The yoga courses have begun and this week was their 2nd week. In the course, downward facing dog i.e. adho mukha svanasana is usually the first pose that I teach, as I have infinite admiration for the pose.
As a general principle, adho mukha svanasana is (Yes, it is!) the backbone of vinyasa and ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice. Here is a few reasons why I love the pose some much:
- It is the heart of the famous vinyasa transition. Roughly, more than half of the time both chaturanga dandasana and urdva mukha svanasana are substituted by ashtangasana i.e. knees-chest-chin and bujangasana, i.e. (baby) cobra respectively, whilst adho mukha svanasana is performed about 90% of the time.
- It is the most repeated pose in the all Ashtanga Series.
- It can be the starting point of many poses since it is equally easy to step through to a seated position or to the top of the mat to a standing position.
- It is very accessible. Everybody, regardless of their level can achieve a kind down dog suitable to them. To this end, it is a really good indicator of the level of any yoga practitioner.
- It is a whole body pose – it stretches and works the entire back of the body. It is a forward fold; it is an arm balance; and it is an inversion and on top of all it is a restorative pose, no less. Therefore it carries the benefits (and risks) of all. Depending on the intention, it can serve more or less anyone of these functions.
- It is one of the 4 poses that all three bandhas (mula, uddiyana, and jalandara) can be activated. This unison is called the Maha Bandha and is frequently used during pranayama and during meditation. The breath in Maha bandha is calmer, thereby more meditative. So, it is a key pose to transform the physical asana practice into a meditation and/or pranayama practice.
The easiest way to get in down dog is from all-fours – knees below hips, palms below shoulders. Tuck the toes under and straighten your legs as you push the hips backwards and upwards. The end pose is an upside down V – not a plank, not an upside down U.
What does what in Down Dog?
- The tailbone turns upward to maintain a neutral spine. Don’t let the inflexibility of the legs to pull the sitting bones down and round the spine.
- Spine stretches from both ends (sitting bones and head); neck sticks out, chin is tucked in or the head is let to dangle.
- Shoulders widen out and are away from the ears; shoulder blades push not towards each other but into the lower(ish) back.
- Fingers spread and palms press down.
- Arms straighten. Pits of the elbows face each other while the lower arms turn inward.
Look at the woman’s upper body, especially her shoulders and shoulder blades. Shoulders spread outwards and shoulder blades are pressed towards the lower back and not into each other. This gives the neck the necessary space the elongate and in turn she can flex her arms almost 180° without squeezing her neck between the shoulders.
Clearly, the hands are half of the foundation in downward facing dog. Pressing the hands down firmly is really important if one wants to start building towards that wide arm flexion and shoulder flexibility. Remember, what I call, your yoga hands*. Spreading the fingers and pressing the palms down protect the wrists and transfer the weight of the upper body in the mat. The visual on the left explains what to do with the hands. Paying attention to not lifting the area marked with red dot will save you a lot of wrist pain.
Meanwhile the rest of the body is doing the following:
- Heels and arches of the feet reach down towards the mat. They don’t have to touch down. The point is here is to resist lifting all of it up and coming on the balls of the feet and toes.
- Knees push back; knee caps lift up very gently to engage the quadriceps.
- Upper legs rotate internally to open the back of legs, which in turn helps with lifting the tail high – completing the full circle of the pose.
In the picture below, notice that the man’s legs are not straightened and the heels do not touch the mat, which are both fine as long as the heels press down and calf muscles are activated.
In the next visual the distance between the woman’s hands and feet is quite small compared with the man’s above. By keeping the hands and feet closer, it becomes easier for her to touch her heels on the mat and straighten the knees.
Once all of these pieces are in place, the most important thing left to do is to distribute your weight equally between hands and feet. Press the hands and feet down firmly and lift the hips higher.
When I first started yoga, I found adho mukha svanasana very difficult. My wrists hurt and my shoulders and neck were really sore because I was tensing the related muscles too much. It took me a long time to learn to relax in this pose. Only then, I could start enjoying it.
I hope this article was helpful. The link below direct to the pages I took the photos from and they have some more information on downward facing dog. Stay tuned for upward facing dog.