How to Do Upward Dog in Yoga to Relieve Tight, Tense Shoulders

Upward dog improves posture, stretches your upper-body muscles and strengthens your back muscles.
Image Credit: AnVr/E+/GettyImages

One of the most common poses you're sure to see in a yoga class is upward-facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana). That's because it's a foundational part of Vinyasa yoga, a style of yoga that involves stringing together poses and syncing that movement with your breath.


Upward dog provides a full extension of your entire spine. It also stretches the front of your body, including your shoulders and chest. And, because it's practiced so commonly in Vinyasa yoga classes, it's important to get it right to avoid injury.


Read on to learn more about upward dog and how to get the benefits of this yoga pose that requires full-body activation and coordination.

  • What is upward dog?‌ In addition to being a type of backbend that comes between chaturanga and downward facing dog in a sun salutation, it's also an arm-support pose. In upward dog, you use your arms to press not only your chest, but the rest of your body as well, away from the ground — your hands and feet should be your only body parts touching the floor.
  • Who can do upward dog?‌ In general, anyone with a healthy back can do this pose. "Upward dog is good for your back if you can do it without pain," says Storme Sundberg, a Phoenix-based certified yoga teacher with more than 20 years of experience. It might be uncomfortable to start, she says, but you should never feel any sharp, sudden pains. That's an indication to back off and work a modification, like cobra pose (Bhujangasana) instead.
  • What muscles does upward dog work?‌ This pose stretches the front of your body, including your hips, rectus abdominis (the top layer of your abdominal muscles), chest and shoulders. It requires activation in your shoulders, arms, psoas (a muscle that stretches from your lumbar spine to your hip and upper thigh area), hamstrings and transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscle). The transverse abdominal activation is critical for supporting and protecting your lumbar spine.
  • Is upward dog good for your back?‌ Upward dog strengthens your back muscles and lengthens your spine. However, most yoga injuries occur in the spine and are a result of extreme flexion (bending forward) or extension (bending backward) of the spine, according to a February 2019 editorial in ‌Mayo Clinic Proceedings‌. So it's important to take this pose slowly and be mindful of how you're moving. If you have a history of back pain, this pose may aggravate your backside, so you may want to skip it.
  • Upward dog versus cobra pose: What's the difference?‌ In cobra pose, your torso remains on the floor, and your deep intrinsic back muscles do the work of lifting your chest away from the floor. With upward dog, you use your hands and feet to lift and suspend your body off of the floor. "Cobra creates more of an arch in the upper back, while upward dog actively extends the entire spine," Sundberg says.
  • How long should you hold upward dog?‌ Because upward dog is most often practiced as a transition posture in a Vinyasa practice, people usually only hold it for a single inhale before moving on with an exhale to downward dog. However, holding upward for a few rounds of breath might help facilitate greater extension through your mid-back (thoracic spine) on your inhales, while your exhales facilitate greater stability in your lumbar spine.



How to Do Upward Dog With Proper Form

Activity Yoga
  1. Lie face-down with your legs extended behind you, feet hip-width apart (or slightly wider if your back is sensitive).
  2. Bring your hands back so that your thumbs are in line with your rib cage.
  3. Engage your abdomen (think: low belly in and up) and press into the tops of your feet into your mat to engage your legs.
  4. Keep your legs engaged as you inhale and press into your hands to lift your chest. Allow your hips and legs to follow.
  5. Make sure to keep your shoulders down and away from your ears as you continue to lift your chest up as far as you can comfortably go.
  6. Lift and lengthen through the back of your neck and allow your gaze to follow naturally (without crunching the back of your neck).
  7. Hold for 1 round of breath in and out.
  8. To release, lower your knees, thighs, belly and chest — in that order — down to the floor.

Upward Dog Benefits

If you spend a lot of time sitting at your desk looking at a computer or on the couch scrolling on your phone, there's a good chance your shoulders are hunched forward and your neck is tilted down most of the day.

Adding upward dog to your yoga practice can help open up your neck, shoulders and chest, which helps improve your overall posture. Plus, it feels good to stretch your upper body like this to relieve tightness and tension in your muscles.


