What’s Up Dog?
Upward-facing dog is very common in contemporary yoga classes and its full benefits are often missed because of how common it is. Yoga teachers often use this pose a part of a greater whole to warm up the body and, generally, spend the length of just one inhale in the pose. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach and, honestly, it’s an incredibly efficient way of warming up the whole body.
That said, as athletes, we stand to benefit greatly from spending a little more time in this pose and, most important,y doing it with proper alignment and technique. Most of us have a habit of slouching and few of us can avoid frequent sitting throughout the day, each curving the spine into a state of flexion. Over time, this posture can carry over into our sport, making it difficult to stay efficient in our movements and, at times, bringing pain into the upper back and neck.
Let’s not miss all the benefits that come with up-dog by quickly vinyasa-ing through it. Spending more time propping up the body and supporting it in this active backbend brings awareness to key actions in the body, strengthens and opens us in various ways, and just feels really good.
Tips for Athletes: Upward Facing Dog Pose
Let’s look at some ways to approach upward-facing dog, athletically:
- Plant your hands directly under the shoulders with elbows fully extended creates a firm and powerful foundation that will keep your shoulders safe and build strength in the arms, shoulders, and back.
- Elevate your sternum (breast bone) through your arms and up towards the ceiling. This vertical resistance against gravity is what keeps the pose light and safe while also evenly distributing the backbend and stretching the front side of the body.
- You don’t have to drop your head back for this to be a great pose. You do have the option to drop the head to open the neck, but think about it more as lifting your chin towards the ceiling (i.e. in the same direction as your sternum). This is the “cherry on top” of the pose, not a requirement.
- Come to the tops of your feet or tuck your toes under. You can take either variation with your feet as long as they’re doing the same thing. Coming to the tops of the feet allows you to create more lift in the front body. Tucking the toes under allows you to be more dynamic in coming in and out of the pose. Either way, you want to make sure you…
- Engage your quads! This one is so easy to miss, especially when we start to get tired and complacent in class. By engaging the quads, it’s much more difficult to over-dip into our hypermobile lower backs. This engagement also makes that pose more firm and controlled, allowing us to remove variability in the posture and explore the pose more internally.
- Don’t be a hero, take cobra pose or skip it entirely. No one has ever won a medal or prize for doing every up-dog a teacher called out. Whether the teacher says so or not, you always have the option to reimagine any up-dog as a cobra pose or skip it. Both of these can do a number on the ego, and that’s a great thing.
- Even off the back bend. When we start to focus the backbend in a specific area of the body, we run the risk of over-compressing the disks between a small set of vertebrae. If you start to feel the backbend of this pose in a specific area of the back, see if you can ease a little out of the pose and distribute the backbend evenly across your spine. This is our goal in any backbend and keeps them safe and productive.
- Reimagine the pose as a chest opener. We often categorize poses based on where they’re most intense. Of course, up-dog is a backbend, but it’s also a massive front body opener. By shifting our focus on the front of the body in this pose, the back bend takes care of itself while we soak up the chest and ab stretch. The opening of the chest also helps us…
- Keep your shoulders away from your ears by sliding the shoulder blades down the back. This minimizes the overall degree of variability in the pose and stabilizes the body in a position of cervical spine (neck) lengthening.
- Make sure both feet stay on the floor, no matter what the teacher says. Sequencing in classes can get pretty tricky with one-legged planks and chaturangas, which are all good. Issues arise when we start to introduce backbending (or any bending of the spine) when the hips are out of alignment. So, now you know better when the teacher goes from one-legged plank to one-legged chaturanga, and they forget to remind you to put both feet on the floor before up-dog 😉
- Breathe smoothly and deeply. This is the key to any yoga pose, and up-dog is no different. By breathing deeply, we give ourselves a chance to be in the pose and experience it to its fullest potential. Inhales elevate and lengthen the pose, exhales provide an option to deepen your expression of it. Over time, the actions mentioned above become second-nature and, with nothing else to worry about, we’re left with the breath and a steady focus that we carry into our next challenge.
Work On Your Upward Facing Dog
Try this brief but powerful class to work out the kinks in your upward-facing dog so you can flow with confidence from here on out!