Along with tree pose, downward facing dog is probably the most widely recognized pose. It looks like an inverted V with your butt in the air. Everyone’s dog does this pose and if you’ve ever been in a yoga class, you have too. Although downward facing dog (DWD) makes an appearance in almost every yoga class from beginning to advanced, it’s actually quite a complicated pose, requiring flexibility and strength. Additionally, it’s an inversion. Really an “intermediate” pose, it’s offered to most students, regardless of their experience or flexibility.
There can be 20 to 30+ cues and instructions for learning and refining downward dog. Here are 4 areas that I want to comment on and offer some cues and suggestions that may be helpful in finding some enjoyment and safety in your DWD.
Heels to the Ground: Getting the heels to the ground will add stability to the pose and the ability the lengthen through the backs of the legs, but for many of us, it’s just not going to happen. Sometimes the heels ride high due to anatomy and sometimes because of tight calves and hamstrings. Taking time to stretch the calves before DWD will help alot. [Avoid overstretching the achilles tendon.] Jamming your heels down if you hyper-extend your knees will only make the problem worse. Try: DWD can be practiced with a rolled blanket under the heels providing the opportunity to “root through the heels”. While you’re there, play with lifting your toes. If your heels are almost there, maybe shorten your stance or widen your legs..
Straight legs: DWD is a back body stretch–the upper body gets a stretch from the hips to the hands and the back body from the hips to the heels. If the hamstrings are tight the back will round. Better to have the knees bent and the spine long. Over time, as the hamstrings become more flexible the legs will eventually move in the direction of straight. Try: Practice DWD with the hands on the wall, taking your hands high enough so the legs can straighten. Placing hands on the seat of a chair works too. If your legs are almost straight, widen your stance.
Long Spine: Avoid the swoop or scoop in the back where the ribs and chest dip toward the ground. I see this all the time when flexible students hang in the shoulder joints like a hammock. Lift the armpits and ribs to line up with the head and tail. If the shoulders are tight this is going to be challenging Try: To demonstrate this, Instructor, Tony Briggs, uses a long, wooden pole as a prop. He has one student take downward dog and the second student holds the pole at the back of the first student’s head and rests it on their tailbone. The back body should touch the pole. Effective.
Head, Arms and Hands: Different schools of yoga vary in their instruction of the head position. Dropping the head can offer a nice stretch to the neck, but eventually line your ears up with the arms. The hands can be a bit wider than the shoulder, especially if your elbows hyper-extend. Fingers spread, but it’s not necessary to overdo it. For most of us the weight falls to the baby fingers. Counter this by pressing into the thumb and index finger. Try: Play with the effect of changing the weight distribution of your fingers. Body worker and Rolfer, Scott Quinn, feels the thumb and index fingers were made for fine motor movements, like turning a nob or picking up a pencil. The other three (middle, ring and baby) tie into the back body and contains the power. How does changing the weight distribution alter your experience?
Play with your dog. It’s challenging, for sure, but find a position that is safe and can be held for at least 5 breaths. That’s it for our dogs….See you next week!