Protect Your Back in Upward-Facing Dog
Learn how to elevate your hands in upward-facing dog pose to protect your lower back, then gradually bring the asana back to earth.
Have you done 50 headstands today? How about 50 triangle poses? That would seem excessive, wouldn’t it? But doing 50 upward-facing dog poses (urdhva mukha shvanasana) a day can be business as usual if you take a vinyasa class. For example, in the Ashtanga Vinyasa Primary Series of K. Pattabhi Jois, you move through upward-facing dog 50 times in a single session because it’s part of the surya namaskar (sun salutation) sequence that links the other asanas together.
Don’t get me wrong. Doing lots of upward-facing dogs can be a very good thing, provided you do them properly. You’ll gain strong arms and legs; a broad, open chest; a supple spine; and a deep, powerful breath. But if you push beyond your capacity or use bad technique, all that repetition can put a lot of wear and tear on your body, especially your lower back. The same holds true if you practice upward dog fewer times but enter it deeply and hold it longer.
Feeling the Squeeze
If you feel lower back pain in urdhva mukha shvanasana, it’s usually because you are compressing vertebrae at the base of your spine. (There could be other causes, so check with a health professional if you have doubts.) The pain of lower back compression stems from either jamming the rear part of the vertebral bones forcibly against one another or crushing the soft tissue (cartilage, ligaments, and disks) between the bones. Pain sensors in the outer lining of the bones and throughout the soft structures let you know you’re causing tissue damage or are about to. Some people figure out how to do the pose without crunching their back, but many others simply choose to tolerate a certain level of pressure and discomfort—a surefire recipe for injury, especially if you practice the pose frequently, vigorously, or both.
It’s pretty easy to avoid compressing your lower back in urdhva mukha shvanasana if you practice good body mechanics, but they’re not easy to learn during the rapid flow of a vinyasa series, in which you often strike the pose during a single inhalation and exit as you exhale. Entering the pose more gradually and holding it longer affords you more time to get it right, but that’s no panacea, especially if you’re unclear about what you’re trying to achieve. So whether you practice quickly or slowly, consider setting aside some time to learn how to coax your body and mind into an upward dog that opens your heart without wrecking your back.
Elements of Style
You can avoid jamming your lower vertebrae together by applying two general principles: put traction on the spine to increase the overall space between the vertebrae, and distribute the backbend along the whole spine and the hips, so the base of the spine isn’t forced to do more than its fair share of bending.
You can avoid jamming your lower vertebrae in upward-facing dog by applying two general principles: put traction on the spine, and distribute the backbend along the whole spine and the hips.
To put traction on your spine you need to use an outside force to pull on it along its length. For example, you can prepare for upward dog by hanging by your hands from a chin-up bar, using the force of gravity to pull lengthwise on the mid and lower spine, or by hanging upside down from a pelvic sling, which puts traction on the entire spine. This pulls the vertebrae farther apart, allowing the flexible disks that lie between them to soak up extra water and “plump up.” If you then practice upward dog, you have more room to bend backward before the vertebrae collide.
Distributing the backbend along the whole spine and the hips requires making a special effort to focus on your upper back, mid back, and the junction between your pelvis and thighbones. Why? Because the lower back is the easiest part of the body to bend backward, so if you don’t make a concerted effort to bend from everywhere else, the lower back will bend first and farthest, while the other parts may not bend much at all. To avoid this, you can prepare the upper and mid back for urdhva mukha shvanasana by arching back over the edge of a block or the seat of a chair.
Start by positioning the front edge of the chair seat just below the base of your neck and then working your way down to the middle of your trunk one or two vertebrae at a time. To prepare your hips, practice lunging poses such as virabhadrasana I (warrior I) with your back leg straight and the heel of your back foot off the floor. As you lunge, try to tilt the top rim of your pelvis back toward a more upright position. Every degree of increased backbending range you achieve in your upper back, mid back, and hip joints lessens the amount your lower back will have to bend in urdhva mukha shvanasana and other backbends.
Taking It to the Mat
You can gradually apply the twin principles of putting traction on the spine and distributing the backbend along the whole back and the hips by first tackling upward dog with your hands on the seat of a chair, then substituting yoga blocks for the chair, and finally moving to the full pose with your hands directly on the floor. Here’s how.
Roll out a sticky mat so it’s perpendicular to and touching a wall. Place a chair on the mat with its back legs against the wall and draw the free end of the mat over the chair, folding it twice, so it covers the seat.
