I am a Down Dog zealot. I love its strengthening, stretching, renewing benefits. Sometimes I may be guilty of overdoing the posture, I’m told. A few months ago I asked a good friend if she thought my classes had too many down dogs. “Sometimes,” she responded. I love my honest friends!
So, I’ve been trying to sprinkle Adho Mukha Svanasana judiciously throughout my classes. I even managed to teach a 90 minute class without one single Down Dog- that was hard. But I truly believe that this posture is an important foundation for a well-rounded Vinyasa practice. It’s a terrific way to build the upper-body strength that will lead you into arm balances and all kinds of other fun postures (keeping in mind that your fun and my fun may not be the same thing). It’s also an inversion, with the hips higher than the head, increasing blood flow to the brain, which is pretty awesome (more on that another time)- and for those of us who work at a computer, or drive a lot, or don’t have terrific posture, it may be a therapeutic stretch for the shoulders. Finally, it is a streeeeeetch for the hamstrings, calves, and Achilles tendons.
So you’d like to experience the benefits for yourself? Grab a mat and let’s go!
Begin on hands and knees, with your hips stacked over your knees. Bring your hands to the earth under your shoulders or a bit in front of them. Make sure they are shoulder-width apart. Your first finger or middle finger will generally be pointing directly forward, and your wrist crease will probably be parallel to the front edge of the mat. Please note: your mileage will vary here, as we are all built differently- experimentation may be helpful. Once you’ve established your placement, firm your grip: beginning with the thumb-side of your hand, carefully roll the entire palm of your hand onto the floor.
Now, curl your toes under, and begin to straighten the legs. If your hamstring muscles are tight, you may need to keep your knees bent- this is perfectly fine. Press your heels back toward the mat- if they do touch down, you might consider walking them back a few inches to increase the stretch (making a “longer dog”). Give yourself enough room to feel a stretch through the backs of your legs, and keep reaching your heels back and down. Have your feet hip width apart- that’s about two fists’ distance.
Now, begin to refine the posture. Begin by pressing the floor away with your fingers, and feel how that pushes the weight into your back body. If the sensations become too intense through your hamstrings or any other muscle, pause and breathe there- your body will open in time. Once you’re fairly comfortable, lift and spread the sitting bones. Imagine that you could widen the sitting bones apart from each other- you may find this easier to feel if you widen your heels just ever-so-slightly apart from each other, so that the big toes are a tiny bit closer together than your heels. The outside edges of your feet will probably be parallel with the mat. Send your hips up to the heavens, and feel a slight forward tilt of your pelvis- almost as though you were sticking your tush out. You may have to bend your knees to make this happen- that’s great, go for it.
Keep reaching back with the heels, pressing the thighbones into the backs of your thighs, and bring your attention to your upper body. Keep pressing the palms into the earth, and slightly exaggerate the press of the inner palms (thumb-sides) of the hands. There is sometimes a tendency to roll onto the outside edges, which can be painful over time. Imagine that you could press down through the space between your thumb and first finger.
Now, we want to work into an external rotation of the shoulders. Keep your hands where they are, on the floor, but imagine how it would feel if you were to turn your palms up in offering. Feel how your elbows would come in toward each other, the shoulder blades slipping away from each other. Begin to engage those motions now, in your down dog. Squeeze the elbows inward, and roll the inner edge of your armpit up and out. If this all feels very confusing, come out of down dog, sit down, and turn your palms up a few times to get a sense for the muscular actions. You will know you are “getting” this key action of externally rotating the shoulders in down dog when you bend your elbows and they point toward the back of your mat, rather than out to the sides. Don’t forget to keep pressing the palms down and the hips back!
Finally, the drishti (Sanskrit for “what you should be looking at”). You may have heard that your gaze should be toward your navel. This may be true for you at some point. To start, however, think instead about making your neck an extension of your spine. Let your head hang naturally away from your neck and soften your face. Keep your shoulders pulling back away from your ears. You might enjoy playing with the action of clawing the finger pads into the mat and then feeling how that pulls the shoulder blades back and down. Breathe smoothly and deeply.
These are tricky refinements, which means you will be working pretty hard in your downward facing dog as your practice develops. It’s tempting to just hang out in the posture, internally rotating the shoulders (elbows bending out to the sides). This may be easier, but it risks potential injury and keeps you from experiencing the strengthening benefits of the posture.
One common experience in downward facing dog, especially for beginners, may be pain in the wrists or hands. This may happen especially if you are carrying a lot of body weight above the waist, or if you are stiff through the back of your legs and cannot yet make the transition to shift your weight back into the heels. If this is the case for you, it may be helpful to place a triangular wedge under your hands to ease the angle. Some practitioners benefit greatly from elongating their arms by placing two blocks directly under the hands. This helps to shift the weight backward so that the shoulder girdle can strengthen as the back body lengthens and opens.
It’s also important to remember that this can be a very intense posture if you are new to the practice. Give yourself permission to rest, taking child’s pose, hands-and-knees, or even bringing the forearms to the floor if the strain is becoming too great. It can take time to build the strength and the flexibility needed to hold this posture for long periods of time. Until then, be compassionate and patient, and take my word for it: there’s a lot to love in Downward Facing Dog.
Looking for more on this posture? Check out this cool post on Body Positive Yoga: Downward facing dog: A guide for plus size yogis & beginners, or this article by Gwen Lawrence (she teaches yoga to NFL stars, so she knows a thing or two!).