Even though I teach Vinyasa Yoga, I have an Iyengar yoga background, so I'm a bit of a stickler for proper alignment. Most times in Vinyasa classes the focus is on the flow and not on proper alignment in the poses themselves. People can often get injured when they don't fully understand a pose, physically, yet try to copy the teacher or other students; when you repeat a pose using poor alignmnent it never ends well. Understanding the nature of each pose will allow you to move your body safely, simultaneously strengthening the body and promoting ease in the mind.
When it comes to Cobra and Upward Facing Dog, being as they are back bending poses, it is important to understand the overall movement of these poses so that you do not strain or damage your lower back. Anyone with lower back issues should focus on Cobra and not attempt Upward Facing Dog until you have a strong asana practice.
My goal with this post is to help you understand each of these two poses so that you can choose which one (or both) is best for your body, while practicing them with strength and integrity.
Cobra / Bhujangasana
Start lying face down on your mat. Point/extend your toes behind you with your feet hip distance apart (typically about 4" or so). Press the tops of your feet into the mat so that your knees hover off the mat and your quadriceps engage. Engage your buttocks and reach your tailbone toward the floor. Bring your hands to the sides of your lower ribs so that they are directly under your elbows (not under your shoulders); your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor. Without using your arms, reach the top of your head forward and lift your chest away from the floor. To deepen, press your hands backward and downward into the mat and draw your chest even further forward, as if you could drag yourself through your arms. Try to create more space between your rib cage and your pelvis, while lengthening the lower back.
Common misalignments :
1. Instead of pulling forward, you press straight upward, or even backward, while keeping your pelvis on the floor. Not only does this feel terrible, it can cause damage or injury to your lower back. Cobra is not about how high you lift your chest off the ground, it is about finding the back bend in your upper back (lower back stays lengthened out on the floor), using the muscles along the spine, not your arms.
2. Shrugging your shoulders. If you are pushing yourself off the ground, chances are you are wearing your shoulders as earrings. Instead, press your shoulder blades toward your waist, engaging the latissimus dorsi. This gives you more power to move your chest forward instead of upward. It is also important when moving into Upward Facing Dog.
3. Straightening your arms. In Cobra, arms should be bent, not straight. Even the most flexible yogi keeps the elbows bent, even if just slightly, because this allows more opening across the chest.
4. Reaching forward with your chin. Try to keep the head in line with the spine, so as the chest leaves the floor, the head is coming along for the ride, rather than doing the lifting. Try to lengthen forward through the back of your throat rather than your chin; the bigger the back bend the higher your gaze goes, but to start, most likely you will be looking at the floor a little in front of you.
Upward Facing Dog / Urdva Mukha Svanasana
Start in Cobra. Press the tops of your feet into the mat and straighten your arms, lifting your legs and pelvis off the mat. Lift your thighs toward the ceiling, while pressing your tailbone toward the floor. Press your shoulder blades downward through your palms while moving your chest both forward and upward. This is also and upper back back bend; your lower back should be long, stabilizing it by using the lower abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis).
1. Leaving your hips and legs on the floor. The legs are a very active part of this pose. The only parts of your body that should be touching the floor are your hands and feet. If you don't actively lift the legs upward, chances are you are bending into your lower back, which will cause pain and eventually injury.
2. Shrugging your shoulders. Chances are if you are not using your legs, you are also not using your upper back muscles to press into the floor and lift up. Shrugging causes neck and shoulder tension and also leaves you overusing the lower back rather than finding the upper back back bend. You can play a bit by intentionally shrugging and sinking toward the floor, then pressing the shoulders down and lifting back upward, so that you can feel the difference.
3. Collapsing the neck. It feels good to look up in this pose, however, like with Cobra, you want the head in line with the spine. If you chest faces the ceiling, then your gaze can too, but not by dropping the head toward your upper back. Like Cobra, try to lengthen the back of your throat. At the very top of your spine while keeping the neck long, you can tilt the chin upward slightly. You should be able to breathe easily and speak with a normal (not constrained) voice. If you can't, drop your chin back down.
Similarities and Differences
I like to think about Upward Facing Dog as "Cobra Lifted Off the Floor". They both employ strong, active legs and an upper-back back bend. They both press the shoulder blades toward the waist and reach the tailbone toward the floor. With Cobra, the majority of the body is on the floor with just the chest lifted, elbows are bent. With Upward Facing Dog, the whole body is lifted off the floor with only the hands and tops of the feet touching, arms are straight.
I hope that clears up any questions you may have about these poses. In class, feel free to try either or both of these poses, as long as you are clear about which one you are doing. No hybrids please!
Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life, on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.
In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios, Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.