by Kara-Leah Grant
Like Chatranga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana is a posture we usually only spend a breath or two in during yoga class. It’s a posture of transition and movement. And it’s a posture that’s very easily to do badly, creating stress on our lower back and shoulders.
For this reason, it’s a posture I’m now wary of teaching in a general, drop-in yoga class. Yes, it’s a staple of sun salutations and yoga, yet many of the people I see coming to class aren’t yet ready to swoop into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana.
They’re not yet open enough in the shoulders to allow them to roll back and release down.
They don’t have the awareness in the body to engage through the legs and anchor the pelvis in the correct position.
And they don’t yet have an integrated awareness through the spine and torso that prevents sagging through the lower back.
In our own home yoga practice though, we have time to explore Urdhva Mukha Svanasana with patience and mindfulness.
Try these techniques to explore the way the body moves, releases and activates in Upward Dog.
- Stand in front of a wall, at about arm’s length distance.
- Inhale and lift your arms up to shoulder height, palms face up and parallel to the wall.
- Step in close enough to press your palms firmly into the wall.
- Spread the fingers slightly and press the palms firmly in the wall.
Now check all your alignment and notice where you naturally tend to place your body in this posture. Because you’re standing and using a wall, you’re not in a weight-bearing position so you’ve got time to use your breath and awareness to really explore into the arm, shoulder and upper back position of Upward Dog.
Check the alignment of your palms in relation to your shoulders – your hands should be directly in front of your shoulders so your arms are perpendicular. That is, the hands are not wider or narrower than the shoulders.
This is really important because when you’re bearing weight on a limb, you generally want that limb to stack up in a straight line through the joints – this creates a straight line of energy and allows bone to stack on bone. If your arms aren’t straight out from the shoulders, adjust your hands and notice how the new alignment feels, and what may shift and change in the shoulders with that movement.
Often, we’ve misaligned ourselves because we’re compensating for a tightness somewhere else in the body.
Once you’re certain that your hands, and therefore your arms, are in the correct position, bring your awareness to your shoulders – the shoulder head and the shoulder blades.
Just as they were in Chaturanga Dandasana, our shoulder blades hug the spine and release down toward the tailbone. That allows the front of the shoulder head to roll back and open out. That openness creates space for the sternum to lift and open. There should be a sense of forward movement through the chest – as if you were pulling the chest through the twin pillars of your arms.
Finally, once you’ve checked the alignment of the hands and shoulders, turn your breath and awareness to your arms.
- On an inhale, feel your chest lift and fill, and draw forward.
- As your exhale, press firmly down through your arms and through your hands into the wall.
Biceps and triceps are naturally engaged as you do this.
Take time to breathe here at the wall, noticing the flow of the breath in the body and though the body as you maintain the posture.
The rest of your body is standing in Tadasana – that is, the tailbone is extended towards the ground, the thighs are engaged, you’re releasing down into the earth through your heels and the crown of your head is extending towards the sky.
This is Upward Dog without the backbend and without the weight-bearing aspect. It’s a really good way to explore the alignment of your body and the way breath moves through your body as you maintain the position.
Now let’s use the same kind of technique to explore the back bend in Urdhva Mukha Savanasana.
- Stand at the kitchen bench and place your palms face down hooked around the edge of the sink.
- Stand close enough to the sink so your elbows hug your waist.
- Tune into your body and find Tadanasa – firm the legs, extend the tailbone toward the ground, release the heels into the earth.
Maintain that strong sense of earthing through the lower body – the legs are your firm foundation here, and your pelvis presses forward toward the sink as your pubis bone lifts up towards your belly and the tailbone extends towards the ground.
These are your key actions. Get these right, and the backbend will naturally arise with the breath.
- On an exhale, firm the thighs, feel the energy run down the tailbone into the ground and lift up the pubis into the core.
- On an inhale, pull firmly on the sink edge while squeezing the elbows into the body and feel the spine naturally extend slightly forward, up and bend back as you look up towards to sky.
This should feel like a wave action, originating in the tailbone and driven by the breath and the downward actions of the legs and pelvis.
Continue to breathe in this position, using the exhales to ground into the earth and feel into the alignment of the legs and pelvis. Use the inhales to draw forward and up releasing into a backbend that’s created by the breath in the spine like a wave.
Now, take a break. Do a few counterposes – maybe some forward bends using the bench for support. Check in and make sure you haven’t created any stress or tension in your lower back. If you have, it may be that the pelvis isn’t moving in the right way yet, and there’s not enough lift being created through the spine.
Continue to play with these two components of Upward Dog while standing until you really understand what is engaging in the body and what is being released through the movement of the breath.
It’s like we consciously provide scaffolding for the posture, and then through the breath, allow it to unfurl from within us. We’re not so much doing the posture, as having the posture done for us. Provide the right conditions and the seedling will grow all by itself.
Now, to put it all together.
Below, Seka will lead you into Upward Dog from Chaturanga Dandasana, which is how we usually enter the posture in a sun salutation. You’ll see many of the same principles we’re already explored while standing now come into play when we do the full posture.