Teaching Yoga to Beginners: Skillful Action in Cobra Pose and Upward Facing Dog

By: 
Kate Heffernan

Backbends are an integral part of any yoga asana practice, and are especially prevalent in a Vinyasa Flow practice. Upward Facing Dog Pose (Urdva Mukha Svanasana) is a core pose in Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) and portions of Surya Namaskar A, including Upward Facing Dog pose, are used as a palate cleanser of sorts between standing poses during many a flow class, which means as a student you will have a plethora of chances to give Upward Facing Dog Pose a go.  

However, Upward Facing Dog is not a simple yoga pose, and neither is it's apparently simpler cousin, Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana).  A healthy spine should be able to bend forward, backward, rotate and bend laterally. However, more often than not, the one direction of movement that has the most fear and misunderstanding associated with it are backbends. 
 

What is Skillfulness in Yoga?

If there is one thing that I believe in as a yoga teacher of yoga asana, it’s finding strength and mobility within poses that is born out of the specificity of proper alignment. 

One of my favorite quotes about yoga comes from the Bhagavad Gita: “Yoga is skillfulness in action.” Skillfulness in action isn’t blowing through your yoga practice trying to get from Pose A to Pose B as quickly as possible. Skillfulness in action isn’t about showing off how high you can lift your leg or doing the backbend the neighbor on your right just did because anything they can do you can do better.

Skillfulness in action is introverted, it is inquisitive, it is asking your body, “What makes sense today?”, waiting for the answer and moving in a way that is mindful and aligned. 

A big part of that skillfulness is knowing what options are available to you. If the only backbend you’ve ever seen is Upward Facing Dog pose but you aren't able to yet do it in an aligned way, that can be frustrating and isolating.  

The remedy? Know your options. Below are three backbends that can be easily folded into your Vinyasa Flow practice along with their alignment and essential actions.  As Sir Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.”  This knowledge can make the difference between a frustrating, pain, and fear-filled practice and one that is aligned and satiating. Do what makes sense, and leave out what doesn’t.    

Low Cobra Pose 

Low Cobra pose is a great way to start to practice all of the actions needed in both Upward Facing Dog pose or Cobra pose but under less dire circumstances. It's an awesome pose for building up back strength without putting a lot of strain on your low back. For skillful action in this Low Cobra pose, follow these cues:

1. Start lying on your belly, big toes pointing straight back. Place your hands beneath your elbows and squeeze your elbows in towards the midline of your body.

2. On an inhale roll the shoulders away from the floor, aiming for your arms to land in about a 90-degree angle. 

3. Press down through every toenail, including your pinkie toes, engaging the fronts of your thighs until your knees start to get light off the floor. 

4. Spin your inner thighs to the ceiling as you firm your outer ankles in, keeping your big toes parallel and pointing straight back towards the wall behind you. 

5. With every exhalation try to root down through the tops of your feet, with every inhale roll the shoulders back and away from the floor as you squeeze the elbows towards each other. 

You can intensify this pose by lifting and hovering your hands just above the floor. Still work to keep the hands under your elbows and fight to keep your elbows pinned in towards the midline.  

Upward Facing Dog Pose (Urdva Mukha Svanasana) 

1. Start lying on your belly, big toes pointing straight back. Place your hands beneath your elbows and squeeze your elbows in towards the midline of your body. 

2. Root down into the tops of your feet vigorously until the fronts of your thighs engage and knees lift up off the floor. Focus on spinning the inner thighs to the ceiling, and as you do, firm your outer ankles in to keep your big toes parallel and pointing straight back. 

3. From here press the hands and feet into the floor equally and straighten the elbows. 

4. Stack your shoulders directly over the wrists.

5. Lift your thighs and knees off the floor as you allow for the hips to hammock forward and down. Actively lift your legs toward the ceiling so you’re your hips don’t collapse toward the floor.

6. Push your shoulder blades toward your collarbones so you are pulling your chest forward and up through your upper arms.

7. Roll the heads of your upper arms away from the front of the room as you continuously push the floor away with both the hands and the feet. 

If your Low Cobra is well aligned, Upward Facing Dog pose is built to be a direct relation to Low Cobra pose. All you need to do from Low Cobra pose is straighten the arms and lift the thighs while the hips hammock forward and down.  

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

1. Start laying on your belly, big toes pointing straight back.  Place your hands beneath your shoulders and squeeze your elbows in towards the midline of your body. 

2. Root down the tops of the feet and start to push the hands into the floor peeling the front of the torso away from the floor. 

3. Keep the elbows into the midline and roll the heads of the upper arms back and down away from the ears.  Hips and thighs maintain on the floor.

Cobra pose tends to be a stand alone backbend as opposed to one you "flow" through like Low Cobra pose or Up Dog pose. Mainly because it requires a different hand/shoulder alignment than the other backbends so it doesn't really lend itself to following Chaturanga.  

Choose Your Backbend and Practice Yoga with Specificity

In summary, listen to your body and choose which backbend is appropriate for you in any given practice. It is understandable, even expected, that not every student in the class will practice Upward Facing Dog Pose every time it’s offered. There might even be some students who will never in their lifetime practice Upward Facing Dog Pose, despite its tenure within the Vinyasa catalogue.  And that is perfectly fine.

The ability to make this choice, to me, is a sign of a sophisticated yoga practitioner. It is not about what backbend you choose to practice in your Vinyasa, but instead practicing with specificity and focus, whatever one you do choose.

 

Study with Kate Heffernan and YogaUOnline on our Premium Practice Channel.

Study with YogaUOnline and Natasha Rizopoulos: Bending Backward, Bending Forward - Essentials of Sequencing.

Reprinted with permission from kate-yoga.com

Kate HeffernanKate Heffernan is a Boston-based Vinyasa Flow Yoga Instructor.  As a teacher, Kate is known for her ability to weave together an intelligent and well-crafted sequence that builds on a specific theme.  In her Vinyasa Flow classes, students can expect to find the joy of vigorous movement married to the consciousness of precise instructions focusing on proper alignment.  Kate creates a space for her students to experience their own yoga practice on any given day, whether that practice includes a more vigorous Vinyasa sequence or a cooling Yin and Restorative sequence with an extended Savasana.  Kate is a lead instructor at Down Under Yoga, where she instructs public classes as well as teacher trainings.

Kate was named one of Boston’s Top 20 Yoga Instructors in 2012 by RateYourBurn.com   

 
 

Editor's Picks