Yoga postures become increasingly more complex as you advance in your practice. I think many yogis (and non-yogis) incorrectly assume that the more time you’ve spent inside of a yoga pose, the easier it becomes. While the pose might become more familiar and accessible physically, the shift towards being able to feel micro-movements of the body surely arises too.
Take upward facing dog for example. This pose is one of the main sun salute postures, yet it’s actually a pretty strong backbend—and one that takes a long-term relationship to feel out. I’ve been practicing yoga since I was a teenager, and I’ve had a near-daily vinyasa practice for eight years—yet I’m still in awe of this pose. So here are five ways I’d like to share with you to help you get more out of your up-dog.
1. Practice child’s pose. While child’s pose and downward facing dog can be great “come back to your breath” poses, they can also help teach you proper arm alignment. Start in extended child’s pose and press into your hands as you lift your forearms away from the earth (rebound effect). Begin to wrap your triceps in and down. This will create the sensations of openness through your shoulders and softening in your upper trapezius. From there begin to internally rotate through your forearms and feel the press at, particularly, the base of your index fingers and thumbs.
2. Take this into your downward dog. Once you’ve begun to access this complicated maneuvering of your arms during child’s pose then take these actions to your down dog. Once in downward facing dog, bend your knees to focus initially on your upper body. Stretch and reach through your arms, spine and side-waist muscles without crowding your neck (maintain your broad, soft upper traps). Then straighten your legs and recreate the tricep wrap, noticing that your elbow creases will begin to face the top of your mat. Next, begin to feel the pronation of your forearm. This action of externally rotating your upper arms at your shoulders while pressing into your inner hand is more challenging than you’d think, so be patient.
One tip is to focus this internal movement of the forearm from above your wrist. If you focus too strongly on the tricep wrap and then just pressing through your inner hand, you might strain your wrists over time (just something I’ve been playing around with). Another personal tip from a joint-sensitive yogi, keep your elbows straight but not locked. A micro-bend is okay but, honestly, bending the elbow puts too much strain on that joint once you get into your upward facing dog.
3. Reach through your toes and press down. The action of your legs is crucial to creating healthy spinal curvature during upward dog. Think of how you used the press of your hands in your child’s pose to lift energetically through your forearms; then use your legs to get more lift through your upper spine so that you don’t dump into your lower back. Reach actively through your legs like you’re trying to touch the back of your mat and then press down evenly through every toenail, including and especially the pinkie so that you lengthen through your lower spine.
4. Slightly tuck your tailbone. In all backbends, it’s wise to lengthen through your lower spine by engaging your lower abdominals and lengthening your tailbone toward your heels. It’s kind of like you’re creating a forward bending action within your backbend, and to me this is the epitome of yoga—fusing opposing forces. You also want to feel evenness throughout the entire length of your spine, and this tuck will help.
5. Pay attention to your chin. Your chin will help you get in touch with the degree of curvature in your neck. For many bodies, not looking up in upward dog is best—keeping a long, wrinkle-free back of your neck. For all bodies, however, it’s best to not jut out your chin regardless of where you take your gaze and the degree of arc you take to your cervical spine. I’m not suggesting that you overly tuck your chin during this posture, but do make sure that you’re not jutting it out (this is so common, unfortunately, in backbends like locust pose).
I think we’ll leave our mini-lesson here for today. There are so many ways to encourage growth within this posture, but I really want you to take the time to feel out these little suggestions and make them your own. These are tips that require constant vigilance no matter how “advanced” you are in your yoga practice. Actually, the more up-dogs you add to your belt, the more opportunities you get to feel these intricate sensations that will help you in all of your other backbends.
So have fun, play around—and try to feel the true opening and evenness that come from a well-tuned upward facing dog. Remember that when you open your chest in up-dog, you’re also opening your heart to what life has to offer.
Pictured is Jennifer Jarrett