In your yoga practice, you are likely to come across positions that look and even feel similar. One example of this is the many variations of the Warrior pose. Another example is the Cobra pose (Bhujangasana) and the Upward Facing Dog pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).
Cobra and Upward Facing Dog share a lot of similarities, to the point where beginner yogis often find themselves asking, ‘What’s the difference’?
However, while they are similar in some ways, Cobra and Upward Facing Dog bring different benefits to the table, along with subtle differences in positioning and alignment.
In this guide to Cobra vs Upward Facing Dog, we’ll be going over the similarities of these two yoga poses, as well as the differences. We’ll also be sharing the benefits that both of these poses bring to the table, plus how to choose which pose to incorporate into your yoga flow.
What Cobra And Upward Facing Dog Have In Common?
Before we examine the differences between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog, let’s take a moment to consider what these fundamental yoga poses have in common.
Firstly, both Cobra and Upward Facing Dog are backbends. A backbend is a pose in yoga (or gymnastics) where your back is arched backward.
More advanced backbends in yoga involve placing both the hands and feet on the floor while forming a bridge with your body, but Cobra and Upward Facing Dog are more beginner-friendly.
On that note, unlike other backbends that require you to face your back to the floor, Upward Facing Dog and Cobra are prone positions. A prone position in yoga is any position that involves being belly-down.
When you are in Cobra pose or Upward Facing Dog, you will always have your hands on the mat. At the time, you will have the tops of your feet against the mat, with your toes pointed.
While holding Upward Facing Dog or Cobra pose, you should be engaging your glutes, shoulder blades, and the muscles in your legs.
In either pose, your chest will be lifted off the ground (although, as we will see later, the lift will be to a different degree depending on which pose you’re holding).
How Cobra Is Different From Upward Facing Dog?
As you can see, there are plenty of similarities between Upward Facing Dog and Cobra. In fact, there are so many similarities that without seeing the two poses side-by-side, you might be wondering how exactly they differ.
Well, for two such similar poses, there are actually quite a few differences between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog. Let’s take a look at these now.
One of the main factors differentiating Cobra from Upward Facing Dog is the placement of the arms during the pose.
When holding Upward Facing Dog, your hands should be in alignment with your shoulders. This means that your arms should create straight lines between your shoulders and your wrists.
While it’s perfectly fine, and even preferable, to keep a microbend in your elbows and avoid hyperextending the joints, your elbows should be as straight as possible without locking them out completely.
Bear in mind that the positioning of your arms will be different when you begin to move into Upward Facing Dog, compared to the position when you fully execute the pose.
At the start, your palms should be by your sides on the floor, so that your elbows are at 90 degrees. At this point, you can lift up, and you should find that your wrists are directly underneath your shoulders.
Points Of Contact
Another important difference between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog is the points at which your body makes contact with the mat.
In Cobra, much more of your body is in contact with the mat, whereas in Upward Facing Dog, only two parts of your body should be making contact.
As we will discuss in more detail later, Upward Facing Dog involves more of a backbend compared to Cobra. As a result, more of your body will be on the mat during Cobra.
In Upward Facing Dog, only your hands and the tops of your feet should be making contact with the mat. Your hips should be raised off the mat, as should your thighs and knees.
On the other hand, for Cobra pose, your hips should be touching the mat, and your hands and knees will also be making contact. This is because, in Cobra, your arms are not fully straightened, so your body isn’t lifted off the ground as much.
In addition to positioning your arms and hands differently, the placement of your feet should be different in Cobra compared to Upward Facing Dog.
In Cobra, you won’t be putting a lot of weight through your feet and ankles, since your thighs and knees will also be on the mat. Therefore, you can keep your feet together.
On the other hand, for Upward Facing Dog, your feet will be hip-width apart. This will make it easier to support the weight of your legs on the tops of your feet.
Extent Of Backbend
As we mentioned earlier, Cobra pose involves less back bending than Upward Facing Dog. This is due to the extent to which your arms are bent or straightened in both poses. Upward Facing Dog requires straighter arms, so your back will be bent more.
Now, you can decrease the amount you need to bend your back in Upward Facing Dog by using some blocks or another prop under your hands.
This decreases the space between your shoulders and your hands, meaning that your back doesn’t need to bend so much to achieve the pose.
It also means that you’ll have less pressure coming through your shoulders, wrists, and hands, so if you struggle with pain in these areas, using props for Upward Facing Dog is a good idea.
There is also Baby Cobra to consider. This pose is an even smaller backbend than cobra, and your hands don’t touch the mat at all in this one.
Instead, you’ll have your hands in a similar position, but instead of making contact with the floor, they’ll be floating just above it, beneath your shoulders.
In Baby Cobra, you will use your lower back and shoulder muscles to lift your chest away from the mat, rather than relying on support from your hands.
Some people find this easier than Cobra because there is less of a backbend, while others might struggle if their back muscles are not very strong.
It’s also worth noting that the arch of the back should look different in Cobra compared to Upward Facing Dog. In Cobra, the spine should be coiled to achieve the arch.
However, in Upward Facing Dog, your spine should be more or less straight, with most of the arch coming from the chest.
