How to Practise Upward-Facing Dog Pose

Written with Sarah Williams

Upward-facing dog pose, up dog, or urdhva mukha svanasana alignment is often fudged in a vinyasa flow or dynamic yoga class.  After chaturanga there is a flourish and sweep into something resembling a backbend and before you know it, you’re back in downward-facing dog.  As yoga teachers, we often don’t spend the time teaching it or acknowledging it as an individual pose that deserves time and awareness.

Below are our favourite tips and tricks for you to consider in your practice and teaching of upward-facing dog pose. Remember there are no absolutes in alignment, only options and experiments.

What is upward-facing dog pose?

Upward Facing Dog Pose is a backbend often taught as part of the vinyasa transition of a sun-salutation.  See above for illustration. 

Basic components are:

  • Straight arms
  • Pubic Bone off the Floor
  • Active legs with thighs and knees lifting away from the floor
  • Shoulder blades down, back, and together
  • Isometrically pull the hands towards the feet and the feet towards the hands
  • Create an even arch throughout the whole spine and don’t confine the back bend just to the lower back

Often a point of confusion for students is the difference between updog and cobra.  For reference it’s worth noting that cobra requires the thighs to be on the floor with the elbows bent.

Pacing, Duration, and Sequencing of Upward-facing Dog Pose

  • Treat upward-facing dog pose as a separate pose, and not just part of a vinyasa transition. 
  • Let the pose ‘breathe’ through the duration of a full inhale.  Don’t rush!
  • To transition with ease from chaturanga, ensure your chaturanga is not too low (elbows not past torso is a good indicator), flip over your feet (together or individually) and straighten arms to come into the backbend.
  • If it is difficult to transition into upward-facing dog pose from chaturanga, try it from plank.

Alignment Options in Upward-facing Dog Pose

Wrists and Hands

  • For wrist comfort and pose sustainability, experiment with both the width and turn out or in of the hand. There are no absolutes to where the hands have to be.
  • Additionally, a change of hand width may allow for more ease of movement at the collarbones.
  • Add a brick under each hand to change the height and angles of the backbend to a potentially better and more expansive place for you or your student.
  • Press down through the base of the index finger to avoid the inner hand lifting.
Up Dog with Bricks

Shoulders, Elbows, and Arms

  • Although it seems obvious, many students need to be told to draw shoulders away from the ears in one way or another. This is often a result of passively making the shape instead of actively participating.
  • Often a slight bend of elbow, instead of a locked-out arm, gives more capacity to pull shoulder blades down, back, and together.
  • Shoulders over wrists or slightly behind is often the most advantageous positioning for you to have a sustainable ability to press evenly down through thumb side of the wrist without overextending the joint. Additionally, it can take force out of the potentially vulnerable front of shoulder region.
  • If after chaturanga you arrive in upward facing dog pose with shoulders too far forward relative to wrists, feel free to scoot your feet back together or individually until you find an alignment of shoulders over wrists that helps you sustain your pose without discomfort.
  • If the shoulders are forward of the wrists in up dog and scooching the feet back makes the elbows bend then there may not be enough mobility in the thoracic spine to evenly distribute the arch so try cobra instead.
Shoulder blades down the back and together!

Head and Neck

  • Avoid throwing the head back before the rest of the body is ready. A helpful landmark is to keep sternum and eyes facing the same direction.
  • Students whose sternum tilts far back enough to face the ceiling or beyond can explore tilting the head back and exposing the throat in the final moments of the pose.
  • As an experiment, keep the head tilted down until the very last moment of the pose. Emphasise a lift from underneath the chin (hyoid bone region) as if this place is holding the whole of chest and abdomen up. When you have lifted it up in the pose, then look forward or up and back depending on the depth of your backbend.
  • As a practice inquiry, try leading from sternum rather than chin.
Often head tilts back too far relative to the spine while shoulders rise up towards the ears. Neither of which allows a decent backbend!

Legs

  • Avoid knees sinking low to the floor which often indicates the legs aren’t actively integrated into the pose.
  • Conversely, as an experiment, try the pose with knees down and pubic bone lifted. This will shift the active portion of the pose upward while allowing more support.
  • Internal rotation of legs is often helpful in lower back comfort, but notice when legs roll passively inward. This is a sign of a lack of active leg integration into the posture. As teacher, you can bring student’s awareness to do this by standing above and straddling student’s legs above the ankle and encouraging them to keep top of foot pressed into the floor.
  • Actively lift the top of the thigh bones into the hip socket which will help to maintain some length in the lumbar
  • Some students may want to experiment with the legs wider than hip-width if they are able to keep the legs actively engaged.
Avoid passive legs and sickled feet…

Feet and Toes

  • To keep legs active and supportive of the shape, start with a firm push through the top of foot.
  • Notice if you are on the foot and toe ‘knuckle’ rather than the top of the foot. This can be an issue of flexibility or lack of awareness.  Aim to push through the top of the foot
  • Similar to above, if legs overly internally rotate, or passively collapse inward, work with a press through foot to find engagement in the leg and up through the rest of the leg.
  • If it is hard to push through the top of the foot, experiment with toes tucked under but make sure to press back through the heels to reduce any collapse in the lumbar.
Up Dog with toes tucked under

Pelvis, glutes, and core

  • Depending on the student, a posterior tilt of the pelvis, aided by engagement of the glutes may provide more comfort in lower back. In others, it may be unnecessary
  • Most students will benefit with a squeeze of the inner thighs towards each other.  Try practising with a brick between the thighs.

How to come out of Upward-Facing Dog Pose

  • To make sure that the core is engaged when transitioning out of the pose start by rounding the upper back, then middle and then the lower back before you flip the feet and head to downward-facing dog pose.
  • Make sure as you flip the toes the ankles do not sickle