Upward-Facing Dog and I didn’t become fast friends upon our first introduction. For years I found the pose alternately painful and confounding. These days I relish it—I love the feeling of opening the whole sheath of the front of my body, from the top of my feet to the tight, fibrous abdominal tissue between my hip points, on up to my front chest. But it took years and a lot of conscious effort to feel this way.
And it will never be a particularly beautiful pose in my body. For years in my work at Yoga Journal, I helped scout, select, and hire our models. I worked with them on set and was constantly astounded by the beautiful shapes they could make with their bodies. It was hard not to get attached to wishing my body could do those things and look that way, too. But here’s a little secret that I learned on those shoots: Everyone and I mean everyone has one or two poses that look or feel like total stinkers. So, lately I’ve been channeling Tina Fey’s motto when I consider whether or not my poses are beautiful: “…always remember the most important Rule of Beauty. ‘Who cares?’”
Having said that, I do care about how the pose feels in my body and I care that I’m practicing it in such a way that it’s beneficial to me. So, I thought I’d share a little bit of my experience in case you, too, are struggling with this ubiquitous pose and want to nudge it to a more enjoyable—or at least a more peaceful—place.
The Awkward Meeting
Cut to the first few years of Updog: Not only did it pinch my lower back and neck, it seemed to me like it was pinching everyone else’s lower backs and necks, too! I spent many a class sneaking looks at my fellow classmates trying to figure out how to do the pose only to find them looking like more like neckless worms than stretching doggies. Shoulders squinched up by the ears, heads thrown back, red-faces—this is what 99% of my ashtanga class looked like. And that super-flexible girl in the corner who had a perfect, effortless arch in her back? I wanted to look just like her. I wanted to have a perfect arch, an open spine. But, she was obviously given a genetic gift from the backbend gods. That was never going to be me.
The Denial Years
And so, I entered The Denial Years. During The Denial Years, I stopped doing the pose completely. It didn’t make any sense to me to do something that felt uncomfortable, even downright aggressive on my body. And I wasn’t progressing anywhere in the pose. It felt stagnant.
Fortunately, around this time I started going to anusara classes and I learned all about Cobra Pose. Cobra Pose was a balm for my aching, confused vertebrae. I could go on and on and ON about this pose, but suffice it to say that, in my humble opinion, Cobra Pose is the foundational pose that we should all be taught before Updog. Here’s why: It strengthens your whole back body, which makes Updog easier. You can also rise up as high or as low as you need to in the pose, which makes it far safer on your lower back and sacrum. And finally, it brings kinesthetic awareness to the upper back. Before I did Cobra and I would crank myself into Updog, all I could feel was my lower back. My upper back wasn’t even in the picture. Forget trying to open it or press my shoulderblades into it—I couldn’t even feel it.
Cobra changed that. By keeping my elbows bent and my legs on the ground, I could suddenly draw the heads of my armbones back, spread my collarbones wide, and feel that indescribably awesome feeling of opening my chest. Instead of racing through each vinyasa, Cobra encouraged me to slow down, to observe, and to adjust my body accordingly. And eventually, Cobra coaxed my upper back and front body into opening just a little bit more.
I didn’t consciously decide to begin doing the pose again. It happened naturally, organically. It just felt right to press up into it. (And there are still days when I will substitute Cobra in my Sun Salutations until I feel ready to lift into Updog.) There’s no way for me to detect exactly what happened in my musculoskeletal system that enabled me to move the focus of the pose from my lower back and neck up into my upper back and chest. It was a series of small transformations that made the pose accessible. But there’s no doubt in my mind that learning the foundational actions and principles of alignment in Cobra led me to The Reconciliation phase: Cobra helped open my upper back just enough that I could actually lift my chest and pull it through my arms a little more. This helped relieve my lower back. Cobra taught me to use my legs. Perhaps most importantly, Cobra helped me to stop focusing on creating a beautiful back arch—because that only spurred me to jam my vertebrae together aggressively—and I started to focus on stretching the front of my body. Instead of fixating on the outer form of the pose, I started to work the pose from the inside out.
For many years in my home practice, I also tried the pose on blocks. I still love this variation because the added height under the hands creates a feeling of spaciousness all long the spine. Try it for yourself and see how it feels.
I recommend trying this variation after you’ve done some Sun Salutations. You can either do 5 Sun Salutations with Lunges or 5 “A” series Sun Salutations. Whichever one you do, warm up your spine with Cobra instead of Updog to begin.
Once you feel warm and ready, come down onto your hands and knees and grab two blocks. Place your blocks in front of you on your mat about shoulder-distance apart. Next place your palms on the blocks and extend your legs back into Upward-Facing Dog. Take several breaths here, noticing how different it feels to be up on the blocks, versus having your palms flat on the floor.
You can really play around here and experiment with different actions in the pose. Here are a few possibilities:
Bend your elbows slight and move both shoulders in a circle: Take them up your ears and then draw the back and slightly down (not too harshly down or you’ll stress your neck). Feel as though your shoulder blades are pressing against your back and up—like they are supporting and lifting your heart. As your heart lifts, your breastbone, your collarbones, and eventually your chin will lift, too.
Keeping your elbows bent, move your tailbone down toward the floor – you’ll feel your lower back get longer and you might have more space to open your upper back.
Finally, engage those legs! Hug them in toward each other as you press the baby toe side of your feet down. Easier said than done. Even if you can’t get those little toes down, you can visualize it and it will create a pattern of alignment in your body. Straighten your knees and move the backs of your thighs toward the ceiling. If you begin to overarch your lower back when you do this, remember to draw the tailbone down.
Enjoy building the strength and the foundational alignment for this fundamental pose!
An editor at Yoga Journal for nearly a decade, Andrea Ferretti has had the honor of writing about and learning from some of the best yoga teachers in the West. She has been greatly influenced by Sarah Powers, Sally Kempton, Cyndi Lee, and her husband, Jason Crandell. For more of her personal writing, visit her blog, Mindful Living.