Urdhva mukha svanasana, or upward facing dog pose, is often practiced in tandem with its sibling, adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog pose. So frequently are these two paired together that it can be difficult to separate them in our minds. How do you enter upward facing dog? Does your mind go immediately to downdog and the familiar transition that is part of most sun salutations and vinyasas? Let's see this dog have its day, and appreciate it as an asana in its own right.
Imagine lines of energy running diagonally through your body from the lower tips of your shoulder blades to your collarbones, as though the shoulder blades were supporting the collarbones and helping to open your top chest.
Upward facing dog is a prone backbend, meaning that you begin by lying on your stomach, feet hip-width apart. Stretch your legs back. Tuck your toes for a moment and stretch out through your heels to lengthen the backs of your legs. Now untuck your toes and place the tops of your feet on the floor.
Bend your elbows and place your hands on the floor so that your forearms are more or less perpendicular to the floor. Your fingertips may be level with your shoulders or farther back toward your waist—a lot depends on the length of your arms; the point is to have your wrists under your elbows when you straighten your arms. Your elbows should be close to your ribs, not flaring out to the sides, but not squeezing into your sides so much that your shoulders roll forward.
On an inhale, press your hands into the mat and roll the tops of your shoulders back. Bring the bottom tips of your shoulder blades forward, toward your front body, and lift your chest. Imagine lines of energy running diagonally through your body from the lower tips of your shoulder blades to your collarbones, as though the shoulder blades were supporting the collarbones and helping to open your top chest. Now straighten your arms and press the tops of your feet down as you lift your torso and legs off the floor. Your wrists, elbows, and shoulders should now be “stacked” upright in one easy, energetic line.
Roll your inner thighs in, toward the floor. Firm your buttocks, but don't clench them. Lift the top of your pubic bone toward your breastbone, elongating the front body. Lengthen your tailbone toward the space between your heels, elongating the back body.
Slide your rib cage toward your head. Lift the base of your skull off the top vertebra of your neck. Imagine a tiny airbag between your skull and C-1 (your top cervical vertebra); inflate that airbag. Let your neck and head follow the natural line of your spine; don’t shorten the back of the neck by overlifting your chin; keep it long and free. It may help to think of your neck as starting between your shoulder blades; from that point, lengthen your spine without moving the neck itself. You will feel your head rising. Trust your arms and legs and spine to hold you up—don't try to enlist the neck and jaw to help. Picture the expression on a dog's face when he stretches like this and keep the energy of the pose happy and playful. Stay for several breaths and then come down.
If you have trouble sustaining weight through your arms try changing the angle of the pose to bring more weight into your legs. Here are some possibilities: elevate your hands on yoga blocks or even a chair seat. You could also try tucking your toes tucked as you go up into the pose to help lift the legs; once you’ve achieved your full height, untuck them.
Avoid this pose if you have injuries to your neck, wrists, shoulders, or low back, or if you have recently had surgery involving your abdomen or back. Save it for later if you are in your second or third trimester of pregnancy. Skip it if you have a headache.
Upward-facing dog can strengthen the wrists, arms, and back. Its chest-opening action provides a great antidote to “office slump,” while freeing the lungs and opening the heart. Backbends like updog are regarded as “extroverted” poses which can balance our tendency to curl in on ourselves when we feel depressed or overwhelmed.
There is a beautiful story about a dog in the Mahabharata, the epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita. When the battle is over, the five Pandava brothers—who did not choose this war, but were obliged to fight to defend their people and uphold their dharma—set off, walking north to the mountain of Heaven, led by Yudishthira, the eldest brother. A dog joins them and refuses to leave. One by one, Yudishthira's companions fall along the way until he and the dog are the only ones to reach Heaven's gate. There they are greeted by Lord Indra, the ruler of Heaven. Indra tells them that the dog cannot enter. Yudishthira argues, “This dog is devoted to me. He had many opportunities to leave, and he did not. It is a sin against dharma—right conduct—to abandon one who is devoted to you, one who is terrified, or one who needs your protection. We have comforted each other on this terrible journey, and as he has been loyal to me, I will not abandon him now.” With that, it is revealed that the dog is an incarnation of Dharma itself (because Dharma is not just an abstract principle, but a model for embodied action). By protecting the dog, Yudhisthira has fulfilled his destiny as a man and as a ruler. This was just a test, and all the denizens of Heaven rejoice as they enter together.
Like loyal dogs, we yogis return to our practice day after day, again and again. Dogs love routine, making them excellent role models for us. Something in us is drawn to love and follow our inner teacher, as the unknown dog followed Yudishthira. Can you bring those qualities of loyalty, love, and persistence to your practice of upward facing dog?