While there are many physical differences between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog to focus on, it’s important not to lose sight of the philosophical differences between the two poses.
After all, yoga is much more than a form of exercise. It is a philosophy of life and a tool for mental, spiritual, and emotional healing.
Cobra pose, of course, represents the cobra. The cobra in the pose is posturing up, signifying alertness and awareness. Cobra pose also represents the act of overcoming fear.
Many people are afraid of snakes, but entering Cobra pose encourages the yogi to view the snake and this fear through a new lens.
Cobra is also associated with Kundalini energy. The mythology of yoga speaks of a serpent coiled at the base of the human spine. Kundalini energy rising upward through the spine is thought to coil around the chakras until it reaches the Crown chakra.
At this point, a state of enlightenment is attained.
Upward Facing Dog Mythology
The Upward Facing Dog yoga pose is derived from a story found in the Mahabharata. In this story, a dog joins five brothers on their journey to the mountain of Heaven. As the brothers fall away one by one, the dog remains, until only the eldest brother and the dog remain.
When Lord Indra informs the eldest brother that the dog cannot enter Heaven, the eldest brother refuses to abandon him. At this point, the dog is revealed to be an incarnation of Dharma, testing the brother on his loyalty and moral principles.
Upward Facing Dog, therefore, represents consistency, devotion, and loyalty. It also represents patience and persistence. These are all things yogis need in order to continue to evolve on their yoga journey.
The Benefits Of Cobra Yoga Pose
The Cobra yoga pose has many benefits for the body, since it activates muscle groups that are often problem areas for pain and stiffness. It also builds strength and flexibility.
The primary areas stretched by the Cobra pose are the muscles in your chest (you need to open your chest as you lift) and your hip flexors (this is the result of the back bend).
Cobra will also help you to extend your spine, which can be really great if your spine is crunched down or hunched a lot of the time. If you work a desk job, for example, you might not be finding a lot of length in your spine on a daily basis, so Cobra can be therapeutic in this sense.
With that being said, if you have back pain that extends down the back of one or both legs, it’s best not to try and counteract this pain with Cobra pose.
The reason for this is that back pain shooting down one leg is often caused by spinal stenosis, and Cobra pose can actually make this worse.
When we say that Cobra builds strength, we’re primarily referring to your biceps and triceps. Lifting your torso with your arms while keeping your elbows slightly bent activates these muscle groups.
Another benefit of Cobra is simply that it’s a beginner-friendly yoga pose. You don’t need to be experienced in yoga or have a lot of strength or flexibility to achieve it, although you can build both by practicing the pose.
Because it’s a prone pose that allows you to receive a lot of support from the earth, you might also find it easier to relax and enter a mental flow state in Cobra compared to standing poses or more complex arm balances.
Upward Facing Dog Pose Benefits
Just like Cobra, Upward Facing Dog has lots of benefits you should consider if you’re unsure whether to make this pose part of your regular yoga flow.
Remember, two of the key things that differentiate Upward Facing Dog from the Cobra pose are the extent to which your back is arched, and the fact that less of your body is making contact with the floor (in other words, how much load your arms are bearing).
Because Upward Facing Dog involves more of a backbend than Cobra, it opens your chest more, which is excellent for strengthening your chest and upper back muscles. If you tend to hunch over in your upper back, Upward Facing Dog is a great remedy.
Additionally, the increased backbend will help you to strengthen the muscles in your abdomen and lower back.
Your arms are also likely to get stronger as you practice Upward Facing Dog. This is because the pose involves supporting more weight on your hands, wrists, and arms compared to Cobra.
Cobra Vs Upward Facing Dog: Which Pose Should You Choose?
Now that you know the similarities and differences between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog, you may be wondering which pose you should incorporate into your yoga routine.
First of all, it’s worth noting that there isn’t necessarily any reason to choose one over the other. As you can see from the benefits listed above, both have advantages to bring to the table, and both have a well-earned place in the practice of yoga.
With that being said, there are contraindications to both Cobra and Upward Facing Dog that might make it best to choose one over the other at times.
You may also decide to do Upward Facing Dog or Cobra based on how your body feels, what other poses are included in your flow, and what you’re hoping to get out of your practice on any given day.
Here’s how to choose which pose to include in your yoga routine:
Pain And Stiffness
If you’re feeling pain or stiffness in any area of your body prior to starting your yoga practice, this is something you should take into consideration. Depending on the intensity and the location of the stiffness or discomfort, either Cobra or Upward Facing Dog could be helpful.
However, there are also times when both of these poses can make the issue worse.
Mild stiffness and aching in either the upper or lower back can be improved with Cobra or Upward Facing Dog.
If you have stiffness or mild discomfort in your upper back, both poses can help with this, while the same sensations in the lower back are best remedied with Upward Facing Dog.
That said, if you are in significant pain, you should consult a doctor before trying to use Cobra or Upward Facing Dog to counteract the pain. This is especially important if you’re experiencing lower back pain accompanied by pain down the back of one leg.
Shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand pain also means you should probably avoid Upward Facing Dog, since this pose puts more strain on these parts of your body.
