Cobra vs. Upward Dog: What’s the Difference?

These postures are constant in the classroom, yet how and why we practice them can vary dramatically. Some teachers only teach one pose or the other, while other teachers give students the option to do whichever pose they choose.

Bhujangasana (Cobra) and Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana (Upward Facing Dog) have similar effects, but they feel very different. Both are recommended to cure a stiff back and to strengthen the spine. Both open the chest, make the lungs more elastic and breathing easier. Both can remedy marginally slipped discs. So how are they different?

Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana

In Up Dog the only points of your body on the ground are your hands and the tops of your feet. Everything else you hold up with your own effort.

The pose is done with straight arms which requires the kind of strength you need in arm balances, like handstand. Though it feels strenuous to some, it keeps you from cheating; as soon as you sag or relax in Upward Dog, you’re likely to feel pain in your back or your shoulders.

Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana at Pine Creek Canyon (on a slanted slab of granite!)

Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana at Pine Creek Canyon

Because your arms bear so much weight in Up Dog, it’s especially important to keep your shoulders in healthy alignment. It’s very common (and risky!) for the shoulders to round forward in this pose. Not only does this put them in a weakened position, it makes your upper back less active and your low back bear the brunt of the work.


The major, identifying alignment in Cobra pose is that your legs remain on the floor, no matter how far into the back bend you curl. The full pose is classically done with straight arms, which is a way more intense and deeper backbend than Upward Facing Dog.


BKS Iyengar in full Bhujangasana (from his book Light On Yoga)

Most often, however, you see Bhujangasana done with bent arms. While it’s a more remedial version of the pose, this option makes it accessible to nearly everyone.

For practitioners who don’t yet have the physical strength or stamina to hold their entire body off the floor, as in Up Dog, Cobra is a great alternative. In this version, one can still learn how to work the arms, the muscles of the upper back, engage and align the legs and stretch the chest open.

Bhujangasana at Olmstead Point, Yosemite National Park

Bhujangasana at Olmstead Point, Yosemite National Park

In Cobra, however, it’s much easier to cheat than it is in Upward Dog. Because the floor is holding the weight of your legs for you, you can let them go slack. This is less safe for your low back and is a less vibrant stretch.