Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Yoga Up Dog Pose For Mobility (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, What?!)

I've been meaning to write this for a while. A few months ago Mike Reinold posted on his blog that the Yoga cobra pose may be the best postural stretch. The reasoning was quite sound, using the joint by joint approach this stretch opens up many of the tight areas in the body.

Standard Desk Jockey Position

However, what I wanted to know was how to do this pose correctly, and the best person to ask is a Yoga teacher, so I asked a friend of mine, Janet Kelly, to talk me through it and demonstrate various progressions (see the video below of Janet demonstrating it). The first thing to note is she called it the up dog pose and not the cobra. I'm sure that many Yoga people argue the subtle differences between the cobra and the up dog and where the arm positions differ. All in all I'm looking for the mobility exercise that can be modified, used by the most people and benefit the most people. This is the strength of Janet's progressions and explanations of where you should be feeling this pose and how to do it, and this is why I think these up dog progressions are going to better for most people.

Why You Should Do It

This pose is going to lengthen your anterior chain. In the desk jockey picture above you can see the head is forward, the shoulders rounded, the chest collapsed inwards (Janda Upper Cross Syndrome) the hips flexed and the knees flexed. The up dog pose is really the opposite of this posture.

Who Should Do It

The up dog pose is similar to the McKenzie extension position, one of a series of extension exercises popularised by New Zealand Physiotherapist Robin McKenzie. This extended position is proven to provide back pain relief for some people with discogenic back problems, helping to 'suck' the disc back in. However, like everything, this is an individual thing.See the quote below from Stuart McGill (online article 'Selecting Back Exercises' available at his website)

"The location of the annulus breaches can be predicted by the direction of the bend. Specifically, a left posterior-lateral disc bulge will result if the spine is flexed with some additional right lateral bend (Aultman et al, 2004). Subsequent twisting leads circumferential rents in the annulus that tends to make McKenzie extension approaches for these clients useless, or even exacerbating."

Also, I imagine any type of facet joint problem could be made worse by this position. In short, use your judgement, if it hurts, stop, figure out why and do something else.

If you don't have any of these problems, this is a fantastic mobility exercise that you should make it part of your training routine, especially if you are a desk jockey or do a typical bench press routine or spend a lot of time cycling or driving. This is a great reverse posturing exercise.

As usual the people who should be doing it are the ones who are not doing it. All the guys in the gym spending all their time bench pressing should be in the studio doing some yoga and mobility work, and all the women in the yoga studio working on their flexibility should be in the gym lifting weights. This is the nature of things, resist the urge to only gravitate towards things you are good at, sometimes do the opposite of what you normally do.

How to do it

In Yoga the up dog pose is done as the opposing move to the down dog and is part of the sun salutation (don't ask me, I'm not a Yoga teacher!). In this example we are doing it as a stand alone move. In the video and explanation it is broken down into 5 levels, this is for ease of explanation and progression, these aren't 'official' levels.

Level 1
  • Forearms down, elbowed directly beneath shoulders
  • Rolling shoulders back and down
  • Think of sliding chest forward and up
  • Chin tucked & head neutral
  • Relax lower back
  • Big toes in, all 10 toenails resting on the floor
  • Relax glutes
Level 2
  • Slide elbows behind shoulders
  • Opening middle back but not 'impinging' shoulders
  • Imagine back and chest equally open and wide
  • Don't retract shoulder blades, think of length
Level 3
  • As previous levels but now more pressure through the forearms
  • Think of pushing floor away rather than lifting the body up
Level 4
  • Hands beneath shoulders, softness in the elbows
  • Make sure there is space between your ears and shoulders
  • Eyes looking forward
  • Hips are now off the floor
Level 5
  • Knees off the floor
  • Now only the top of your feet and hands are in contact with the ground
  • The body is not being driven downards, think relaxing again rather trying to force yourself down
  • Stay open and still think of the chest going forward and up
 A note on breathing: Breathe in as you go into the pose, then exhale as you settle into position and soften

How long for

As we are using this as a stand alone mobility exercise, as long as you need to, 15-30 secs would be a good starting point to aim for

Where should you feel it

You should feel this opening out your hips and in the thoracic area. When I first tried this I felt it in my lower back, until Janet coached me to relax my lower back, and relax my glutes and then I could really feel it in the thoracic area. Remember, you are not trying to push your hips into the ground.

If it's painful stop and try something else, there are plenty of other exercises you can try to open out the hips and shoulders, this one just happens to accomplish a lot of things in one go. Using the joint by joint approach the only joint I think that needs to go the other way for most people and especially runners is the ankle. In this pose the ankle is in plantar flexion, I think for a lot of people working on dorsiflexion and calf tightness is the way to go. Of course, that's why in Yoga, they do the down dog pose as well. Who would have thought they knew a thing or two about keeping the body in balance a few thousand years ago.

Thanks to Janet Kelly. Also bear in mind that Janet is your typical flexible yoga teacher, her spine looks like that without her forcing it, don't expect yours to necessarily look the same, mine definitely doesn't!


  1. Steve,

    I just came across your blog today after doing a search on whether pilates is good or bad for the lower back. I've been hunting around on the web about lower back health and I'm blown away by all the info you have on your blog! Great work!

    I am a believer in Dr. McGill's ideas about minimizing the number of flexions of the lower back, and I know that you are very familiar with his work and also agree with it. I'm curious as to how you reconcile the above stretch as beneficial with the idea of minimizing flexion.

    I am not being critical at all. I am trying to clear up a great deal of confusion on my part as to whether I should be doing back flexibility exercises or avoiding them. Based upon some of your other blog entries, you indicate knee to chest is a sin, and twisting poses should be avoided. You also indicate that even flexion when not under load is a bad idea.

    Anyway, if this is the wrong venue to ask then no problem. Keep up the good work. I will be coming back often as this site is probably one of the best resources I've found.

    Confused in San Diego,


    1. Matt

      Thanks for reading.

      The yoga pose above is similar to some physiotherapy exercises called McKenzie exercises that put the spine in extension, the opposite of the flexion position most of us are in all day. The benefit of this type of position as always depends on the individual and the type of back pain they have.

      Some people find relief in these positions, normally if the pain is discogenic only, and they spend alot of time in flexion and they need to 'reverse posture' their normal rounded position. Other people find these extension positions either don't help or may make the pain worse, normally if they have some other things going on their spine that are not discogenic like in the facet joints.

      These extensions positions might be too much for some people, especially if they are quite mobile in the lumbar spine already. They might benefit from just laying on their front, or reaching up & leaning back after prolonged sitting to help bring the discs back into equilibrium.

      As always, if a position causes pain, there is reason, the person should stop doing it & then try to figure why and what the best course of action is for their back pain.

      Hope this helps