Yoga Journal this month has a wonderful article on down dog (Adho Muhka Svanasana). This dovetails so beautifully with the Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) break down that I want to discuss another pose. Plus this way, for those of us who do receive Yoga Journal it gives us an opportunity to discuss the magazine.
yogajournal.com pose finder
The picture, as found on pg 55 (Mar 08) is a beautiful representation of what we are working towards: 90* alignment between torso and legs, heels flat to the floor, head moving toward the mat between the hands, lower abdomen uplifted, shoulders broad and open.
Reality is...a bit different. Let’s take a closer look at Down Dog:
To begin with, for many of us, our heels do not touch the ground. This comes from a combination of factors which include but are not limited to our glutes, hamstrings, calves, thighs, and Achilles tendons. As the tendons and muscles of the legs gain flexibility, our heels will slowly creep downward. Do not try and rush this process. Let them sink naturally and avoid standing on the tippy toes. For some, their heels will never reach the ground simply due to the alignment of their bones and tendons.
The feet should be about hip distance apart. Some traditions of yoga have a narrower stance and some traditions move wider. For our Contemporary Ashtanga practice, keep them hip distance.
The legs are active and moving toward the back of the room. If necessary, put a slight bend in the knees; especially if you know you hyper-extend or have difficulty lengthening the back (you round forward).
It can be difficult to describe how to move the hips because everyone’s flexibility is so different. But try and envision this: try and keep your hips moving upward more so than directly behind you. Sometime try and do a down dog off your mat and on the carpet. Come into your down dog and observe what happens as your hands or feet start to slide forward. It suddenly feels like you have to suck everything up and into your abdomen to prevent your hands from shooting forward. This is the upward lift we are looking for.
(Interesting note: it wasn’t until recently that yogis started using sticky mats. Yogis used to practice on woven mats or, here in the States, carpet remnants. We are now used to pushing down into our mats with our hands because the mat keeps us grounded rather than lifting through our center.)
We are trying to make the spine long from the sacrum to the base of the head. Move the shoulder blades toward the waist, away from the ears. Shoulders should not crunch.
Gently draw Uddiyana Bandha back toward the spine to assist in supporting the lower back and help provide lift.
The Arms and Hands
Keeping the shoulders moving away from the head and ears, while rotating the inner elbow to point upward. I’ve always enjoyed the saying, "you’re trying to catch raindrops with the inside of your elbow." Yes, catch raindrops!"
Hands are active, palm and fingers pressing into the mat. For some, this may not becomfortable - go ahead and bend your fingers so the palm and fingertips press into the mat. Hands are shoulder distance apart.
The top of the head is extending toward the floor. Your gaze can be toward your feet, your knees or finally, your navel. For the Ashtanga practice, we are breathing smoothly and fully utilizing the Ujjayi breath.
I love the suggestion to align the ears with the arms. For some flexy-bendy people, they are popping the chest open. This is a great way to do a self adjustment.
If you are just starting out in the pose and need to bring the pose down a notch, bend only the knees to bring them to the mat and stretch back through the hips. Your hands and feet should not move from where they have been planted. When you are ready, lift up through the knees to return to down dog.
With time, down dog becomes a resting pose. To further increase relaxation (if you are not doing the Ashtanga practice at the moment) put some blankets under your head and rest in supported down dog. This is said to be therapeutic for headaches.
Benefits to Downward Facing Dog:
- Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands
- Strengthens the arms and legs
- Enlivens the whole body
- Improves digestion
- Mr. Iyengar states "It strengthen the legs and makes them shapely." (Light on Yoga)
- Envigorates the brain to reduce fatigue
- An alternate pose to Sirasana (headstand)