This yoga pose also activates the muscles in your back. The more you work these muscles, the less chance you have at experiencing back pain.

Common Upward Dog Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

1. Your Shoulders Collapse

This common misalignment is usually an indication that your shoulder muscles aren't actively engaged. Collapsing your shoulders inward can also cause strain in your neck and shoulders.


Fix It

Press through your hands and actively encourage your shoulders away from your ears. It might also help to think about broadening through your chest and sliding your shoulder blades down your back.

2. Your Hips Sag

This is usually an indicator of a disengaged core. However, your core is an important part of supporting your spine through the upward dog extension. Failing to engage your core could result in compression and injury to your lumbar spine, like lower back pain.

Fix It

Engage your abdominal muscles by lifting your lower belly in and up, while pressing firmly into your feet so your hips and legs are suspended off the ground.

3. You Lift From Your Chin

In backbends, people tend to want to toss their head back and lift their chin. This action might feel like additional extension, but it compresses the back of your neck and inhibits the last bit of spinal extension.


Fix It

Think about your neck as part of the rest of your spine and lift from your back instead of lifting your chin. Try to create more movement and extension through your thoracic (middle to upper) spine. As your heart and chest lift, your gaze might follow.

4. Your Legs Rest on the Mat

Resting your legs on the mat turns upward dog into cobra pose. If your legs are somewhere in between where they should be in either of those two poses, you may increase your risk of injury due to poor alignment.

Fix It

If you’re having trouble lifting your legs away from the floor in upward dog, practice engaging through the tops of your feet to lift your knees away from the floor.

Upward Dog Modifications

1. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

Activity Yoga
  1. Lie face-down with your legs extended behind you, feet hip-width apart (or slightly wider if your back is sensitive).
  2. Bring your hands back so that your thumbs are in line with your rib cage.
  3. Hug your elbows close to the sides of your body and press the tops of your feet down; your knees might lift away from the ground.
  4. Exhale to engage your abdominal muscles (think: low belly in and up) and lift your chest. Anchor your hips, pubic bone and the tops of your feet into the ground to support the lift.
  5. Press into your hands gently and engage them toward your body to help encourage your chest forward and your shoulders back.
  6. Lift and lengthen through the back of your neck and keep your gaze down and out. Keep your neck neutral.
  7. Hold here for 1 to 2 breaths.

2. Sphinx Pose (Salamba Bhujangasana)

Activity Yoga
  1. Lie face-down with your legs extended behind you about hip-width apart (or slightly wider if your back is sensitive).
  2. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and place your palms on the floor directly under your shoulders.
  3. Keep your hands and forearms flat on the ground and rest your forehead on the ground.
  4. Press your forearms into the ground and slide your hands back to lift your head and open your chest.
  5. Align your elbows with your shoulders and spread your fingers wide.
  6. Inhale and exhale slowly as you pull your chest forward.
  7. Hold here for 1 to 2 breaths.

3. Upward Dog Using a Chair

Activity Yoga
  1. Start facing your chair, standing in mountain pose (Tadasana) with your arms by your sides.
  2. Place your hands on the seat at least shoulder-width apart.
  3. Take a step back so that both feet are under your hips about hip-width apart, your arms are fully extended and your chest lowers toward the floor.
  4. Press your hands down into the seat.
  5. Keep your knees a little soft, but press down into your feet while lifting your hips up and back.
  6. Shift your weight forward so your shoulders come over your wrists.
  7. Engage your abdominal muscles (think: low belly in and up) as you sink your hips toward the chair into upward dog.
  8. Keep your arms strong to ensure your chest is lifted; allow your gaze to go up.
  9. You can keep your toes tucked under or come onto the tops of your feet by flipping one and then the other.
  10. Hold here for 1 to 2 breaths.

4. Upward Dog Using a Wall

Activity Yoga
  1. Start facing the wall, standing in mountain pose (Tadasana) with your arms by your sides and your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Place your hands on the wall about shoulder-width apart just below your chest.
  3. Bend your elbows and lean closer to the wall, then press your chest up and away into upward dog.
  4. Allow your gaze to naturally follow the lift of your chest and the extension of your spine.
  5. Hold here for 1 to 2 breaths.




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