Urdvha = Upward Mukha = Face Svana = Dog Asana = Posture
Urdvha Mukha Svanasana or Upward Facing Dog is one of the postures we often come across in a Vinyasa flow style class, used within what is commonly referred to as a Vinyasa. (Moving from plank to chatturanga, through to cobra or upward facing dog, and back to downward facing dog.) When we’re in a flow-style class, these postures can be a little overlooked, and while my emphasis is always on awareness and the ability to find out what your own unique body is doing in your practice – rather than putting people in to ‘perfect’ shapes – it’s always a good idea to know what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.
Urdvha Mukha Svanasana is a relatively energising backbend, which we can use to bring a little bit more life, vibrancy and upper body strength to our practice.
To prepare the body for Urdvha Mukha Svanasana, start in an all fours position and move the spine through some cat/cow movements to begin with – aware of the inhalation opening the chest and front of the body, and the exhalation helping to engage the navel towards the spine as it rounds. From there, lengthen the hips up and back into a downward facing dog, and practice your hasta bandha – hand lock (explained below). Use your inhalation to draw up from the hands and lengthen the spine, and the exhale to relax the neck, and allow the heels to lengthen towards the floor.
From there, come back on to hands and knees, and lower down to the floor. Place the fingertips underneath the shoulders, and move through your cobra dynamically a few times, to warm up the spine and lower back muscles – focus on using the strength of your back more than the arms and hands here.
- From a prone position lying on the ground, bend the elbows and bring the hands either side of the waist. Place the whole palm down (If the whole palm won’t touch the ground, just slide your hands forwards a little until they do.) and elbows in, while still maintaining hasta bandha – a very useful and important action of the hand, in which the tips of the fingers and thumb ground in to the earth, while the muscles of the hand engage to enliven and lift up through the center of the palm – creating a kind of suction cup with the middle of the palm of the hand. Spread the weight evenly, and focus on extending through the index finger to engage the muscles and tendons of the forearm. This can be done in all postures in which your hands are on the floor, and will help to take the weight out of the wrists, protecting them in all the work we do on our arms and hands!
- Point the toes away from you, while pressing them down into the earth. In all postures – whatever is on the floor is your foundation, and it’s helpful to focus on really grounding down through the foundations before moving to change anything else in the posture.
- With the tops of the feet pressing into the floor, begin to press into the hands and peel the chest away from the floor, as though you were going to come into a cobra position. When you lift up, have a sense of almost pulling the hands back, in order to find the sensation of bringing the chest through and forwards, not just up.
- Continue to lift, and then engage the thighs to lift the knees from the floor, so your foundations of the tops of the feet and the hands are the only parts of the body on the floor.
- From here, focus on lengthening the tailbone down towards the feet – it’s far healthier to move into backbends with the tailbone lengthened, otherwise we risk compressing the vertebra of the lower back.
- The shoulders have a tendency to glue themselves to the ears here, and that is exactly what we’re looking to get away from, since we can spend a lot of time with hunched shoulders and tension in the neck. So, draw the shoulder blades down the back – a sense of curling the shoulder blades down and towards each other in order to press the heart forwards.
- Lengthen the back of the neck – all too often we can get into the habit of dropping the head back and crunching the back of the neck in a desire to feel more ‘open’, but this is really more about opening the body and the chest, so by all means take your gaze upwards, but be mindful of how much you tilt the head back.
- Use your breath to expand and open the body even more by inhaling deeply to expand the lower ribs and chest, and then using the exhale to ground more firmly and focus on your foundations.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or however many feels good to you.
- To transition out, lower slowly down to the floor and rest the forehead down.
- Use the breath to counterpose, by inhaling in to the belly, pressing the abdomen in to the floor and releasing and relaxing the lower back.
*Variation: If you have particularly flexible and ‘open’ hips, or a current or previous issue with your sacroiliac joint – then tucking the toes under in your upward facing dog can help to protect the hips by gently ‘hugging’ the back of the pelvis together.
The next time you practice, remember that all postures have a purpose, and the transitions between each asana are just as important as that moment of stillness itself!