Lessons from the Mat: How to Do an Upward Facing DogArticle posted in: Fitness
By Eliza Darling
The power of yoga to transform our lives through the way we move, breathe and think, lies within each of us before even the first time we’ve ever practiced it. It is the quiet voice that stays silent until we allow ourselves to hear what it has to say. And when it speaks, we listen. We attune ourselves to the lessons learned from asana (physical pose), pranyama (breathing), and meditation. Yoga is the humble professor who teaches its students by allowing them to explore, research and experience the curriculum that it has laid forth. There are no rules or laws to abide by or to break, but simply a tree with many branches to explore. The practitioner determines what she perceives as she makes the climb, and harnesses the tools it teaches her to guide the choices she makes along the way. A yoga practitioner will soon learn that those choices and perceptions shape the world she lives in, and that to live a positive life one must take positive actions.
I was first drawn to yoga for the physical benefits; I could leave a 60 minute class feeling stronger and more flexible that I had from any other form of exercise. I thought that if I practiced asana daily, I would have a disciplined practice. I was mistaken: It takes much more than the physical poses to learn and practice discipline. Those first several classes taught my body to quickly learn the shapes it should take, and it did so with ease. But the more comfortable my body became with the sequences, the more I began to notice the challenge of a controlled breathing practice. I became aware of the way my body would respond when my breath became short or choppy, how it wouldn’t allow me to go deeper into a pose or how it would feel tense when my breath was held. Alternately, when I would control my breath with expansive inhales and exhales, a wave of calm would wash over my body and my mind. I became acutely aware not only of how the breath could control the body but also how it could control the turbulent seas of my thoughts. When I would shorten or hold my breath in a challenging pose, my physical self became tense or unstable and my mind would tell stories of anger, frustration and/or doubt. Learning to use my breath to control not only my physical body but also my mind is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from yoga, and one that I apply to my life throughout each and every day.
If I observe my breath during times of impatience, pain or anger, I’ll most likely find that I am not breathing deeply. Conversely, when I use my lungs to their full capacity to breathe, I have the ability to make sense of, and control, my emotions rather than allow them to make decisions for me. Try it! Next time you’re stuck in traffic, anxiously awaiting an interview, just had a disagreement with your partner, or are home alone with a tantrum-throwing toddler, close your eyes and take five long, deep breaths in and out of your nose. Feel the air travel to the very bottom of your lungs when you breathe in, expanding the belly, ribs and chest. When you breathe out, do so slowly and completely. Feel the chest fall, ribs draw in, and belly contract. At worst, you’ll have given yourself the time and space to make a proactive-rather than reactive-decision or action. At best you’ll find mental clarity and a rewarding sense of calm. Yoga isn’t just about putting your body into a pretzel shape, or creating chiseled abs (those are just bonuses!). It isn’t about gaining a sense of accomplishment by spending 60 sweaty minutes on the mat, or feeling like a failure or a fraud if you don’t. It’s not a guarantee that if you practice yoga you’ll look slimmer, eat more nutritious meals, have more passionate sex, or land your dream job. Yoga is the off-the-beaten path bridge between the mental and physical bodies, that when explored, provides the system to experience a more conscious and mindful life.
YOGA POSE OF THE WEEK: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)
It is not often that I will teach Chaturanga Dandanasa (last week’s pose) without following it up with Upward Facing Dog (or Cobra, for a modified variation). It is a really accessible back-bend that when executed correctly beautifully opens the chest, shoulders and upper back.
- Improves posture
- Strengthens the spine, arms and wrists
- Stretches chest and lungs, shoulders and abdomen
- Firms the buttocks
- Stimulates abdominal organs
- Helps relieve mild depression, fatigue and sciatica
- Therapeutic for asthma
HOW TO DO IT:
- Lie face-down on the mat. Lengthen the legs back, press the tops of the feet onto the floor. Bend the elbows and spread the fingers on the mat next to your waist, so the forearms are perpendicular to the floor.
- Inhale and press into the hands and straighten arms, simultaneously lift the torso up and the legs a few inches from the mat. Roll the shoulders back and down, pull the heart through the gateway of the arms. Press the tailbone towards the pubis and the pubis towards the navel.
- Turn the gaze straight ahead or slightly lift the chin to gaze up. Avoid compressing the back of the neck and hardening the throat.
- Hold for a few breaths (5-8) and then finish in Child’s Pose, with the hips to the heels, forehead to the mat, and arms stretched forward.
TIPS & MODIFICATIONS:
- If this pose is too intense and there is an uncomfortable pressure in the lower back and shoulders, modify by keeping the elbows bent and the pelvis and the thighs on the mat (Bhujangasana/Cobra pose).
- Actively draw the shoulders away from the ears, pull the shoulder blades towards the tailbone, and move the side ribs forward.
- Use a block under each hand as a modification tool and to help learn the above action.
- Use a rolled blanket or towel under the tops of the thighs, lightly resting them on it as you press the tailbone closer to the roll.
Hawaii resident, mama and yoga instructor Eliza Darling has been practicing yoga for nearly a decade. After graduating from high school in the remote community of Hana on the eastern coast of Maui, she lived briefly in Europe, before moving to Honolulu to finish her undergraduate studies. It was there that she attended her first yoga class, and from that point on began to involve yogic techniques such as pranyama breathing and asana, into her physically active life. Shortly after earning a Bachelor’s of Arts from the Hawaii Pacific University, she and her husband moved to California, where she began to incorporate the physical and spiritual intricacies of yoga into her life through a disciplined practice. She furthered her dedication and passion for yoga by earning a 200 hour yoga teaching certificate through Corepower Yoga in San Diego, Calif.
Eliza and her husband moved back to Hana in early 2013, where she now teaches yoga full time in the small community of her childhood home. Her dynamic classes are a mix of Hatha and Power Vinyasa flow, integrating a deep focus on the breath, vigorous and creative sequencing, strong core work, precise attention to alignment, and set to the sounds of energizing playlists. Her classes are designed to inspire students to build and honor their physical strength and to arrive at a point of mental clarity by challenging their bodies and slowing and lengthening their breath. She encourages her students to create the vital bond between the body, mind, and breath. She also strives to create a bond in the community through the love and passion she and her students share for yoga.
Follow Eliza on Instagram @yogalovingypsy.