Our animal friends are a wonderful study in the fluidity of yoga. It is no coincidence that when a dog wakes from a nap, he can be seen moving slowly through upward facing dog and downward facing dog and casually walk away satisfied. The family pet makes Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, or upward facing dog pose, look simple, and we can embody this ease when we too practice the pose.
Let's dissect this asana.
Working from the ground up.
In most cases we move into upward facing dog as part of a vinyasa sequence, coming from chaturanga, but for ease we will start from the floor. Lying on our stomach, uncurl the toes and allow the tops of the feet to come in contact with the floor. Spread the toes and feel all five toenails in contact with the floor. This subtle engagement triggers an active lengthening into the tibialis anterior muscles of the shin, and up into the adductor muscles of the inner groin, and hip flexor group at the front of the thighs.
Place your hands, fingers spread wide, close into your rib cage, below the nipple line. Next comes the most magnificent part of upward dog, preparing for the heart opening benefits of the back bend. Although our entire spine will be coming into extension – from our cervical to our lumbar spines – the majority of the back bend comes from our thoracic spines. Due to the relationship between the shoulder blades and the thoracic spine, it is important to co-ordinate the efforts between these two areas of our anatomy. Roll the shoulders open, so that the pectoralis muscles of the chest become stretched, and the rhomboid muscles between the shoulder blades and the spine become active, gently moving the shoulder blades towards each other.
Now soften. Bring your attention to your lower spine and gluteus muscles of the buttocks. Naturally, as we move into extension, the erector spinae muscles running up and down the spine will contract, and the gluteus maximus of our buttock will contract as the hip begins to extend. Ensure before we start these actions that you are not gripping or clenching. Engage the stability of the core by lifting the muscles of the pelvic floor to support the sacroiliac joint and tuck the belly button in and up towards the spine to engage the transverses abdominus to support the lumbar spine.
Open to Possibility
Keeping open across the collarbones, press into the palms evenly, finding balance between pronation (inward rotation) and supination (outward rotation) at the wrist. Squeeze the elbows towards the ribs as you begin to straighten at the elbows, actively outwardly rotating the upper arms to turn the eyes of the elbow, the crease, forward. Begin to reach out through the crown of the head, creating space between the vertebrae of the neck. With a long neck, send the throat back, gently engaging the deep neck flexor muscles, which support the cervical spine. With your drishti or gaze down the nose, begin to turn the face up, keeping the action of the deep neck flexor muscles.
Now expand through the inner body, growing long through the side body, lengthening the oblique muscles of the core and the intercostals muscles between the ribs. Imagine the space between each rib growing. Check in with your front ribs. The action of uddiyana bandha, belly button in and up, should also bring the lower ribs in. Keep the pelvic floor muscles gently engaged.
As the hips and thighs begin to lift up off the mat, keep the adductor muscles of the groin active, like they are holding a ball of energy, pressing towards each other. Lengthen through the tailbone – without tucking - to create space in the lower lumbar spine. As the lumbar spine moves into extension, the sacrum at the base of our spine naturally nutates or tips forward. Trying to tuck the tailbone will only increase any tension in the lower lumbar area. The feet continue to press firmly and evenly into the mat. Now only the palms and the tops of the feet should be in contact with the floor.
Benefits & Considerations
A common posture in our culture is to close through our chest, shortening our pectoralis muscles, weakening the muscles between the shoulder blades (rhomboids) and weakening our postural muscles (erector spinae). In addition, our hip flexor muscles (psoas, rectus femoris or quadriceps) become short and weak due to the sitting we do. Upward dog reverses these motions. It causes us to open across the chest and into the hip flexors and asks our erector spinae, rhomboids, and core musculature to awaken.
A common complaint in upward facing dog is a pinching sensation in the lower spine. This is where the core can have a protective and stabilizing effect. Contracting the muscles of the pelvic floor acts as force closure, which is the muscular force that allows the sacroiliac joints to fit together compactly. The partner to this is form closure, which is the way our joint fits together like a puzzle piece. Contracting the transverses abdominus or udiyanna bandha, acts as a back brace for our lower spine. The muscle wraps around our midsection like a girdle, blending in with the fascia of the low back. Ensure your core is engaged if you are experiencing pinching.
Physically using a block between your thighs can increase the engagement of the adductor muscles of the groin, which can allow you to lengthen out of your lower spine. Try re-entering the pose thinking about length through the spine starting from the crown of the head first, and then imagine moving into a back bend. Certain students with low back pain are aggravated by extension of the spine. If you, or a student of yours, have this type of back pain, substitute a smaller back bend such as cobra, baby cobra, or sphinx pose, until you no longer feel the painful sensation.
Another common complaint in this asana is wrist pain. Often this can be due to the position of the wrists in relation to the shoulder joints. If the shoulders are moving past the wrist joints, you are forcing the wrists into a deep extension. The front of the shoulders should be stacked over the wrist joints, and maybe even a slightly behind the wrists. Be sure to spread the weight evenly into the palms and to distribute the weight away from the carpal bones of the wrist.
Upward facing dog pose is lovely back bend and heart opener that allows us to open areas of our bodies that are often closed during our days. Embracing ease, and softening into the pose, allows us to experience the benefits demonstrated by our animal models.
Dr. Robin Armstrong has combined her decade of experience as both a Chiropractor & Yoga Instructor to develop a unique type of yoga therapy known as Yoga Rehab, blending traditional yoga practices with modern rehab exercise to help students overcome pain and injury. She has shared her knowledge of yoga injury prevention and anatomy with the Canadian Press, American Council of Exercise, Impact, and Alive magazines as well as many local yoga teacher training programs. She practices at YYoga Downtown Flow studio in Vancouver, Canada.
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