Urdhva Mukha Svanasana UMS –upward (urdvha) facing (mukha) dog (svana) posture (asana) is woven all the way through the whole practice of each of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga sequences. It is a complex posture and requires a level of skill and good understanding to master it properly.

Function

Similar to Adho Mukha Svanasana AMS – downward facing dogpose – it serves as a counter pose. In this case UMS counters the many forward bends we practice, particularly in the primary series. Together with AMS it resets and neutralizes the spine so we are ready and prepared for whichever asana comes next.

In the Primary Series it is the main backbend, and apart from the wheel – Urdhva Dhanurasana -almost the only one we practice.

Lack of Backbends in Primary Series?

Some are of the opinion that backbends are ‘neglected’ in the primary series. Over the years I personally have come to the understanding that focusing on forward bending when starting out with Yoga is purposeful. It is most helpful for the majority of us to learn firstly to calm down in general, and secondly to acquire the ability to stay calm in any challenging situation. Forward bends, by their nature, provide us with deep relaxation, encouraging retrospection, and reflection. We stretch all of the back of the body, along which the bladder meridian runs. According to different Eastern medicine systems, the bladder meridian, if in balance, provides us with a calm, grounded, and relaxed disposition. It is only once we have mastered staying relaxed in most situations, that we should embark upon the practice of more intense backbends, which are ‘opening us up’, and stimulating us; a stimulation we need to be able to calm and control.

Proper Execution

To skillfully practice UMS, it is essential to come into the posture prepared. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga we traditionally enter from Chaturanga Dandasana, the push-up position. Be aware that we only ever have the length of one in-breath to experience and fine-tune this asana. Therefore setting yourself up firstly in Chaturanga Dandasana will make a great difference to the way UMS will feel. It is here that both bandhas – muscle seals – need to be applied fully, and that the posture feels strong; it is only then, when moving into UMS we have a chance to sustain the bandhas, which is essential for ‘bending in the right place’ and feeling supported in the posture.

The more it is possible in Chaturanga to align the elbows directly above the wrists, the more accurate the distance between hands and feet will be in UMS. At this stage the toes are tucked under.

When inhaling and coming into the pose, you need to ‘roll over the toes’ or ‘lift over the toes’ and drag the upper body forward, ‘upward’, and through the arms. This will provide you with the opportunity to open the chest and get maximum backbend in the thoracic spine, rather than hingeing only from the lower back, which is one of two vulnerable, very mobile, and most often over-used sections of the spine. Ideally the backbend in UMS needs to be distributed throughout the whole of the spine.

Detailed Alignment

As we only spend the length of one inhalation in each UMS, it might be worth focusing on only one of the following alignment hints per practice. This will help you to over time, gain a more complete and deeper understanding of the posture.

Hands and Shoulders

Place the hands shoulder-width apart with the index fingers pointing straight ahead, and the weight evenly distributed on the inside and outside of the wrist. Become aware of the diaphragm of your hand, the palm being hollow. Ground through the triangle formed at the base of the hand, the base of the thumb, and the base of the index finger. At the same time internally rotate the upper arms, whilst drawing the shoulder blades down the back and tucking them onto the ribcage. Become aware of yet another diaphragm in your body, the armpits, which feel hollow. The shoulders are placed above the wrists, not behind, and a suitable distance between hands and feet will provide you with the desired opening of the upper chest. Keep lifting out of the shoulder joints.

Back and Buttocks

Although the back muscles are contracting in this posture, encourage a sense of softness and ‘letting go’, especially in your lower back. It is important to only partly engage the buttock muscles, as a ‘rock hard’ butt may compromise/compress your lower back.

Legs and Feet

To stretch a rope you need to pull on both ends. Equally the legs need to be activated by lifting the kneecaps and squeezing the thighs toward each other slightly. Plant the whole top of the foot on the ground pressing down through both the big toe and little toe side of the foot. Push the back of the thighs upward with the heels not splaying outwards, but pointing upward. Strong legs enable a deeper and more supported bend, as you pull the rest of the body upward and away from the legs. Applied strength in the legs also takes the strain out of the lower back, making the pose much more enjoyable.

Neck and Head

It is said that there is a connection between the optic nerve and the neck. When coming into UMS, looking at the nose will give you a better feeling for how to move the neck most optimally when taking the head back. Aim for spaciousness in the back of the neck, tilting/pivoting from the nape of the neck.

Benefits

No doubt the proper practice of UMS requires commitment, diligence, and a willingness to patiently build up a decent amount of internal strength and flexibility. But you are equally, if not more rewarded with a multitude of wonderful benefits.

Starting with the wrists, arms, and shoulders becoming strong, it teaches the skillful use of the shoulders and arms, making them also flexible. Over time the chest opens beautifully allowing for a deep, satisfying breath. The heart opens, allowing for compassion, love and empathy to evolve. On a purely physical level the back gains a lot of strength and flexibility alongside the potential to heal serious conditions like sciatica, lumbago, bulged discs etc For the latter, a skillfull practice of the posture is essential.

All extensor muscles – the back-bending and external rotator muscles – become strengthened, and the front of the body stretched and opened. The throat is stretched and the nasal passages and esophagus cleared. There is the potential to strengthen the legs as well.

The Breath – key to mastering the posture

Not everyone is a natural lover and master of UMS. Practitioners with backs that aren’t too flexible, won’t be able to initially indulge in a full deep in-breath, when moving through this posture, because there literally won’t be much breath available. But trust in the process and the power of the breath! Repetitious practice of breathing into the ‘four corners’ of the ribcage when coming into the posture will slow the movement down, bringing awareness where needed in the chest, eventually opening the front and sides of your body. Then attaining the desired deep and satisfying in-breath will become possible. It is all down to committed and mindful practice. Enjoy!

OM Shanti,
Angelika