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Upward dog: For looser shoulders and a relaxed upper body

A white woman practices upward dog on a purple yoga mat
Fitness Editor
Julia is a qualified fitness trainer. She writes our articles about nutrition and fitness. She also makes free workout plans for our site.

Upward dog is one of the most common yoga poses. It’s great for unlocking your back and counteracting the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day – provided it’s done correctly, of course. Here, we explain everything you need to know about the benefits of this essential asana. 

What is upward facing dog pose?

Upward facing dog – or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit – is typically part of a sun salutation sequence, which is a yoga warm up performed in almost every yoga class, including vinyasa. No matter what class you’re taking, this pose will probably be a part of it.

Knowing the pose isn’t the same as mastering it. It’s the little things that will determine whether or not you benefit from incorporating upward facing dog into your yoga practice.

Upward facing dog…

  • stretches the chest and shoulder muscles.
  • strengthens the leg and ab muscles.
  • mobilizes the upper spine.
  • engages the chest, legs, and glutes.
  • is invigorating and liberating.

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Upward facing dog can be quite a strenuous back bending exercise. In this yoga pose, your chest opens forward, you push your shoulders away from your ears, and your legs and hips are extended. It’s not often that you get to move your body in this alignment, especially if you spend most of your time behind a desk. So it’s no surprise that you might struggle with it a bit on the first try!

Upward facing dog: A moment of relaxation

The upper back bending that occurs in an upward facing dog is great for releasing tension from both your muscles and mind. Many of us raise our shoulders throughout the day without even realizing it, especially when we’re stressed out, or hunched over our keyboards trying to meet a deadline.

Stress contributes greatly to muscle tension, which can affect the way we feel both physically and mentally. The motions of upward facing dog neutralize the effects of the protective positions we put our bodies in during the day and allow us to more easily relax and unwind.

Upward dog: How to do it correctly

Take a good long look at the photo below. This is what your upward facing dog pose should look like. The emphasis should be on opening your chest, lowering your back, and relaxing your glutes.

posture du chien tête en haut correctement effectuée
©foodspring

Here’s what it will look like: 

  1. Distribute your weight evenly over your hands and the tops of your feet.
  2. Keep your fingers spread out, evenly distributing the weight of your upper body over your fingers and palms. Straighten your arms.
  3. Keep your hands under your shoulders and elbows pointing backwards.
  4. Keep your arms straight and forearms turned slightly outward.
  5. Place your chest between your elbows.
  6. Keep your chest muscles engaged and pelvis tilted slightly forward.
  7. Keep your glutes relaxed.
  8. Keep your toes pointed and the tops of your feet planted firmly on the floor. Your knees shouldn’t touch the floor.
  9. Keep your feet straight and heels pointing up.
  10. Pivot your thighs inward.
  11. Keep your eyes on the ceiling, head back, and your neck in line with your spine.
  12. Lift your chest forward and toward the ceiling little by little with each breath.

Upward dog: common mistakes

The most common mistakes made during upward facing dog have to do with the positioning of your extremities. Improper form can cause tension in your neck, or even lower back injuries in the worst cases. Here’s what you should be on the lookout for and how to fix what you’re doing wrong, including props that can help.

A white woman on a purple yoga mat shows a poor example of upward facing dog posture
©foodspring
Mistake:                  Your heels are too far apart.
How to avoid it:                                                              Take care to keep a good distance between your hands and feet. Contract your legs and rotate your thighs inward.
Tip:            When your heels are too far apart, it creates instability in your lower back, which can lead to injury. Use a block to modify the pose, placing it between your thighs with the short side up. This will force you to contract your legs and rotate your thighs inward, which will make it harder for your heels to move outward.

 

Mistake: Your knees are on the floor.
How to avoid it: Tighten your leg muscles and anchor the tops of your feet firmly to the floor.
Tip: Slipping a block between your thighs can also help you do this more easily.

 

Mistake: Your back is too arched.
How to avoid it:                               Contract your legs, tilt your hips slightly forward, and place your chest between your arms. Lean forward.
Tip: Arching the back is often a result of lacking flexibility in the upper spine. If it’s uncomfortable to bend your back for the upward facing dog posture, start by practicing cobra pose instead.

 

Mistake: Your hands are twisted or incorrectly positioned.
How to avoid it:                        Ensure your hands are placed under your shoulders and that your wrists are in perpendicular alignment to the edges of the mat.
Tip: Spread your fingers to distribute the weight evenly over each finger.

 

Mistake: Your shoulders are drooping or too close to your ears.
How to avoid it:                         Engage your entire body (feet, legs, hips, chest, hands, arms) from bottom to top and place your chest between your arms. With your hands, push yourself off the floor.
Tip: Place a blanket under your legs. This will protect your pelvis and prevent arching during the yoga pose.

 

Mistake: Your head is tucked into the back of your neck.
How to avoid it:                         Keep your eyes on the ceiling but don’t move your head or neck.
Tip: Raise your chin only slightly to avoid overextending your neck.

Form over ego

If you’re struggling to incorporate upward dog into your practice, set it aside and improve your mobility with another pose first.

For example, the grasshopper pose will give your body similar benefits, including stretching the upper spine and lower back, but may be easier for you to do.

Upward facing dog: Our conclusion

  • Upward dog or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana is frequently performed during sun salutations.
  • When done correctly, it mobilizes the chest and shoulders.
  • Back bending neutralizes the effects of office work by relaxing tightened muscles.
  • To perform the pose properly, keep your chest open and your back and glutes relaxed.
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