What is yoga? My first teacher had a simple answer: “Yoga is life,” a way of being fully and vibrantly alive. Yoga practice, it follows, should empower us to see both our internal and external circumstances with clarity and wisdom, and to constantly respond to them in the best and most productive way. Yet hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about someone who has hurt themselves practicing yoga—which is odd, since asana is supposed to remedy and prevent aches and pains, not cause new ones. But the simple truth is that yoga, when performed incorrectly, can harm you.
The simple truth is that yoga, when performed incorrectly, can harm you.
Some asana-related injuries have simple causes. A momentary lapse of attention, misjudgment about our preparedness for a particular pose or practice, or a basic misstep is sometimes all it takes. Although these injuries can set us back, they can also teach us. They can help our practice evolve by providing invaluable feedback about how we should (and shouldn’t) practice. A more subtle type of injury occurs when we choose to ignore pain, or practice through an injury. Injuries of this type occur as we repetitively practice in ways that are either uninformed or inappropriate. They often do the most long-term harm. But here’s the good news: they are also the most preventable. Almost any pose, if performed incorrectly enough times, can cause problems. Urdhva mukha shvanasana—a powerful, exhilarating backbend that is part of many, if not most, yoga classes—is, I believe, a major contributor to the increasing number of lower back injuries occurring in yoga classes today. The source of the injury, however, may have less to do with the backbend itself than with the way we are practicing it. Safe and effective asana practice is a tapestry woven with two vital threads. The first is correct mechanics, including proper alignment. The second relates to how those mechanics are applied. This involves both the attitude we bring to our practice and vinyasa krama (“wise progression,” or proper sequencing). Sequencing determines our overall experience of a given practice, as well as the extent to which our practice addresses (or neglects) our individual needs and capacities. Vinyasa krama is critical because it shapes not only the overall effectiveness of our practice, but also its impact on our long-term health. Upward-facing dog benefits us on many levels. It strengthens the arms and legs. As it stretches the front of the body (hip flexors, abdomen, and chest), the pose dramatically increases the curve in the lumbar spine, tonifying and stimulating both the kidneys and adrenals. It is mentally expansive and invigorating; it increases self-confidence and aspiration. And because upward-facing dog activates many of the qualities and energies we need to meet the demands of our fast-paced lives, it’s no wonder that it is a common denominator in so many classes.
Warrior I (virabhadrasana I) is the standing prototype for backbends. Work the outer edge of the back foot toward the floor; internally rotate the back thigh; and draw the tailbone down into the body, as you lift the kidneys and inner ribs.
Hint: Inhale, increase the buoyancy of the upper body. Exhale, expand the kidneys and flatten the lower back.
Four-Limbed Staff Pose (chaturanga dandasana) establishes correct leg action and builds upper body strength. Place the feet 4 to 6 inches apart; powerfully draw the shins in. Engage the inner thighs and lift them toward the sky. Point the tailbone toward the heels. Lengthen the heels away from the top of the head. Gradually bring the forearms and upper arms to a 90-degree angle. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Variation: Hold with the elbows straight.
Locust Variation (shalabhasana) As you lift the legs and the chest, draw the tailbone into the body. Gradually work the legs together and squeeze the upper arms toward each other. Keep the back of the neck long. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Hint: Internally rotate the thighs. Inhale, lift the torso. Exhale, lift the inner thighs.
Bow Pose (dhanurasana) Move as high as you comfortably can into the pose; then press the shinbones back. At the same time, press the breastbone forward.
Hint: Inhale, enliven the chest. Exhale, draw the tailbone into the body and move higher into the pose.
Upward-facing dog is a part of several different forms of the sun salutation, making it common for it to be the fourth pose we do in a class. For many backs that’s very little preparation for a fairly deep backbend. Along with adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog) and chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), it is also often used as a dynamic transition linking other postures, which means that upward-facing dog can be repeated many times in a single class. Unless students stay mindful, the speed and frequency of these transitions can make their lower backs vulnerable to compression.
The primary focal point of upward-facing dog is the lumbar spine, the least stable part of the spine and the location for the vast majority of back problems.
The primary focal point of upward-facing dog is the lumbar spine—the least stable part of the spine and the location for the vast majority of back problems. This asana particularly stresses the junction where the sacrum and lumbar spine meet. To be able to fully explore the pose while minimizing our chances for injury, we should prepare for it by doing the following:
Building stability in the spine.
Creating more vertebral space in the lower back.
Performing poses that gradually increase the lumbar curve.
Using simpler poses that establish similar action required to do the finished pose safely.
The way I avoid potential problems associated with upward-facing dog is to treat it as a deep backbend instead of as a warm-up pose. This means I often sequence it later in the class, and teach postures to prepare for sun salutations. After the body has been sufficiently prepared, I use poses (like those pictured here) to stretch the hip flexors, chest, and abdomen; to draw the tailbone down and in toward the body; and finally to engage the arms, legs, and erector spinae muscles before doing the final pose. If you’ve properly prepared for it, upward-facing dog can be held for 10 or more breaths, allowing you to fully exalt in it and relish all that this majestic pose has to offer. (A complete practice should also include poses that expand the waist and chest and appropriate counterposes.)
Yoga, by definition, is holistic—it must simultaneously address the needs of the body, mind, and soul. As soon as our hatha practice fails to do so (or worse, when it begins to impair or limit our ability to thrive), then we have lost our link to the spirit of yoga. Sometimes, retaining the “yoga” (read: “thriving”) in our practice requires only minor adjustments. Applying these refinements is a yoga in itself, one that becomes the ongoing basis for discovering a lifetime of freedom and joy.
Yoga, by definition, is holistic. It must simultaneously address the needs of the body, mind, and soul.