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Beginner Yoga How To

Back to Basics: Upward-Facing Dog Breakdown

If you mindlessly breeze through Up Dog countless times per class, protect yourself from injury by taking some time to practice this advanced approach to the basic backbend.

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Even if you could sail through Surya Namaskar in your sleep, we invite you to join us in revisiting the keystones of asana. Unlearn what you know, break your bad habits, and see if you can’t makeover your entire flow by re-focusing on a few foundational poses. Try an advanced approach to basic asana with SmartFLOW teacher trainer Tiffany Russo. Get #backtobasics with us all month on Facebook and Instagram.

Backbends—love them or leave them? Many people feel strongly one way or the other. Maybe that’s why Urdhva Mukha Svanasana is a pose that many yogis tend to breeze right through in a vinyasa class—often with very little instruction or attention. The less mindful we are of what is happening in the moment, though, the more room we make for opportunities to injure ourselves. In Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, the most vulnerable body parts are the low back and the wrists. But by practicing this posture with more awareness and attention to your approach, you can actually find more space, length, and integrity in the body. That lends itself to increasing the longevity of your practice—and the enjoyment you get out of every single vinyasa.

When it comes to backbends, however, often less really is more and better. Listen to your body. If moving into a bigger backbend, like Upward-Facing Dog, is too much too soon, then warm up the shoulders and upper back in Baby Cobra first. In Baby Cobra, you can work most of these same actions to prepare yourself for a safer Up Dog. Feel ready for a bigger backbend? Let’s break it down.

5 Steps to Your Most Mindful Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

1. Aim to extend more than backbend.

Go for length in the lower back, lumbar spine, and a bend in the upper back, thoracic spine, by engaging your abs, as you move into the backbend. This helps create space in the part of the low back that has the most mobility and helps prevent any feeling of compression or pain there.

See alsoBack to Basics: Advance Your Standing Forward Bend

2. Remember your roots.

Often when we move into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, we exaggerate the opening across the chest by externally rotating the upper arm bones, which leads to a lifting of the inner hands. Instead, anchor down into the first finger knuckle, keeping the forearms rooted like stable pillars to lift the chest out of. Push the floor away to lift the spine up through the crown of the head. At the same time, isometrically pull your hands towards your feet.

See alsoDo This, Not That: Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

3. Fine-tune the backbend.

Create a wide backbend (think cobra hood), by driving the bottom tips of the shoulder blades in toward the chest. Rather than squeezing the inner border of the shoulder blades together, which only opens up the collar bones, press the bottom-most tips of the shoulder blades in toward the front of the chest as you lengthen the back ribs up toward the base of the skull. This action creates a balanced opening of both the front and back body as you extend the thoracic spine with space and ease.

See alsoWatch + Learn: Upward-Facing Dog Pose

4. Don’t forget about your legs.

The strong use of your legs drives a healthy backbend. The more you reach the chest through the gateway of the arms, the more the legs will lift and the more you need to reach them back against the pull forward. Ground the tops of your feet strongly into the floor and roll your inner thighs upward, as you firm your outer ankles in and lift your frontal hip points up toward your navel. Lifting the uppermost part of the thighs, deep in the hip socket, creates space for the sacrum to slide away from the lumbar spine to prevent potential low-back compression.

See alsoFoot Position in Upward-Facing Dog

5. Do an alignment self-check.

Once you’re in the pose, check your own alignment. Where are your shoulders lining up? When we move from Chaturanga to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana and straighten the arms, the shoulders should stack directly above the wrists. If your shoulders move more forward in the transition and line up above your fingertips, emphasize the reach back through your legs to realign them.

See alsoChaturanga Dandasana: Master the Vinyasa Transition Pose


tiffany russo

Tiffany Russo is an L.A.-based SmartFLOW yoga teacher and trainer, who has
assisted Annie Carpenter with teacher trainings since 2010. You can find her teaching schedule at