When looking up in upward dog might not serve youSep 22, 2022
Upward facing dog was amongst the first yoga postures we practiced when I began taking yoga classes many years ago. With it came the spinal extension, the compressive feeling in the lower back and the instruction to tilt the head back and look up.
Over the years I learned this pose supposedly has benefits for the tissues and glands in the front of the neck. That was great because ai knew there were many people with Thyroid function imbalances.
What I also learned was that many yoga students start seeing stars when tilting their head back. Some teachers even made funny comments that these stars were cool visuals that came at no extra charge. As a naturopath specialising in structural and postural support, this left me more alarmed than entertained. So I began thinking more about the biomechanics of upward facing dog pose and the effects of looking up with a tilted back head.
Here are some ideas that emerged:
- Not everyones updog looks the same. (This should be an obvious statement)
- The degrees of spinal extension (read: backbend) vary dramatically
- The neck is part of the spine and the head is attached at the end. (Also obvious)
- Arm and shoulder position influence tension in the neck
- Compression in the lower back is a sign of lack of support
- Low mobility in one part of the spine can lead to hyper- (over-) mobility in another
AND: - seeing stars when looking up is not a bonus
When the head tilts back to look up and we see stars, or for some the vision greys, this is not a good special effect, this is a sign you are cutting off blood supply from your brain.
Luckily our brain has six main blood vessels (arteries) supplying the ever energy demanding brain with blood and oxygen.
Of those six arteries two are build into the sides of the spine. When we move the neck (remember, the neck is part of the spine) we also move those important arteries.
Ok, if you want to know, these two arteries are the vertebral arteries.
Normal movement, everyday actions and most yoga postures are no threat to these blood vessels.
The situation becomes more interesting when we kink or drop the head back. When this action is done without support or as part of a continuous spinal curve we create a kink in the spine. The arteries lying within the spine have no choice but to kink with the spine. The effect is very much like kinking a garden hose - the flow is either reduced or cut off. The stars or grey vision are nothing else but a malfunction of the visual part of the brain from lack of oxygen.
Let’s take a look at the practice of the postures.
Looking up in Upward Facing Dog (or Cobra) can wonderfully extend the curves of the spine, open up the front of the neck and loosen the deep muscles along the front of the spine.
For this to effectively happen we need to create a curve that actually lengthens the spine. A kink actually leads to overall shortening of the spine.
Depending on your spinal mobility, muscle tone or forward head posture, you might like to modify your approach to get real benefits from this pose rather than just producing a kink in your neck.
Regardless of the current mobility / flexibility of your spine, keeping, or extending the length of the spine, as measured from the tailbone to the crown of the head, requires active support for this movement.
Next time, when practicing upward dog, can you keep your head tall, you lower back long, even when you look up?
You might notice a range of motion where support for looking up is easy. And form a point you can’t hold your head any more and it drops back. Keep you head lifting up slightly, engaging muscles to move it forward, in order to maintain a long spine that doesn’t kink and therefore prevents cutting off your blood supply.
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