Upward Facing Dog: It’s More Than a Stopover in Your Vinyasa
Maybe cobra pose (bhujangasana) is a regular practice for you, and you feel like you’ve got it down to a science. Now you’re looking for a new challenge, perhaps upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana). Or it could be that you’ve practiced this backbending pose a number of times already, but want to refine your understanding of it and discover a little more sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease) in this asana.
I know that my first few experiences in upward facing dog were a little uncomfortable—mainly because most vinyasa classes I attended didn’t offer a whole lot of instruction on this pose, which speaks to how prevalent and widely practiced upward facing dog is. It was always just assumed that everyone was familiar with this asana already. So when I heard the cue for "updog" as a yoga-newbie, I'd pop into it recklessly, leaving my lower back to take the brunt of the backbend—rather than focusing on finding full spinal extension and opening through my chest.
Most vinyasa classes I attended didn’t offer a whole lot of instruction on this pose, which speaks to how prevalent and widely practiced upward facing dog is.
Thanks to yoga teacher training—as well as studying with wonderful, inspiring teachers over the years who have helped me tremendously, both with my practice, and teaching—I now have a bit more understanding of how to properly prep for upward facing dog by paying special attention to asanas that take similar backbendy shapes. And I never thought I'd say this, but I've come to really enjoy this pose! I've also learned a few alignment techniques which have made my lower back a lot happier. I'd love to share what I've learned with you so that you might also practice upward facing dog with a sense of ease and confidence.
Ready to get started?
Warm-up and Preps
Upward facing dog isn't a pose you want to go into "cold." Warm your body up first—particularly your spine—before practicing this asana. I would recommend a few rounds of cat/cow and several sun salutations (sans updog, of course).
Baby cobra and cobra are great prep options, bridge pose is another—largely because they are fabulous chest and shoulder openers. Hanging from a chin-up bar can also be a great way to create traction and length in the spine in preparation for upward facing dog (as Roger Cole illuminates in "Protect Your Back in Upward Facing Dog"). Another pose I've found to be a good prep is plank pose, mainly because it builds upper-body and core strength.
Practicing Upward Facing Dog
Avoid upward facing dog if you currently have any wrist, shoulder, or lower back injuries, or ask your teacher how to modify before attempting this pose.
Lie face down on your mat. Place your hands on the floor with your wrists directly under your elbows. (This is generally a good starting place, but if you discover that your shoulders are coming past your wrists once you're in updog, lower down and start again with your wrists slightly forward of your elbows.) Stay broad through your chest and shoulders, and avoid letting your shoulders roll forward, dipping lower than your elbows. With your legs slightly apart, and the tops of your feet on the mat, engage your low belly.
Keep this engagement and lift your forehead off the mat slightly so that the back of your head is in line with the back of your pelvis. Lead with your chest (not your chin) as you lift your upper body into a familiar cobra. Your head simply lifts and moves back to follow the movement of your chest. Next, press the tops of your feet into the floor as you lift your hips and thighs (an action that will propel you from cobra into upward facing dog), and as you lift, your arms will naturally begin to straighten.
If your shoulders aren't directly above your wrists, you may need to walk your feet back slightly by lifting one foot and stepping it back, then the other. This can be tricky to do; if it's not possible for you, come out of updog and reset your pose for optimal wrist/shoulder alignment.
Externally rotate your upper arms and draw your chest forward, through your arms—these actions will help you broaden through your chest. Keep your core engaged, firm your thighs (without clenching your buttocks), and keep pressing the tops of your feet firmly into the floor as you extend out through your legs, especially stretching out through the big toe sides of your feet. As your head moves back slightly, following the movement of your chest, think about moving the back of your head back rather than your crown (this will keep the back of your neck long, and the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine moving fluidly and seamlessly).
Focus your backbend more in the thoracic spine (the upper/middle back—the area of the spine that usually tends to want to backbend least). If you feel tension in your lower back, it could mean that you're overusing your lumbar spine. If this is the case, revisit the alignment tips above and make subtle adjustments. However, if the tension continues, it might mean that cobra is a better option until you've gained enough strength in the core and mobility throughout the spine to practice upward facing dog comfortably.
After your practice of upward facing dog, come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)—an ideal counterpose.
Enjoy your new (or renewed!) practice of urdhva mukha svanasana. You'll have plenty of chances to explore this pose at just about any yoga studio, but working with upward facing dog at home will afford you the opportunity to become comfortable with it at your own pace, and explore it in all of its splendor, piece by piece and step-by-step.
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."