Cobra or Baby Cobra are good alternatives in this case, since they will still open your chest and stretch your back without putting too much pressure on your limbs.
Combination Of Poses
If you already know other poses you’d like to practice in a particular yoga session, you can use these to guide you in your choice between Upward Facing Dog and Cobra.
Both Upward Facing Dog and Cobra are frequently combined with the counterpose Downward Facing Dog, so if you know you will be incorporating this pose into your routine, either Cobra or Upward Dog are good choices.
However, another option if you’re coming out of Cobra is to go into Child’s Pose. If you don’t want to put a lot of weight through your arms in your practice, going from Cobra to Child’s Pose is a better alternative.
Before going into Cobra, you will typically lower all the way down, so your belly is on the mat. However, for Upward Facing Dog, you would usually come from Chaturanga.
Some people find Chaturanga difficult because you have to control and support your weight on the way down before pressing back up, so if you struggle with this sequence, belly-to-Cobra might be the better option for you.
Strength And Flexibility Goals
You may also want to choose between Cobra and Upward Facing Dog based on the aspects of strength and flexibility you most want to work on.
For example, if you’re trying to build strength in your shoulders, arms, and wrists, Upward Facing Dog is the better choice. This pose is also more effective for strengthening and stretching your lower back and abdominal muscles, and your leg muscles will also be more engaged.
However, if your main goal is to work on stretching your chest muscles and hip flexors, either pose will be useful. You can switch between them depending on how you feel.
It should be noted that Upward Facing Dog will present a bigger challenge for your ankle mobility. If you feel that you don’t have a lot of flexibility in your ankles, practicing this pose will definitely help.
Cobra and Upward Facing Dog are both prone backbends that help to strengthen and stretch your back, abdominal, and chest muscles. Both positions promote length in the spine.
However, Cobra and Upward Facing Dog have their own backstories in yogic mythology, and there are important positional differences.
Upward Facing Dog engages your leg and arm muscles more, and involves a deeper bend in the back.
The arm and foot placement is different for these poses, and while your hips stay on the mat in Cobra, they lift along with your knees and thighs for Upward Facing Dog.
Frequently Asked Questions
This answer may be frustrating if you were hoping to find a simple number of seconds to hold Cobra, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
In general, it’s safe to say that around 3 breaths (equal to roughly 10 seconds) is a good amount of time to hold a yoga pose, including Cobra.
However, in yoga, you should be guided by your breath as well as by the sensations you feel in your body. Your breaths may be shorter or longer than the next person’s, so 3 breaths for you may not feel like long enough, or it may feel too long.
Similarly, if you find that the pose is causing you pain, you should stop.
Caution should be taken when practicing Upward Facing Dog and Cobra during pregnancy.
Cobra is a position you may want to avoid as soon as you know you are pregnant. Any pressure directly on the abdomen is best avoided during pregnancy, and Cobra requires you to keep your hips to the ground, which makes it impossible to do without some pressure on your stomach.
Upward Facing Dog is usually safe up until a later stage of pregnancy because your pelvis should be raised off the ground.
However, there may come a point during pregnancy where keeping your pelvis lifted is too difficult, or where you can’t lift yourself enough to keep pressure off your stomach. At this point, you should try other positions, instead.
Upward Facing Dog and Downward Facing Dog are counterposes of one another, so they are related in the context of yoga. However, these positions are actually quite different.
While Upward Facing Dog is a prone pose (meaning you are belly down), Downward Facing Dog is an arm balance that involves balancing on your hands and feet while pointing your hips upward towards the sky.
Whereas Upward Facing Dog requires you to support your weight on the tops of your feet as well as your arms, in Downward Facing Dog, you will be balancing your weight on the soles of your feet.
In Upward Facing Dog, your arms should come straight down with your hands on the mat underneath your shoulders. In Downward Facing Dog, your hands come forward past your head, and rather than being lifted, your head hangs down toward the mat.
Your body basically forms a triangle shape with your hips pointed to the sky.
You can easily transition from Upward Facing Down to Downward Facing Dog by curling your toes under and pressing up through plank, lifting your hips, and bringing your heels down toward the mat.
To return to Upward Facing Dog from Downward Facing Dog, return to a plank pose and lower to Chaturanga before pressing up through the palms of your hands.
If you have a regular yoga practice and like to spend time on the mat on a daily basis, there is no harm in practicing Cobra and Upward Facing Dog every day.
In fact, practicing these poses regularly can help to undo the damage done to your spine and posture by sitting at a desk all day, or slumping in general.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you have persistent and significant back pain, are pregnant, or have injuries to any part of your upper body, including hands and arms, you should get a doctor’s opinion on whether these poses (or any other yoga poses) are appropriate for you.
In Cobra pose, the weight of your hips rests on the mat, which means that engaging your glutes will not have much of an effect.
However, Upward Facing Dog sees your hips lifted off the mat, so engaging your glutes may be helpful as it promotes more hip extension.
However, try to engage your glutes at the end of the movement rather than at the start, to avoid leading the spinal extension with your glutes and taking away from your lower back muscles.