Downward Dog. It is one of the most ubiquitous yoga poses. If you have been doing yoga for even a little while, you have probably done many, many Down Dogs. It is a part of almost every yoga class. It is seen in warm-ups, sun salutations, as a standalone pose and is often a resting posture.
Even outside of yoga circles, Downward Dog has a reputation. My martial arts instructor was leading a warm-up in Krav Maga class last week. He had us do Downward Dog and remarked that it was one of the best stretches ever.
What makes it such a great posture?
Benefits of Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- Builds strength, stability and flexibility in your shoulders and upper back
- Elongates and stretches your spine, releasing tension
- Stretches the muscles in your legs, particularly the hamstrings and calves
- It is a mild inversion that calms your nervous system, improves circulation and relieves stress
- Aids digestion by gently compressing organs (kidneys, liver and the spleen)
- Can help to relive headaches, insomnia and fatigue.
- Strengthens your hands, wrists and arms
How to do Downward Dog
There are many ways to get into this posture. It’s often part of a flow following Child’s Pose, Table Top or Cobra.
Curl your toes under and press your hips up toward the ceiling. You will look like an upside-down “V” Press your chest towards your knees and your heels toward the floor. Press into the mat with your hands. Relax your head and neck. The pose resembles an upside down V.
Sounds simple …
Although it is considered a resting pose, Downward Dog can be quite challenging especially if you are new to it. It requires both upper and lower body strength and correct alignment. The restful effects do become more apparent the more you practice and familiarize yourself with this pose.
In last week’s email, I talked about poses to stretch your calves. Monica wrote back and asked if I had any tips or advice on Downward Dog. She mentioned that she had very tight hamstrings and calves and that it is difficult for her to find length and comfort in this pose. I’ve put together a few tips that might be helpful.
Tips for Happier Down Dogs
1. Looks are not important
First of all remember that it’s not about what the pose looks like but what it is doing for you. Think about the intended target areas and intention. In Downward Dog, it is to create space in the spine, open the upper back and stretch the back of the legs. With that in mind …
2. Bend your knees a little (or a lot)
The objective is not to get your heels to the floor. For tight hamstrings, calves or hips a bend in the knees is really helpful. In fact, I always do my first down dogs of a practice with bent knees. It allows you to lift your hips higher and create more space in those tight areas. This is so helpful for tightness in the backs of your legs.
Bending your knees does not mean you are doing the pose incorrectly. Doing so actually helps you maintain the integrity of the pose.
3. Experiment with hand placement
The rule of thumb is that hands should be about shoulder width apart. But if you have tight shoulders, it may help to move them out a little. Experiment a bit to find what is most comfortable.
Also keep your hands, arms and shoulders energized by actively pressing your hands into the mat.
4. Turn your heels out slightly
Rotate your heels out a little so that your toes slightly are pointed in. I find this quite helpful. I feel more opening in my back and more aligned at my knee joints. This varies depending on your individual anatomy and bone structure but play a little and see where it takes you.
5. Broaden your shoulder blades
Think of creating space around your shoulders rather than scrunching them up around your ears. Feeling them drawing down towards your tailbone and broadening across your upper back.
6. Relax your head and neck
You can either allow your head to drop softly between your arms or keep it aligned with the rest of your spine.
7. Engage your abdominals
Feel your lower abs drawing in. This will stabilize your low back and take some of the weight out of your shoulders and wrists and bring it back to your legs. Keep your core engaged but soft by breathing deeply into your belly.
8. Use supports
Try Downward Dog with your hands on a chair, table or even the stairs. By bringing your torso up, you may be able to get more of a stretch through your legs while still maintaining a long spine.
9. Vary the distance between your hands and feet
There’s a sweet spot. My yoga teacher once told me to find the spot where it feels like you are in balance – the place of least effort. Try moving your feet in closer or back a little to see if you can find that comfortable edge. And it may change, as you get stronger and more flexible.
That seems like a lot of tips for one little pose! But it’s a pose that you do often and it’s important to make it yours. If you try any of them out, please let me know how it goes. And if you have any tips of your own to share, I would love to hear them. Just leave a comment below.
Image courtesy of Ayla Newhouse