Place your hands on the chair with your fingers hanging over the left and right edges of the seat. Bend your elbows and knees and bring your hips forward until they touch the front edge of the seat. With your elbows still bent, pull your hands backward as if to pull the chair away from the wall; this action should draw the sides of your chest (the part that’s normally obscured by your arms) forward, in front of your upper arms. As you do this, also roll the tops of your shoulders back and down, and lift your breastbone high. These actions will initiate a focused backbend in your upper and mid back.
Now straighten your elbows and move your shoulders down as far away from your ears as you can. This will lift your entire spine higher and create a strong frame from which your spine can hang. Allow your abdominal and back muscles to go completely soft, and let the weight of your pelvis and legs gently pull the vertebrae of your lower back apart. Now move your chest and whole upper body closer to the wall, so your arms incline forward. The incline will direct the force of your arms to pull the spine more strongly away from your pelvis, enhancing the traction.
Next, initiate a backbend at the hips by keeping your pelvis as close to the chair as you can while you straighten your legs completely. Leave the toes bent back and the heels up; you will not flip to the top of your feet in this variation of upward dog. As you straighten your legs, keep your lower front pelvic area soft, both at the surface and deep inside, so your legs move as independently of the pelvis as possible. Your pelvis should remain as upright as you can keep it, so that your legs will be more horizontal and you can create good extension of the hip joints.
To finish the pose, tighten your front thigh muscles to straighten your knees as strongly as you can. Press your heels back away from the chair, move your sitting bones toward the chair, and pull back more strongly with your arms to draw your chest forward and up away from your pelvis. At the same time, roll your shoulders farther back and down, and tuck your chin down toward your chest. Keeping your chin down, move your whole head backward, while your chest continues to reach forward to create a backbend at the base of your neck, lifting your face partway toward the ceiling. Be sure to exhale freely as you complete the pose.
When you can do the chair version of upward dog without discomfort, you are ready to move to the next stage: hands elevated on slanted blocks. Fold two blankets to create a rectangle that’s wider than your shoulders and about two inches high. Place two blocks shoulder-width apart, broad side down, with one end resting on the front fold of the blankets and the other on the floor. You will practice urdhva mukha shvanasana with the heels of your hands on the high end of the blocks and your fingers pointing downhill.
Recalling what you just did on the chair, start with your elbows and knees bent and your hips as close to the blocks as you can get them. Although your pelvis will not come as far forward as it did when you were on the chair, you want to get it as far underneath your shoulders as you can, so it puts as much traction on the spine as possible. When your hands and feet are in position, go through the same sequence as you did on the chair. Again, if your back hurts at any point, stop and use the same troubleshooting tips you learned on the chair.
The Full Pose
Once you’re comfortable with the pose on the blocks, you are ready to graduate to the final pose on the floor. The instructions are almost identical, with two key differences. The most important: Unless it is extremely easy for you to bend back with your upper back, you must not allow your shoulders to move behind your wrists at any point in the final pose. If you do, you’ll force your body into a position that compresses the spine, pushing the vertebrae into one another. So, in the final pose, regardless of how flexible you are, start with your shoulders well forward of your wrists. At the end of the pose, as you bring your chest forward maximally and your head back, your shoulders can move back too, but for most people it’s still best if they end up directly over the wrists, not behind them.
The second difference: Place the tops of your feet on the floor, and, if necessary, drag them forward, so they don’t pull your pelvis back away from your shoulders. With your hands on the floor, the key to getting traction on your spine lies in keeping your hips (and pelvis) well forward.
We don’t usually enter urdhva mukha shvanasana from the bent-knee position used in these practice poses, but you can still apply the same principles to keep your lower back uncompressed and pain-free when you go into the pose in a more traditional way. Just remember to put traction on the spine and distribute the backbend. When you do this successfully, not only will your back remain comfortable and safe in upward-facing dog, you will also be free to fully enjoy the strength, exhilaration, and liberation of this frequently practiced but often misaligned asana.
Stopping the Pain
If your back starts to hurt at any point during urdhva mukha shvanasana (upward-facing dog pose), try one or more of these troubleshooting tips, introducing them in the following order:
- Soften your lower back muscles to let your pelvis dangle farther down.
- Lean your trunk farther forward.
- Pull your arms back harder to lift your chest up and forward more.
- As a next-to-last resort, tighten the muscles at the base of your buttocks, where they join the backs of your thighs, to tilt the pelvis farther upright (this should be abandoned as you become more adept at the pose).
- And, as a last resort, bend your knees.
Roger Cole, PhD, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher, teaches at Yoga Del Mar near San Diego. He specializes in anatomy and physiology of yoga and relaxation and has taught yoga as a healing art to the medical community.