consider spending some time on the basic stages; they will provide many essential skills you may have glossed over.
Upward-facing dog is usually entered from downward-facing dog or the four-limbed stick pose (chaturanga dandasana) as a part of the sun salutation vinyasana (surya namaskara). In upward-facing dog the spine is carried like a sway bridge between the pillar-like support of the arms and legs. If the upper back, groin, and shoulders are tight there will be a tendency to seesaw on the lower back and the neck, extending too much from the lumbar or cervical vertebrae while the other segments of the spine remain unengaged. Because this is such a common problem when attempting this posture, it is important that you do not go on to the next variation until you can practice the one you are working on with a feeling of lightness and ease in the lower back.
The purpose of this variation is to learn to align the head and neck so they are in agreement with the angle of the chest.
Lie belly-down on the floor on a yoga mat. Draw yourself up onto your forearms, with the elbows in line with your shoulders. Keep the gaze low and let the neck and head be a continuation of your upper back. Reaching back through your legs, draw your sternum (breastbone) forward away from your pelvis, focusing at this stage on the elongation (i.e., lengthening) rather than the extension (backward bending) of your spine.
To gently release the spine in this beginning variation, reach through the crown of the head as you turn to look at your left knee. As you turn, draw the left knee up slightly toward your shoulder as if you were crawling. Then turn to look at your left knee. This gentle lateral flexion and rotation through the spine releases and opens the spaces between the vertebrae, making it easier to extend into backward bending, as required in the completed pose. Alternate from side to side for ten passes, gently lengthening the back forward between each side rotation.
This version allows you to test your understanding of the correct action of the upper back and neck in this pose without the stress of carrying your body weight through your arms and legs. Kneel with your hands on either side of your hips. Turn your hands to face slightly outward so you can rotate your shoulders without restriction. Draw the base of your shoulder blades downward, anchoring the arms strongly into the earth. This will encourage your spine to elongate upward.
As the spine elongates upward, draw forward from your breastbone as if your chest were the prow of a ship coming through your arms. Lower your chin as your chest lifts upward, attempting to bring your breastbone into a vertical position. Keeping your head lowered will keep your neck in a stable position so you can access the structurally tighter vertebrae of the thoracic spine.
When your breastbone is vertical or beyond, then and only then, slowly extend the head back into an arc, releasing the throat forward. The vertical position of your chest creates a platform for the neck and head and distributes the extension throughout the back rather than isolating the movement within the neck.
Conversely, if you bring the head back before the chest is vertical you will feel an acute sensation in the middle and most flexible portion of the neck.
Much of the difficulty of learning the finer details of upward-facing dog arises from the sheer challenge of supporting the weight of the body on the arms and legs. This effort can be so compelling as to override all other sensations. Many people find their arms tiring long before the teacher has gotten to the third instruction! In this variation you have the luxury of integrating the instructions without the stress of carrying all the body weight through the arms and legs.
Place a bolster in front of you and, resting the pubic bone on the bolster, come into upward-facing dog with your pelvis supported. Work with your head in a neutral position––gaze toward the horizon until you are able to draw the chest into a vertical position.
Now you are ready to try the final variation, in which the hands are raised on blocks. Raising the hands decreases the acuteness of the angle in the lower back, making this a safer option for beginners. Start from downward-facing dog with your hands raised on blocks. Slowly shift your weight forward and through your arms, drawing your chest over the support of your arms.
If your chest is behind the support of your arms, when you press down through your arms you will be pushing back into your lumbar spine. Turn onto the tops of your feet so that your knees and hips are off the floor. Reach strongly back through your legs as you draw forward through your chest.
Stay with a simpler variation of the pose if it is the most appropriate place for you to learn.
Keep your head level until you can practice the posture with a fully elongated back, breastbone vertical. When you have accomplished this you can briefly extend the head back to complete the asana. Stay for five deep breaths, focusing on elongating from the crown of the head through a smooth curve in your back all the way out through your legs to the tips of your toes.
Then transition back into downward-facing dog, taking a few moments to release the back in the opposite direction. When you can practice this stage on the blocks without discomfort in your lower back, bring your hands onto the floor for the classic posture.
Begin from downward-facing dog, establishing a clear connection from your trunk through to your neck and head. Imagine that your head and neck begin from the center of your abdomen. Elongate from this center all the way through to the crown of your head. Now as you transition to upward-facing dog by bringing your weight forward and through your arms, maintain the energetic continuity between your center and your head and neck. Initiate the lift into upward-facing dog from the breastbone, keeping the head in a level position. Experiment with drawing the breastbone forward as you reach back through your legs and feet to elongate the spine.
There will come a moment when the heart feels buoyant and centered directly above your diaphragm. When you feel this deep internal support through your chest, bring your attention to the soft palate in the back of the roof of the mouth. Float up from this point, so that the head and neck elongate even further. When you experience both the distinct sensation of buoyancy in your heart and chest and the release through your neck, slowly extend the head and neck back.
As you bring the head back, be careful not to collapse downward through your sacrum. Rather, imagine your sacrum also floating upward to counterbalance the extension of the neck. Stay for five to ten breaths and then return to downward-facing dog.
As you work with these variations, finding your way through the different levels of refinement to the final posture, be willing to stay where you are. Stay with a simpler variation of the pose if it is the most appropriate place for you to learn. This is not a sign of complacency or failure to progress; rather, it is a sign of your willingness to advance toward your goal.
Powerful strengthening action for the arms and chest.
Opens and expands the chest.
Creates heat and builds stamina.
Not for those with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Not for those with spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis.
Prenatal suggestion: Do not practice after the third month of pregnancy or at any time if you feel a pulling sensation in the rectus muscle (the central abdominal muscle running from the base of your sternum to your pubic bone). This muscle should not be compromised during pregnancy by overstretching in backward bending or it may separate or tear, making postpartum recovery of the abdominal muscles difficult.