Right now I love upward-facing dog. I spend way more time than I want to in a shoulders-forward position. Whether sitting at my desk typing, driving the northern Virginia commute (gotta love Tyson’s Corner), or even walking outside in the cold, most days it feels like my upper back/chest region just craves an opposite movement to reverse the effects of the desk-job lifestyle. Which is exactly where up-dog comes in. This pose opens the chest and lungs, helping to access deeper breathing capacity (among many other benefits). There is also a great spine-strengthening component. Up dog is after all, a back bend, which means it can improve posture and helps you work toward other back bends like full wheel.
The thing I’ve learned about favorite yoga poses is that the pose I’m in love with one day could very well be my least favorite the next time I’m on my mat. It’s always changing. Sometimes taking upward-facing dog, my body feels like it wants to shout “up dog, wahoo!” Other days, it’s more along the lines of a grimace, groan, all while thinking, “not this one again”. Whether I love or hate the pose each time I’m on my mat doesn’t actually matter. What does matter is waking up to whatever I am physically feeling. Up dog is kind of a tricky pose in that it seems relatively simple since it’s done over and over again in a vinyasa flow. There is a tendency to sort of gloss over it as a transition to down dog. In actuality, this pose has several alignment intricacies that make it something you really want to pay attention to. I want to share a couple pointers that I’ve learned really help make a difference in tuning in and opening up in upward-facing dog.
***Feet: I cannot emphasize how important your feet are! This pose especially is one of the ones where it’s easy to lose and/or downplay the connection of your feet with the ground. How you press your feet into the earth determines the position of your legs, which ultimately works to create a healthy spinal curvature.
- Stretch your legs straight back behind you, keeping your feet parallel and about hip-width distance apart.
- Press down evenly into the tops of every toenail. Don’t ignore your pinkie toenails! Pressing into these little guys will help your thighs rotate inward, giving your lower spine room to lengthen.
- There’s a tendency to roll the outer ankles out to the sides (with toes pointing in), which increases pressure on the lower back. Check your feet out and make sure they’re parallel and pointing straight back to keep your lower spine happy.
**Hands: also super important!
- Flatten your hands; press your entire palm into the ground to lift your heart high.
- Straighten your arms but avoid locking your elbows.
- Your arms are straight and pressing down. There’s a cool arm/shoulder alignment trick that involves keeping your hands steady (index fingers facing 12 o’clock), while externally rotating your upper arm muscles to create more openness in your shoulders and soften through your upper traps. Whoa, sounds pretty complicated right? Don’t worry it’s totally doable! All you need to think about is pressing into the meaty part of your hand between your index finger and thumb knuckles, hugging your elbows in to your rib cage, and rotating your arms so that the insides of your elbows face forward. If you want to read more about this here’s a great article from elephant journal.
- Engage your quads, glutes, and abdomen to lift your thighs off of the mat.
- Spin your inner thighs up.
- Slightly tuck your tailbone – envision lengthening through your lower spine by engaging your lower abs.
- Square your shoulders back so they are stacked directly over your elbows and wrists in one vertical line.
- Draw your shoulders down your back to increase the space between your shoulders and ears.
I love this description from Baron Baptiste’s Journey Into Power: “The shoulder blades are like hands pushing your chest forward from behind.”
- Keep your neck neutral –the back of your neck is long and wrinkle-free.
- Notice if your chin juts forward, and if so bring it back so your neck is in line with your spine.
Also from JIP: “Gaze forward and shine!”
Note: if you’re still building strength or working through an injury, you can always modify by taking cobra instead.
For a laugh: