The Difference Between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog
When I was out in Idaho leading my older brother, his wife and my husband in a yoga class, my older brother was dropping his knees to the floor in Upward Facing Dog pose during Surya Namaskar A (sun salutation A). I corrected him and showed him how to roll over his toes while keeping his torso and knees from touching the floor. The transition from Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog requires a lot of core and upper body strength. If someone needs to drop their knees to the floor in between these two poses while they are developing the strength to perform the Upward Facing Dog properly, it’s completely fine. I just want to clarify that when the knees drop to the floor and you lift your chest in to back bend, you are performing Cobra pose not Upward Facing Dog.
Cobra is a good modification for someone who might be suffering from lower back pain and needs to make sure they aren’t putting pressure on the lower spine. Cobra is also great for those who haven’t developed the upper body strength and core control to move in to Upward Facing Dog from Chaturanga. Anyone in this situation can also lower completely to the floor instead of doing Chaturanga then move in to Cobra. Just make sure to only lift your chest as high as your flexibility allows you to. Feel a lengthening out of your lower back by engaging your lower abdominals and imagining your feet moving away from your torso as your hands traction you forward.
In Upward Facing Dog, the entire body is lifted off of the floor and the arms, legs and core are doing a majority of the work to hold the pose. You want to press firmly in to the tops of your feet and engage your thigh muscles. Also, draw your shoulder blades towards each other and down away from your ears. Keep a micro bend in the elbows and engage your triceps. In Cobra, the torso and thighs remain on the floor and the arms and back muscles do more of the lifting. You could say Upward Dog is a passive backbend (the limbs, not the back are making the effort) and Cobra is an active back bend (the back muscles are used to lift the chest).
I love teaching my older brother, Kraig, since he is not afraid to ask questions and he really wants to make sure he is doing everything right. I told him there are so many modifications to poses and recommended he keep his knees slightly bent in forward bends since his hamstrings are super tight. I also had him bend his knees and hike his hips up and back in Downward Facing Dog to take the pressure out of his wrists and shoulders and allow his lower back, hamstrings and calves to slowly open up. There is a basic outline for all poses; but also remember there is no right or wrong, just what’s right or safe and comfortable for your body in each pose.
Experiment with both Upward Facing Dog and Cobra and feel the different muscles working in your body in each posture. Listen to your breath and always make sure you aren’t feeling any pain in any pose. It’s important to find alignment and treat your body with TLC when practicing yoga, as you develop each day and get stronger, longer and more confident. If you ever have a question on the difference between certain postures, please send me an email. I’m always here to help out when and where I can. Also, don’t be afraid, like Kraig, to speak up if you’re confused about anything in your practice. Arrive early to class or stay after and have your teacher go through things with you.
Kristin McGee is a celebrity yoga and Pilates instructor in New York City. She is currently teaching yoga with Peloton. She is the star of over 100 videos, seen in several magazines and tv shows and is a spokeswoman for many brands and causes she believes in. A proud mom to three, she sure keeps herself busy!