How to Do Upward-Facing Dog in Yoga
Upward-Facing Dog Pose — Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (OORD-vuh MOO-kuh shvan-AHS-uh-nuh) — is a back-bending yoga posture that lengthens and strengthens the spine, torso, and arms. Its name comes from four Sanskrit words:
- "Urdhva" — meaning "upward"
- "Mukha" — meaning "face"
- "Svana" — meaning "dog"
- "Asana" — meaning "pose"
Upward-Facing Dog (also sometimes called "Upward Dog" or just "Up Dog") is an important part of Sun Salutations, and is often practiced many times during Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga classes. It can be used as a strength-builder and also as a step toward deeper backbends.
Benefits of Upward-Facing Dog
Upward-Facing Dog stretches the chest and spine, while strengthening the wrists, arms, and shoulders. By strengthening and opening the upper body and chest, it improves posture and can be therapeutic for asthma. Upward Dog creates suppleness in the back torso and abdomen, which stimulates the abdominal organs and improves digestion. It also firms the buttocks and thighs, helping to relieve sciatica. The backbend energizes and rejuvenates the body, providing relief from fatigue and mild depression.
The path of yoga is the path of mastery.
Do not practice Upward-Facing Dog if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, or a recent back or wrist injury. Women who are pregnant should also avoid practicing this pose after the first trimester, as it can create too much strain on the round ligaments and lower back. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
- Begin by lying face-down on the floor with your legs extended behind you, spread a few inches apart. The tops of your feet should rest on the mat — do not tuck your toes, as this can crunch your spine.
- Place your hands on the floor alongside your body, next to your lower ribs. Point your fingers to the top of the mat and hug your elbows in close to your ribcage.
- Inhale as you press through your hands firmly into the floor. Straighten your arms, lifting your torso and your legs a few inches off the floor.
- Press down firmly through the tops of your feet. Strongly engage your leg muscles to keep your thighs lifted off the floor.
- Keep your elbows pressed alongside your body. Drop your shoulders away from your ears and lift your chest toward the ceiling.
- Draw your shoulders back and your heart forward, but do not crunch your neck. If your neck is flexible, tilt your head to gaze toward the sky. Otherwise, keep your head neutral and your gaze directly forward.
- Your thighs should be firm and turned slightly inward. Your arms should also be firm, slightly turned so that each elbow crease faces forward.
- Only straighten your arms as much as your body allows. Deepen the stretch as your practice advances, but avoid straining to achieve a deeper backbend.
- Actively press your shoulder blades into your upper back. Keep your elbows hugged in to your sides. Broaden across your collarbones and lift your heart. Glide the tops of your shoulders away from your ears. Distribute the length of the backbend evenly through your entire spine.
- Hold the pose for up to 30 seconds. To release, exhale as you slowly lower your torso and forehead to the mat. Turn your head to the right, resting your left ear on the mat. Relax your arms alongside your body. Repeat the pose up to five times. Those practicing Sun Salutations should move directly from Upward-Facing Dog into Downward-Facing Dog by lifting their hips and rolling over their toes to press the soles of their feet on the mat.
Modifications & Variations
Upward-Facing Dog provides a deep stretch to the entire spine and front torso. Be careful not to force your body into the pose, seeking a deeper backbend. Instead, take it slowly and back off if you feel any pain or pinching sensations. Try these simple changes to modify the pose as needed:
- It takes time to build the flexibility and strength needed for Upward-Facing Dog. Practice Cobra Pose as an alternative pose if Upward-Facing Dog is not yet possible for you.
- If your feet and ankles are stiff, it might be difficult to roll over your toes from Chaturanga or into Downward-Facing Dog. Instead, let your thighs come to the floor, then turn your feet over one at a time.
- If it is difficult to keep your legs lifted above your mat, roll a firm blanket and place it below your top thighs (or have a friend or teacher place the blanket there while you are in Plank Pose). When you move into Upward-Facing Dog, rest your thighs lightly on the roll.
Upward-Facing Dog can benefit the whole body, when done correctly. Keep the following information in mind when practicing this pose:
- Actively draw your shoulders away from the ears — do not hunch in the pose or collapse into your shoulders. Instead, glide your shoulder blades down toward your tailbone, drawing your side ribs forward. Broaden across your collarbones, press the tops of your shoulders away from your ears, and then lift through your sternum.
- Keep your buttocks firm, but not hard. Instead, actively engage the muscles of your abdomen and back to lengthen and lift through the pose, while also supporting your low back.
- Press firmly down through the tops of your feet, pushing from the backs of your knees all the way through your heels. This will help lighten the pose. As you press through your feet, lift your sternum up and forward.
There are two main differences to note between Cobra Pose and Upward-Facing Dog:
- In Cobra, your hands are placed under your shoulders before you press up. In Upward Dog, your hands are placed along the lower ribs.
- In Cobra, your pubis (the front of your pelvis) and the top of your thighs maintain contact with the floor. In Upward Dog, both the pelvis and thighs are lifted off the floor.
A Doggone Good Stretch
Practicing Upward-Facing Dog will lengthen and strengthen your entire body. You can use it as a backbend on its own, or as a transition to even deeper backbends. Try a few rounds of Upward-Facing Dog into Downward-Facing Dog [link] throughout your day to energize and rejuvenate your body, and calm your mind. You might discover benefits of the pose that exist even off the mat!