Down Dog Demystified

It's one of the first poses you'll encounter in a yoga class, and you're guarunteed to have a handful of them show-up in 99 percent of Vinyasa classes you take: Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).

As a new practioner, you might find this pose confusing, tiring or even incredibly frustrating. "A resting pose?!" you scoff under your ujjayi breathPfft! However, over time this pose will grow on you and become a place to reconnect with your breath, your body and your alignment. It can even become your benchmark pose for checking-in with how your body and mind are doing on any given day.

While taking class the other day it hit me: downward dog seems simple at first, but is actually an incredibly dynamic pose with all kinds of tiny movements and self-adjustments that would be easy to miss for a new yogi. And most teachers don't take the time to break it down. we go!

The purpose of the pose: used as a transitional move between sequences, as well as a resting pose (most teachers will have you stay for at least 3-5 breaths). Also a good pose for warming up the body, and connecting your body with your breath.

The benefits of the pose: According to BKS Iyengar (via Wikipedia), "This posture stretches the shoulders, legs, spine and whole body; builds strength throughout the body, particularly the arms, legs, and feet; relieves fatigue and rejuvenates the body; improves the immune system, digestion and blood flow to the sinuses, and calms the mind and lifts the spirits."

The preparation: Place your hands and knees on the floor (as we do in cat/cow). Make sure your hands are directly under your shoulders (bone stacking on bone), shoulder-width apart. Same with your knees: have them hip-width apart, making 90 degree angles from waist to thigh and from thigh to calf. Arms and legs should be perfectly perpindicular to the floor. To press into down dog, press your hands into the floor as you shoot your butt high into the air (keeping knees bent at first), flattening and lengthening the spine. As you straighten the legs, send your heels toward the floor but without compromising the flatness and length of your spine. It's perfectly fine if your heels don't touch the floor, or if you keep your knees bent. You can also press into downward dog from child's pose: with your arms extended and hands firmly pressing into the floor, forehead to the mat, hips resting on the back of your feet, most people will be properly measured (distance from hands to feet) to press into the pose.

Adjustments to think about while you're in the pose (this is why you get five breaths!): In order of how I like to scan -- a mental checklist moving from fingers to toes:

  • Hands: are they pressing firmly into the floor, particularly your thumbs, pointer and index fingers?
  • Arms: are they rotating externally, engaging your forearms and bicepts?
  • Shoulders: are they relaxed and integrated into your back?
  • Head: is it relatvively relaxed (back of the neck long) and positioned so that your ears line up with your upper arms?
  • Spine: is it long and as straight as you can get it? (Knees bent to straighten spine is A-OK!)
  • Tailbone: is it pressing up toward the sky? Is your pelvic bowl tilting up (my teacher Nevine likes to instruct this as "stick your ass out!")
  • Legs: are your hamstrings engaged? Are the legs rotating internally to also engage the quads?
  • Heels: are they energetically reaching toward the floor to further engage the hamstrings and calves?
  • Entire body shape: are you making an equillateral triangle, where the distance from your hands-to-hips and hips-to-feet is about the same?
  • Finally...are you breathing?!?! Use this as a great opportunity to re-engage your ujjayi breath, making the sound of the ocean with the back of your throat.

Overwhelmed? Understandable! Pick just one or two things above to focus on the next time you're in class, then build from there over time. To read more about the pose, check out Yoga Journal here.