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A woman performs the upward-facing-dog yoga move.

Upward-facing dog, also known by the Sanskrit urdhva mukha svanasana, is a common pose in modern yoga asana practices. It also pops up as a stretch in many group fitness and personal-training sessions.

This active posture is a profound chest opener and incidental backbend: As you press the palms of your hands and tops of your feet into the floor, your chest lifts toward the ceiling and your thighs hover in the air.

The pose deeply stretches the front of the body, including the pectoral and abdominal muscles; the biceps, forearms, and wrists; and the hips and ankles. It also improves mobility through the shoulders and thoracic spine, which are often compromised by the forward-slumped position many of us assume when sitting behind a desk or a steering wheel.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to make missteps with this move. Common issues include disengaging the shoulders and glutes; pressing only through the hands and not the feet; and bending from the lower back instead of reaching high with the chest. This can cause discomfort in the wrists, neck, and lower back and negate the many benefits of this move.

Follow these steps for safely practicing and improving your upward-facing dog.

1) Lie face-down on the floor, legs extended, elbows bent, and palms on the floor behind your shoulders so your forearms are nearly perpendicular to the floor.

2) Inhale as you press your palms and the tops of your feet into the floor. Extend your arms to raise your torso, hips, and the front of your legs off the floor. Don’t scrunch your shoulders up.

3) Lift your sternum and keep a proud chest; avoid pushing your ribs forward to increase the backbend. Tip your head back slightly only if it is comfortable.

4) Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, breathing calmly throughout. Keep the muscles in your upper and lower body engaged. Exhale as you lower yourself to the starting position.

Two Beginner-Friendly Chest Opener Variations

Sphinx Pose

  • Lie face-down, on your belly, with legs close together and tops of feet firmly on the ground.
  • Position your elbows directly under your shoulders, forearms parallel and palms on the floor.
  • Keeping your hands and forearms on the floor, lift your head and torso off the floor for a gentle backbend.
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, breathing calmly throughout.
Sphinx poseIllustration by Colin Hayes

Cobra Pose

  • Lie face-down, on your belly, with legs close together and tops of feet firmly on the ground.
  • Position your hands under your shoulders, elbows tucked close to the body.
  • Unfold the arms to lift your chest off the floor, till elbows are only slightly bent. Keep bellybutton touching the floor.
  • Draw your shoulder blades down and back and breathe deeply as if trying to fill your lungs to the sides and back of the body.
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, breathing calmly throughout.
Cobra poseIllustration by Colin Hayes

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