Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is a quintessential yoga pose practiced in most styles of yoga. It is a pose that can be used to warm up the body, strengthen the body and rest the body, depending on when it is done during the course of a yoga session. Once you understand how Downward Dog is done properly, any "loather" can become a "lover" of this pose.
Ideally the final shape of Down Dog should be an upside down "V", but there is a lot that the body needs to do in order for that to happen.
Flexibility and Strength
Downward Dog requires and creates flexibility in the hamstrings (muscle group on the back of the thighs) and the shoulders, while simultaneously requiring and creating strength in the shoulders, upper back, core and legs. When done properly, Downward Dog uses and opens the whole body at once. The more you utilize the whole body, the less any one body part has to work. Eventually this pose is comfortable and relaxing. If you struggle with Downward Dog, read on to learn the basics.
Start on your hands and knees, placing your hands right under your shoulders. Spread your palms wide on the floor with your middle fingers parallel to each other. Spin your inner elbow creases forward so that if you bent your elbows they would point toward your thighs. Spread your shoulder blades apart and slide them toward your waist. Tuck your toes under and lift your hips bringing your body into an upside down "V." Make sure that you haven't let your shoulders shrug, see if you can keep your shoulders wide.
Try to keep your spine as straight as possibly, maintaining the lumbar (lower back) curve that you have when you are standing. If your hamstrings are tight, chances are that your lower back has rounded and your tailbone is pointing toward the floor. Ideally your sit bones (at the base of your pelvis) are aiming in a diagonal line away from your palms. To modify for tight hamstrings, keep your knees bent so that you can actively reach your sit bones away from your palms while keeping the neutral lumbar curve.
Reach your inner thighs toward the wall behind you, taking some of the weight out of your arms and moving it into your legs. Heels actively reach toward the floor; if the heels come easily to the floor, move your feet back a bit so that you can more easily activate the heels. Feet should be parallel, with the heels located behind the second and third toes of each foot.
Hold Downward Facing Dog for 3-10 breaths, then rest in Child's Pose.
1. My wrists hurt in Down Dog:
--> Make sure your palms are flat on the floor, with every knuckle of the palm pressing downward. As you rotate your elbow creases to point more forward (most likely they won't be directed straight forward, but more diagonally toward each other), the tendency is to release the knuckles of the index fingers and thumbs from the floor. By pressing your palms flat it takes the pressure off the wrists and distributes the weight more evenly through the hand.
2. It's too much weight in my arms and shoulders:
--> The more you use your legs, the less your arms have to work. Try to extend your sit bones actively away from your palms. Place a block between your thighs and try to press the block toward the wall behind you. This will help you engage your legs more and get the weight out of your arms.
3. My neck hurts:
--> Try to relax your neck and let your head just hang down toward the floor. The more your spread your shoulders apart and connect your shoulder blades toward your waist the less strain in the neck. Keeping your eyes aimed toward your ankles can help.
4. I can't get my heels to the floor:
--> No worries. As long as you can reach your heels toward the floor, it doesn't matter whether they touch or not. You will feel a nice stretch through your calves.
5. I can't straighten my back:
-->Keeping your knees bent takes the hamstrings out of the equation and makes it easier to flatten your spine. Over time, as the hamstrings lengthen, it will be easier to both straighten the legs and the spine.
To learn more about Downward Dog, as well as Plank, Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog, come to my workshop, Vinyasa 101 on March 26th from 12-2p at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland.
Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.
In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios, Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.