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When we practice backbends in yoga, we tend to let the name trick us into thinking that we should only bend our lower back. I often see students approach Upward-Facing Dog Pose trying to increase the bend in the lumbar spine in the belief that will take them deeper into the backbend. Most of them do so because no one has taught them otherwise. Some tell me that they were explicitly told to do so by a teacher.
The truth is that we need to focus not just on extending the spine in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) and other backbends, but doing so in a manner that’s safely supported by the rest of our body. The lumbar spine naturally has a slight curve, so we don’t need to force more extension as that places unnecessary pressure on it.
For those who naturally have a lot of flexibility, this attention to detail may not seem like an issue—although it might in later years after continued practice. For others, continually putting unnecessary pressure on the lumbar area can cause immediate lower back pain, strain, and, in some cases, injury.
Upward-Facing Dog can be a challenging pose to practice correctly and safely, especially when it’s sequenced as part of a fast-paced vinyasa class. The upper and lower body—including the shins, knees, thighs, and pelvis—are completely off the mat, so the body is held up only by the tops of the feet and the hands.
We need to avoid bending from only the lower spine. Instead, we want to focus on the extension of the thoracic spine or mid to upper back. Another way of looking at it is opening the front upper body. This is one of the reasons why backbends are so useful and also challenging. Throughout most of our everyday movement, we are more likely to naturally flex forward with the spine. Very few functional movements require extension of the spine, which is why we practice it in yoga.
During backbends, the chest muscles and shoulders stretch and open, which can deepen our breathing, send more oxygen to our cells, and energize the body and mind, among other benefits. Through backbends, we also strengthen the spinal muscles which can better support our posture and overall mobility of the upper body.
To safely practice Upward-Facing Dog requires strength and contraction of certain muscles throughout the body, which can be tricky if we were not taught proper muscle engagement when we first learned the pose or are still developing strength. It’s very easy for the lumbar spine action to be compromised, causing it to arch too much.
The lower body assists by supporting the body’s weight. The legs, along with the hips and abs, act as a foundation for the upper body. Here’s how to properly engage your muscles:
The legs The contraction or active engagement of the hamstrings and other leg muscles enables us to raise the body away from the mat safely, with more stability. The glutes are also active, particularly when entering the pose, to protect the lower back, especially if there is tension and discomfort experienced in this area.
The hip flexors The group of muscles located at the top of the thighs in the pelvic area, known as the hip flexors, must lengthen and stretch to support the opening through the front of the body with ease. In general, with most backbending asanas, they play a key role; if they are short, tight, and hold a lot of tension, then the action of opening through the front of the body from the pelvic area will be very difficult. Practice poses that stretch the hip flexors, including Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) and Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard).
The abdominal muscles The abdominals comprise the muscle group that opposes the lower back. It is imperative to activate this muscle group in Upward-Facing Dog to avoid overarching the lower back.
The most beautiful and perhaps the most challenging aspect of backbending asanas is the chest and shoulder opening. To create what is sometimes known in yoga terms as the “heart-opening” effect in Upward-Facing Dog, we must create a gradual extension in the upper thoracic spine.
The breath Deep breathing expands the chest.
The triceps The strength of the triceps support shoulder extension and the opening of the front upper body. If the triceps are not actively engaged, then the shoulder joints will take the pressure or stress and they will slouch toward the ears, which creates discomfort in the neck area and interferes with breathing since the chest muscles are not properly expanding.
Rely on the support of props as you’re learning this new way of holding yourself in Upward-Facing Dog. In time, as your body becomes stronger, the pose will become more accessible and you might remove the props.(Photo: Miriam Indries)
Add yoga blocks beneath your hands
This creates more space (and ease) as you lift your lower body off the mat, allowing for greater shoulder extension and chest opening.(Photo: Miriam Indries)
Slide a bolster or blankets underneath your hips and pelvis
This keeps your lower body lifted off the mat while supporting your hips and pelvis (and most of the body weight). Contract your glutes, hamstrings, inner thighs, and other leg muscles to strengthen them.
About our contributor
Miriam Indries is a 500-hour-plus yoga teacher and YTT trainer. With a vast experience of teaching asana and meditation as well as yoga teacher trainings, she is devoted to her mission and service of sharing yoga philosophy around the world through her teachings. She spent time in India studying yoga philosophy and advanced asana practice. Miriam is also an Ayurveda Practitioner, Pilates instructor and fitness enthusiast. Additionally, she has academic qualifications in Psychology (B.A) and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) with an emphasis on behavior, effective goal setting, and strategies for self-development. Her love for learning also led her to studies in Traditional Chinese Medicine, body language, and reflexology and she continues to remain a student of life. She currently teaches at Aegialis School of Yoga in Greece as the creator and lead teacher of the YTTs.