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Upward-Facing Dog Pose: The Complete Guide

A classic backbend, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana builds strength in your shoulders, core, and legs.


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Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) is a key component of any Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) as yogis move from Chaturanga Dhandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).

It can take some practice to be able to keep your knees strongly suspended above the floor in this invigorating backbend, in which you balance on just the palms of your hands and tops of your feet.

You’ll likely move into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana multiple times throughout an asana practice, so it’s important to get the alignment right. Make sure your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are aligned, then be sure to pull your shoulder blades back and open your chest instead of sinking down.

Make sure that your chest doesn’t collapse, and that your shoulders don’t round forward; this puts more weight onto your wrists and hands and can strain your lower back. If you feel an ache in your lower back when you get into the pose, your upper back might be tight, forcing your lower back to overcompensate. Try a prep pose like Baby Cobra Pose before you try again.

Like most backbends, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana can help relieve mild depression and fatigue. When we’re stressed or depressed, it tends to manifest in our physical bodies by hunching forward and hanging our heads, whether that’s subtle or more obvious. This backbend allows you to open your heart, improve your posture, and lift your head—the complete opposite posture.

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Upward-Facing Dog basics

Sanskrit: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (OORD-vah MOO-kah shvon-AHS-anna)

ūrdhva = up
mukha = face
śvān = dog

Pose type: Backbend

Targets: Core, flexibility

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Benefits

Upward-Facing Dog is an energy-boosting posture that may help relieve lower back pain. It can also help counteract slouching and kyphosis (the abnormal curvature of the spine). It is a great posture to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting.

Other Upward-Facing Dog perks:

  • Boosts energy and fights fatigue
  • Builds confidence
  • Strengthens your shoulders, arms, and back muscles
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Step-by-step instructions

  1. Begin on your belly with your feet hip-distance apart and your hands placed beside your lower ribs.
  2. Extend your big toes straight back and press down with all ten toenails to activate your quadriceps.
  3. Rotate your inner thighs to the ceiling to broaden your lower back while firming your outer ankles into your midline.
  4. Press down with your hands and feet.
  5. On an inhalation, straighten your arms and lift your legs.
  6. Stack your shoulders directly over your wrists—adjust your feet to ensure this relationship.
  7. With your arms perpendicular to the floor, your feet anchored, and your legs active, draw your chest forward and up.
  8. Draw your shoulders back while rooting down through your hands. Raise your gaze.
  9. Make sure that the curve of your neck is a continuation of the curve of your mid and upper back.
  10. Hold for 5 breaths, then release.
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Explore the pose

To increase the strength and lightness of this pose, push from the backs of your knees along the calves and out through the heels. The tops of your feet will press more firmly against the floor; as they do, lift the sternum up and forward.

Be mindful!

  • There’s a tendency in this pose to “hang” on the shoulders, which lifts them up toward the ears and “turtles” the neck. Actively draw the shoulders away from the ears by lengthening down along the back armpits, pulling the shoulder blades toward the tailbone, and puffing the side ribs forward. If you need help learning this, lift each hand on a block.
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Upward-Facing Dog variations

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Knees-down Upward-Facing Dog

If you find lifting your legs challenging, practice this pose with your knees still on the ground.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Upward-Facing Dog with support under your hips

Try this pose with a small bolster, pillow, or folded blanket under your hips to add a little height and, for some, take the pressure out of the low back. Your elbows can be slightly bent into Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) or straight into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose).

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Upward-Facing Dog Pose on a chair

Place a chair is stable on a sticky mat and/or against a wall. Bring your hands to the base of the chair and press downward (not forward). Walk your feet back into position with an arched back. Stay for several breaths, then walk your feet back in closer to the chair.

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Preparatory and counter poses

This is a relatively gentle backbend that can be done toward the beginning of class to warm up your spine. If this pose causes any pain or discomfort, modify with a gentle Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) until you feel your back body is ready for a deeper heart opener.

Preparatory poses

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Sphinx Pose

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

Counter poses

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

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Your body in Upward-Facing Dog | Anatomy

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana extends the back body to create a focused stretch in the front. Concentrate on individual regions, and notice how each region affects distant parts. For example, feel how straightening your elbows extends the back and puts more pressure on the tops of your feet. Roll your shoulders back and observe how it opens your chest and draws your pelvis forward. Flex your feet and notice the effect on the front of your pelvis.

In the drawings below, blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

 

(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Contract your triceps to straighten your arms. Press the mounds at the base of your index fingers into the mat. Connect your hands and shoulders by externally rotating the humeri. These actions together create a helical line of force through the elbows, stabilizing the arms and shoulders.

Engage the rhomboids to draw your shoulder blades toward your midline and open the front of your chest.

(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

 

Engage the erector spinae to extend the vertebral column. Activate the gluteus maximus and medius to extend the hips and femurs. The gluteux maximus will naturally turn the femurs outward. Counteract this tendency by pressing the tops of the feet into the mat. Attempt to draw the thighs together to activate the adductor magnus and synergize the gluteux maximus in extending the hips.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Backbends and Twists by Ray Long.

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Put Upward-Facing Dog into practice

A key component of any Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), here are a few flows to try to put Upward-Facing Dog into practice:

How to Flow Through the Heat of Pitta Season With Grace

12 Poses to Transform Your Backbends


About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.