Monday, July 24, 2017

Is Your Down Dog Still a Puppy?

By Nathan Schechter, ERYT-200 hour, YACEOP, ACSM CPT, CST

"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." ~BF Skinner

When I was a child and took home my first puppy, he was so small we had to put him in a shoe box. The whol family stared at him for hours. Because he was new, we paid great attention to the details, giving him all the things that he needed to grow into a happy, healthy dog: chewing toys, the right food, even a flea collar. Over time, our dog lost that special "puppy" status, and we might have paid a little less attention to him than we used to, but he was still loved, and graduated from a helpless pup, to a full-fledged participant of the household.

When you first learned Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) do you remember how awkward it felt? Maybe your wrists hurt, or perhaps you couldn't figure out how to get your hips up and back. Maybe you could only stay in the pose for a few seconds. At this stage you may have relied on your teacher to guide you with cues-- those short, pithy instructions, like "draw the front of your thighs toward the wall behind you" -- to learn how to allow your body to take on this new shape. You may have had to spend a lot of time working on the posture until it felt comfortable. It is how we all got started. But for many students who are not new to yoga practice, the days of learning Downward Dog are long gone.

When something is new we often DO need to pay a lot of attention to the details. But later on, this same type of focus prevents us from moving to the next phase.

Are you paying a lot of attention to the letters and punctuation in this article? At one phase in your learning, you needed to spend a lot of time tracing letters, and learning how to use punctuation. Now, however, when you want to read something, you ignore those same details because you are intuitively using them to accomplish something larger: understand meaning.

This is part of what B.F. Skinner meant when he said: "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten."

In fact, the poet E. E. Cummings used punctuation incorrectly. On purpose! Yet no one supposes that Cummings just didn’t understand punctuation. In fact, he understood it so well, that he started playing with it, and breaking the rules.

While focusing on the details of Downward Dog can be very rewarding – and particularly helpful if you are still struggling with the posture - it’s equally important to understand what the pose is about in a larger context.

Down Dog is like a period. It is a foundational pose that is often used for transitions to other movements. In flowing styles of yoga (called Vinyasa), Down Dog is one part of a larger series of movements called Sun Salutation. I won’t go into a full description here of what a Sun Salutation is, but think of it as a dynamic warm-up and strength building exercise that often occurs within a flowing yoga class.

Because Downward Dog is part of this larger whole (the Sun Salutation), at a certain point it becomes less important to focus solely on down dog, and more important to use it for what it is intended: 1) To rest, and 2) to prepare for moving somewhere else.

Many beginning students often focus on whether their feet should touch the floor, or if they are doing the pose “right” (In “Light on Yoga” by BKS Iyengar, a famous yoga teacher, his head and feet touch the floor). Students often internalize an image of a very flexible person who does the posture. Maybe like the photo below.

But if you understand the role Down Dog plays, you might see it could look quite different. You could: keep your heels off the floor, turn out your heels, bend your knees, lift an arm. This wouldn’t be “correct” alignment, but it might make sense depending on the larger context. In fact, you could even replace Down Dog with another pose altogether, like using a semi-colon instead of a comma.

This photo shows what is sometimes called a “Hindu Squat.” It too is a foundational pose, although it has different properties than Downward Dog. Try this exercise: Starting in Down Dog walk your hands back to your feet to wind up in Hindu Squat. Now do the reverse. Walk from Hindu Squat back to Down Dog.

Can you begin to see new possibilities for your practice? Both down dog and the squat offer you a stable base from which to move to another posture. The poses are different. Hindu Squat puts your head above your heart. Downward dog puts your head below your heart. The squat activates your hips differently than the dog. But like the semi-colon and the comma, both can act in similar ways.

Now you are focusing on the “function” of the posture, rather than simply the details. Your Down Dog has moved past the “puppy” phase and takes less of your attention; you understand not only the details, but the larger context.

As you begin to grasp the idea of the purpose of the pose, you become freed up to adapt it to your own particular body and use it in new ways. This gets you deeper into the whole purpose of yoga, which is to connect you to your unique body, and help you make observations about its uniqueness within the observational field of your own mind.

Again, I won’t go into great detail here, but if you want to look at another example of moving beyond the details, try taking a look at this article by yoga teacher, Donna Farhi, which talks about experimenting, with not only Down Dog, but the whole Sun Salutation. (“Variations on Sun Salutes: Moving Outside the Square. March 27, 2015)

As your practice grows, you may find that you can put less attention on individual cues (which may still be in one corner of your mind), and pay more attention to what you are seeking to accomplish overall in your mind and body. This is where you begin to knock on the door of what, to me, makes practices like yoga really interesting.

Yoga is one kind of mind body education, but done well it begins to show you larger possibilities. For your Dog to no longer be a puppy, it may mean that you stop giving it the same amount of detailed attention, but that doesn’t mean you stop loving it, or can never give it attention. It just means that now your Dog has taken its rightful place in a family of poses that are aimed, not at constant cue repetition, but more as one road of learning about the dance of mind and body in movement.

Nathan Schechter started practicing yoga in 1997 at Patricia Walden’s yoga studio in Somerville, MA. There he met the bass player of the Bare Naked Ladies who introduced him to Baptiste Power Yoga in 2000. He began teaching after being certified at Frog Lotus Yoga in 2005.
Nathan has learned a great deal from many yoga styles – Iyengar, Vinayasa, Anusara, Bikram, Ashtanga – and hundreds of yoga teachers, both well known nationally (Barbara Benagh, David Williams, Richard Freeman, Annie Pace, Sarah Powers) and local to New England. He has sought out other disciplines with a focus on how the brain-mind-body work together in subtle ways. He has traveled to work with gifted teachers, trainers and health professionals from the United States, Europe and China.
Drawing insights from Qigong, Tai Chi, Craniosacral Therapy (Upledger Institute, 2014), Alexander, Feldenkrais, and Personal Training methods (American College of Sports Medicine Certification, 2014), and observing the high caliber of learning and skill development of those who used diverse approaches, Nathan recently started a company to educate and train others working with the body and mind.
The group yoga class Nathan will teach is a heated power vinyasa template which includes techniques from Qigong and other disciplines. Sometimes small “break out” moments are used to capture some of the flavor, and benefits, of the more in-depth learning he shares in 12 week courses, and 1:1 work.

If you would like to learn more, you can reach Nathan at the

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