Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga... Part 9: Cobra vs Upward Dog
Updated: Feb 24
Here’s part nine of this series Yoga Foundations - Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga!
For yoga beginners and more experienced practitioners alike: these articles are aimed at helping you refine your practice - so you can find a sustainable practice that suits your body!
We’re now exploring some of the backbends common within the vinyasa stye.
The common backbend options of cobra and upward facing dog can be easily confused and misunderstood, so I’ll explain some of the key differences and how you can find a version of them that feels good for you.
These backbends we use in the vinyasa and sun salutation movements are a fantastic way to experience more space in our bodies and release tension, but, we have to be wary too.
It is easy to push a bit too far, and/or execute them with poor alignment and control.
Because these movements happen in a flowing sequence and often fairly rapidly (ie one breath per movement) it’s tricky to learn the details of them, and through my years of teaching, I’ve witnessed many students struggling to integrate the key teachings that enable them to move with integrity.
So, I wanted to share more information here to help you understand these postures better.
Cobra (Bhujangasana) is a wonderful backbend, suited to almost everybody.
One particularly lovely feature is that you can control how far you move into it, by just lifting your chest as much as feels appropriate.
It would be quite easy to take most of the backbend in our lower back, as this is the naturally more mobile part of the spine when moving in that direction. And this is certainly where we can overdo it if we continue to push for more range of movement there.
Instead, what we’re interested in, is focusing on a smooth, fairly even curve throughout the whole length of your spine, which means we have to focus more on creating mobility of the upper back.
We can differentiate cobra into two types: low cobra & high cobra.
More important alignment stuff
It’s often suggested the alignment of the hands should be under the shoulders, but I encourage you to explore more variations.
When we have the hands that close to our body it can make the shoulders feel a bit cramped and restricted. It can also mean it is more likely your elbows will want to wing out to the sides, rather than hugging inwards towards the body.
So instead, play around with various options of having the hands wider than shoulder width and further forward than under the shoulders. Try to find your optimal place that has a feeling of balancing support and spaciousness.
Leg placement for optimal comfort can also be variable for different bodies.
The female pelvis is typically wider than the male pelvis, and the part of the pelvis that is relevant here - is the sacrum bone, which connects the lower back with the hip bones.
The width of our sacrum bone affects how we feel in the lower back when we move into this backbend with the legs at different widths.
For a narrower sacrum bone and pelvis, you’re likely to be comfortable in the lower back with the legs close together, or max hips-width apart. For a wider sacrum you’re likely to be more comfortable in the lower back region with the legs wider than hips width.
I’ve changed my practice in recent times with this in mind, and having my feet as wide as the mat feels much better for me.
Don’t let the shoulders lift up towards the ears, keep drawing them down!
Upward Facing Dog pose
Upward Facing Dog or (Urdvha Mukha Svanasana) requires a certain amount of openness and strength in the shoulders so it’s not as well suited to the majority of the population as cobra.
It also requires bearing a lot of the body weight on the hands, and therefore also the wrist joint, which is also problematic for many people.
Hand positioning is slightly different than in cobra...
Start with your hands beside your ribs, because when you lift your hips off the floor, you’ll end up with your shoulders roughly above your wrists.
Still feel free to explore more width in your hand placement however, within reason of course. Remember that same principle of trying to balance spaciousness and stability.
Comparing the two
I’ve put together the table below as a quick guide to the key differences between these two postures: