Hey, Up Dog: Your Cobra is Showing

Friend and fellow teacher Kirsten practices Up Dog in an unlikely locale

Last month, in a sort of boot-campy mood, I challenged one of my classes to do some “Up Dog  push-ups.” I demonstrated first by showing them they could start with Cobra- lifting and lowering- and, if they felt pretty stable, they could lift all the way up into Upward Facing Dog, supporting themselves with the strength of their arms, resting on the tops of their feet, and then take the “push-ups” from there.

One of the students interrupted me (no worries, not in a rude way, it was the kind of class where questions were good). “What do you mean?” she said. “Isn’t the first one Upward-Facing Dog?” I showed her the difference again, and she tried it. “That’s hard!” she said. “I think people don’t know this.”

Well, she might be right. She’s not the first person I’ve met who had never learned the distinction.  This student is not new to yoga. She’s intelligent, she has a strong practice and is more than capable of doing upward facing dog- but she had never been properly introduced.

I heard a teacher say recently (I’m pretty sure it was the awesome Jodi Blumstein on YogaGlo, but it might have been someone else) that “Up Dog is a pose we drive through, not one we stop and visit.” It’s often done so quickly (and is so fatiguing to hold for newer students) that teachers may not stop and explain the mechanics properly. Later on, when students have the strength to hold the posture, teachers might assume that students are already comfortable/knowledgeable about it. And, let’s face it- there’s nothing very flow-y about stopping class to break down a posture, so a teacher may choose to sacrifice mechanics to art.

So, let’s correct this now with a look at Up Dog (Upward Facing Dog, aka Urdvha Mukha Svanasana), especially as it compares to Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana).

Either of these poses may be done as part of a Sun Salutation or what is called a vinyasa (the transition postures that we take as part of a flow class- typically, Chaturanga -> Up Dog/Cobra -> Down Dog.

Both Cobra and Up Dog act as a backbend. The simple difference is that in Cobra Pose, you are supporting yourself with the hips, thighs, and perhaps the belly on the floor. You may still be supporting some weight in your arms, but it is much more distributed.

In Up Dog only the very tops of the feet are touching the ground- toes are extended behind you, not curled under- and the weight of the body is supported by the strength of the arms, shoulders, and back. It also requires core strength to be able to hold the pose with integrity (so that the low back does not take an unfair share of the strain).

Before racing to your mat to try out your new understanding of Up Dog, let’s practice the upper body mechanics from a seated position.

  1. Start by sitting comfortably in your chair (enjoy it, it won’t be comfortable for long!). Now, we want to tuck the tailbone, just a tiny bit. You can find this most easily by experiencing the opposite: stick your tush out behind you like you’re showing off your cute yoga booty. Now, we want to find the opposite action- tuck the tailbone so that the tush pulls IN. There you go! Don’t go crazy with this, it’s just a slight action that will help to keep the lower back elongated as you move through the posture.
  2. Now, pull the belly up and in, creating a bit of tension there- just as though you were starting to think about doing a crunch. Imagine you’re pulling the belly tight against your spine.
  3. Next, bring your arms tight along your side body. Keeping the elbows glued to the ribs, bend the elbows 90 degrees and extend your forearms in front of you. Flex the wrists as though you were pushing something away.
  4. Keeping all of the above actions, begin to curl and open the upper back. To do this, broaden the upper chest- imagine that you wanted to draw shoulder heads back and away from the other. The center of your sternum presses forward and upward. Keep pulling your belly in and tucking the tailbone as you do this- you will notice that the low back wants to “help out” by curling for you. Instead, lift the chest and broaden the collarbone even more.
  5. Relax your face, and jaw, and smile slightly (it helps tremendously) as you breathe fully and completely. Gaze ever so slightly upward so that the neck curves naturally along with the upper back. Stay with these actions long enough to let the muscles begin to “learn” the pose, and then release.

