If you have ever practiced yoga it’s more than likely that you have found yourself in Downward-Facing Dog (or Adho Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit). Downward-Facing Dog is one of the foundational poses in yoga, especially in the Hatha-based practices, as it forms part of the sun salutation sequence. However, despite being a commonly practiced pose it can also be one of the most challenging, especially for beginners.
As a qualified yoga teacher, and a practicing yogi, I can honestly say that it took years of practice and many adjustments before Downward-Facing Dog felt even remotely comfortable. The LiveWell Collective Yoga Pose Spotlight series aims to give you some practical tips and handy hints to improve your pose alignment and get the most out of your yoga practice.
Often in classes you find yourself being bombarded with alignment cues and guidelines for Downward-Facing Dog, which can be more than a little confusing when you’re already inverted (i.e. upside down). If there is one thing that I must emphasize here, it is that getting your legs straight and heels to the ground should be the LAST goal. Trying to jam your legs straight and force your feet to the ground is a sure-fire way to end up with a curved back and overstretched hamstrings.
When setting up for your Downward-Facing Dog, a good approach to take is starting from Tabletop pose. In Tabletop ensure that your knees are aligned beneath your hips and your hands beneath your shoulders.
From here step your hands forward one hand’s distance, so that they are slightly in front of the line of your shoulders. Spread the fingers very wide and angle the hands slightly outwards, so that the middle fingers of each hand points to the top corners of your mat. Bend the fingers a little and grip the floor, so that the weight is channeling down through your fingertips and the base of your thumb.
To come into Downward-Facing Dog, tuck your toes under and take your hips up and backwards, so that your body creates an inverted V-shape.
The most important thing here is to keep your knees soft and your heels raised, so that you can focus on creating a straight line from your hands to the apex at your hips.
Press down firmly through your hands and allow your head to hang gently between your arms, with your gaze somewhere between your knees and your thighs. Your chest should be drawing back towards your thighs and your belly should be firmly tucked in towards the spine.
Initially, it can feel really nice to ‘walk your dog’, which involves deeply bending one knee as you straighten the other leg and press the heel to the floor. This helps to warm up the hamstrings and Achilles tendon. You can walk your dog out for about 30 seconds and then gradually start to find some stillness, keeping the knees as bent as you like.
The alignment of the pelvis in Downward-Facing Dog is very subtle, but one of the best (and most entertaining!) descriptions I’ve heard is to imagine that you have a sunflower emerging from your anus (sorry…) and to keep turning the sunflower towards the sun. This will give a slight anterior tilt to the pelvis, increasing the stretch in the hamstrings and helping to straighten the back.
Now it comes time to address the elephant in the yoga room, the shoulders and arms.
For me, this is continually the most difficult part of Downward-Facing Dog. Many teachers talk about ‘wrapping the arms’ towards one another, which has never made much sense to me.
The first thing to note is the amount of weight being borne by the wrists. In an ideal posture it should be minimal, with most of the weight being taken by the fingers and transmitted up into the arms. If you find you have a lot of pain in the wrists you can try doing Downward-Facing Dog with your hands on two blocks, or roll up the front edge of your mat and rest the heels of your hand on the cushion made by your mat.
If you have a tendency to hyper-extend the elbows, then make sure to keep the elbows soft and slightly bent outwards in Downward-Facing Dog, to ensure you are loading the forces in the arm muscles and not the elbow joint!
To achieve the rotation in the upper arms in Downward-Facing Dog it is best to relax the shoulders (i.e. create space between the shoulders and ears) and then try to turn the armpits to face one another. This creates the ‘wrapping’ sensation that yoga teachers bang on about, and also engages certain muscles that protect and stabilize the shoulder joint.
Once you’ve found your alignment in all these other areas, with time and practice your hamstrings’ flexibility will increase until you are able to straighten your legs and press your heels to the ground. At this point, to add an extra degree of difficulty, try lifting your toes up towards your shins to increase the stretch!
Now, I know that is a lot to think about, but at the end of the day it all comes down to practice and awareness. It is better to be aware and practice a well-aligned Downward-Facing Dog for 10 seconds than to hold a poor posture for one minute. Namaste.