The Dog Days of summer are upon us. From July 3rd until August 11th, when the Dog Star, Canis Major, is at its brightest, the Northern Hemisphere is also at its hottest. Ancient Romans believed the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky, heated the earth during the Dog Days. The searing swelter was thought to bake brains, causing people to act a little crazy. In reality, July's heat mostly just makes us dog tired.
Last July This column celebrated the Dog Days with one of yoga's best-known poses, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). This year, I'd like to greet the sun full on, with Down Dog's partner pose, Urdva Mukha Svanasana, Upward Facing Dog.
Because it is a backbend, Up Dog is inherently a heating pose, not really something we need to do in the midst of a string of scorchers. However, we all possess one powerful tool that can cool down any backbend: intention. We can use our intention to temper any pose, making heating poses cooling and cooling poses heating. Approaching Urdva Mukha Svanasana with patience and ease, rather than with aggression and ambition not only keeps us cool and relaxed, but also allows us to take full advantage of the pose's energy-generating power.
Upward Facing Dog can be challenging for the low back. Unless you actively lift your legs up toward the sky in the pose, their weight can drag on your back, causing tension. Even when you activate the legs to the best of your ability, you may still experience discomfort in Up Dog. One of my favorite yoga mentors, Judith Hanson Lasater, modifies the typically Western adage “No pain no gain,” to align with traditional yogic intention by saying instead: "No pain, no pain,” Yoga is never about pushing yourself to the point of injury. If Up Dog is not feeling good, there are alternatives. Remember that although every dog has its day, it doesn't have to be today.
Even though my low back is quite flexible, I always warm up with less challenging packbends such as Sphinx or Cobra. These poses are fine alternatives to Upward Facing Dog, and provide the same benefits—increased energy, clarity of mind, decreased congestion, increased back strength. I also like to practice a few twists and side bends to warm up my middle back before moving into Up Dog.
After you've warmed up, lie face down on a nonskid mat. You may want to place a folded blanket under your hipbones for padding. Relax your front body completely into your mat, feeling your abdomen pressing gently into the floor as you inhale. Relax your breath and soften your body around the breath movement.
Place your hands under your chest, spreading your palms. Make sure your legs are about hips-width apart and that your feet are pointing straight back. Now press our pubic bones into the floor until you feel your chest beginning to lift. Then press the floor with your hands to help your chest lift a bit more, straightening the angle of your elbows to whatever point still allows for low back comfort. Ground and stretch your legs back behind you. Take a few breaths in Cobra.
Now support your lumbar by engaging your soft core—your internal organs—in order to give frontal support to your spine. To do this draw your guts—not just your abdominal muscles, but also the contents of your abdomen—back toward your spine. If your back is comfortable, turn your toes under and lift your hips and legs off the floor, supporting yourself on your palms and toes. Lift the bones of your legs up toward the sky. Your arms should be vertical. Press your palms into the ground. Roll the fronts of your shoulders back, let your heart gently lift and look straight forward. Avoid tilting your head back. If your back still feels comfortable, you can move onto the tops of your feet. Take five to ten breaths, allowing your body to unwind as you breathe. Then move into a Downward Facing Dog pose to lengthen your spine in the opposite direction. Stay here for a few breaths and gently lower your knees to the floor. Then rest in Balasana (Child's Pose, June's pose of the month).
Urdva Mukha Svanasana expands your heart and invigorates your mind. The perfect pick-me-up during the Dog Days. But take care not to deplete your energy through over-effort. Take it slow. Do only what your body is ready for. Patience will reward you with a healthy, relaxed spine and a simultaneously calm and energized mind.