Now we’re ready to come to the mat. Let’s start in Cobra pose- legs extend long behind you, top of the feet on the ground, toes are extended (not tucked). Initially, the hips are down. Let’s address the steps again, with just a few additions:

  1. Find the slight tuck in the tailbone. Imagine that the tailbone is pointing down to the floor.
  2. Pull the belly up and in.
  3. Squeeze elbows into ribs and look down at your hands. The pose is often taught with the hands directly under the shoulders. Do start there, and make sure that the wrists are not behind the shoulders.
  4. Press down firmly through the palms and the base of the fingers. The hands should look like they do in Down Dog. We want an external rotation of the shoulders, which you will find by squeezing the elbows tight to the ribs (Note- if you’re finding this challenging, try rotating your hands outward slightly).
  5. Find lift-off! Float the hips and belly up into the air as you begin to straighten the arms, pressing down firmly into the full palm. Be mindful that you are not rolling more onto one side of the hand than another- commonly, we roll onto the outer edge of the hand. Press down a bit more between the thumb and first finger. If you are one of those crazy noodly folks who can straighten the arms completely, be mindful not to lock them- keep a microbend in the elbow, and above all, keep the elbows squeezing to the ribs!
  6. Broaden the upper chest. Find the same actions you practiced while seated, driving the shoulder heads back with gentle persistence, at the same time drawing the tips of the shoulder blades down your back (imagine that each shoulder blade is a triangle on your back, with a point facing down. We want to squeeze those triangles down and towards each other). Keep pulling your belly in and tucking the tailbone as you do this. 
  7. Find length through each of the legs and squeeze them in toward each other- and then relax your glutes. You can find this action by tucking the tailbone even more and by trying to click the pinky toenail of each foot down to the floor.
  8. Your drishti– gazing point- will vary, depending on the style of yoga you are practicing. In some schools it is said that you must look waaaaaay up to the ceiling. Because that causes strain in my neck, I prefer to keep a more natural curve, just gazing slightly upward.
  9. Finally, it’s time to exit the posture. You could simply lie down (ahhhh!!!) or make the vinyasa transition. To do so, engage your core strongly- squeeze the belly in!- and push the hips up and back into Down Dog.

Here are some more thoughts on Up Dog.

In case of low back pain: More core strength may be needed. I would recommend sticking with Cobra as you continue to strengthen, but be sure that you are approaching it with integrity- engage the belly, tuck the tailbone, and roll the shoulders back in the same way that I suggest here for Up Dog. You should be working, not just hanging out, even in Cobra pose. And please don’t give up on Up Dog- continue to try it from time to time, especially when you are warmed up but not completely fatigued.

You might also find that toward the end of practice, the body fatigues and can no longer engage the muscles as strongly as needed to keep this pose safe (you’ll know- you’ll start to feel like you can’t pull the belly in, or the arms want to collapse). In that case, it is always preferable to take Cobra rather than run the risk of injury.

Wrist/Palm Pain/Fatigue Not every teacher might agree, but I will suggest if you are following all of the other cues in this list and you are still finding strain in the wrists or hands, that you should experiment with walking your hands forward a bit so that the weight of your body is not directly on those delicate bones.

Entering/Exiting the Pose in a Vinyasa Wondering how to achieve the graceful fluidity some yogis demonstrate as they roll over their toes through Chaturanga -> Up Dog -> Down Dog in a vinyasa? It’s all about the core (and the bandhas- more on those in a later post). As you grow stronger, you’ll find that you are able to use your core to carry you so that your toes and other body parts are merely along for the ride. Here’s a mini-guide:

  1. From Chaturanga (note- your elbows are bent at 90 degrees, not any lower, which means that your elbows and your hips are the same distance away from the floor!), keeping the hands just where they are, engage the core even more strongly and pull your torso and legs forward through your hands as you activate the key actions of Up Dog- shoulders back, heart forward, tailbone tucked, legs squeezing together. The last thing to happen is the toes roll over so the toenails click down.
  2. From Up Dog, as you engage your core and lift the hips up and back, imagine that the hips are LIFTING the legs up so that you can roll lightly up and back onto your toe tips. Keep in mind that doing this repeatedly this will ruin a good pedicure and can even cause your toenails to break, so make your choices accordingly.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Cobra. It’s an awesome backbend and sometimes it makes a lot more sense than using all of the muscular energy required by Up Dog. I think it’s important, however, to be clear that the two poses are not one and the same.

I’m grateful and appreciative of my student for asking me this important question. I hope all of you feel free to do the same in your own classes.  All the teachers that I know LOVE to talk about yoga, and answer questions about postures. Please don’t be shy to ask for clarification, or about any difficulty or challenge you’re experiencing with your own practice.

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