Is Cobra a modification to Upward Facing Dog? Nope!
If you’ve taken my Yoga and/or my Yoga/Pilates/Strength classes you’ll know that I am very cautious about the yoga pose Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) and I will regularly discuss and demonstrate it in class. Unfortunately, Upward Facing Dog is one of the most misunderstood, undertaught, and yet one of the more frequent poses in a yoga ‘flow’ class. This article looks at Upward Facing Dog as a pose, but I strongly recommend looking at my article “A beginners guide to a familiar, yet hard, yoga sequence of poses” because you will see how to correctly (and incorrectly) use the following information in a flow transition.
How to get there:
From Chaturanga Dandasana, roll your toes so that the tops of feet are touching floor. This will also cause you to push the chest/sternum forward, as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and down your back. Shoulders will roll behind to open up chest. Abdominals and back muscles are strong to prevent collapsing the hips and pressure on your lower back. Similar to Plank (Phalakasana) and Four-Limbed Stick Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) the legs should be engaged 360 degrees. Arms are active and not passively locked at the elbow. Thighs and hips never touch the floor.
Notice in the picture:
· Only hands and tops of feet are touching the floor (Hips, thighs, knees and shins are lifted off the ground)
Your entire body is strong in this pose; the front, back, inner and outer legs are active, back muscles are actively drawing your shoulder blades together and down your back, your lower back, abdominals, glutes and hip flexor muscles are engaged to prevent your hips from collapsing, thus protecting your lower back. Even the top and bottom foot muscles are engaged to press into the floor. Lots of stuff working here, making this pose is really awesome, but also really challenging.
Because Upward Facing Dog is challenging, this is what is often seen in classes; Cobra
Notice in the picture:
· Thighs are on floor and legs are inactive
· Hands and arms are pushing into the floor as the spine is forced into extension (back bend). This gives appearance of an open chest, but the abdominals and back muscles are inactive.
In a sun salutation, some teachers will offer Cobra as a modification to Upward Facing Dog, and I disagree. As Mark Stephens writes in his book Teaching Yoga, “Bhujangasana [Cobra] is a deep backbend that should be explored as part of a backbending sequence, not in the steady flow of Surya Namaskara [Sun Salutation] ”.[p.164]. I agree. Yes, Cobra may help with spinal flexibility, but it doesn’t help students build strength and become aware of the areas necessary for Upward Facing Dog. If I student can’t come into Upward Facing Dog, I recommend coming into Baby Cobra.
Add chances are, if you are having a hard time finding your way to Upward Facing Dog, you probably need to modify Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chatturanga Dandasana) as well. See suggested readings links below.
How should you be breathing in Upward Facing Dog or Baby Cobra?
Inhale as you open into the pose.
As always, you are in direct communication with your body, so if it is talking to (or screaming at) you, please listen to it. I would suggest that if you are experiencing anything listed below, please focus on healing yourself first before attempting Upward Facing Dog:
· Lower back issues (pain, disc herniation and/or bulging)
· Shoulder (rotator cuff) injury
· Diastasis Recti
· Herniation (Umbilical is most common)
· Recently postpartum