Teaching Down Dog

By Mark Stephens on Tue, 05/03/2016 - 07:11

Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Adho Mukha Svanasana is the foundational asana for all other arm support asanas and is an excellent asana for learning and embodying the principle of roots and extension. Following the basic principles of asana practice, explore Down Dog from the ground up and from what is at most risk of strain or injury in this asana: the wrists, shoulders, and hamstrings. We will look alternatively at the upper body (from the hands up) and the lower body (from the feet up).

In exploring Adho Mukha Svanasana, consider coming to all fours to explore the fundamentals of the hands, arms, and pelvis, then lift the hips up and back while moving toward straightening the legs. Healthy students with sufficient arm, shoulder, and core strength and stability can explore lifting the hips directly up and back into Adho Mukha Svanasana, either stepping over one foot at a time (relatively easier) or rolling over the toes on both feet simultaneously (more challenging). Many newer, very tight, or weak students are not prepared to safely practice full Adho Mukha Svanasana; they can stay on all fours to continue the preparatory work (Puppy Dog Pose) or explore the pose with their hands up a wall.

Once in Downward Facing Dog Pose, explore these 17 Practice Tips:

  1. Try to press firmly down into the entire span of you hands and the length of your fingers, paying close attention to rooting the knuckle of the index finger as a way of balancing pressure in the wrist joint. This rooting action should originate at the top of the arms.
  2. With it, try to feel the “rebounce” effect of this rooting action in the natural lengthening through your wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints.
  3. The fingers should be spread wide apart, the thumbs only about two-thirds of the way in order to protect the ligaments in the thenar space between the thumbs and index fingers. Generally, the middle fingers should be parallel and in line with the shoulders.
  4. Look to see if your arms are parallel; this will indicate if your hands are in line with your shoulders. The alignment of the wrists with the shoulders allows the proper external rotation of the shoulders, which activates and strengthens the teres minor and infraspinatus muscles (two of the four rotator cuff muscles), stabilizes the shoulder joint by drawing the scapulae firmly against the back ribs, creates more space across the upper back, and thereby allows the neck to relax more easily.
  5. If you have difficulty straightening your arms, play with turning your hands slightly out; if you tend to hyperextend the elbows, turn the palms slightly in. Slightly!
  6. Tight or weak shoulders create specific risks to the neck, back, elbows, wrists, and shoulders themselves in Down Dog. In either case, moderate effort in this asana develops both strength and flexibility, opening the shoulders to full flexion while developing deeper, more balanced strength.
  7. The shoulder blades should be rooted against the back ribs while spreading the shoulder blades out away from the spine. Note that externally rotating the shoulders tends to cause the inner palms to lift. This can be countered by internally rotating the forearms.
  8. The roots-and-extension principle applies equally to the lower body. Rooting into the balls of the feet will contribute to lifting the inner arches, which is one effect of pada bandha. This will help to stimulate the awakening of mula bandha. Learn more about the bandhas here.
  9. The feet should be placed hip distance apart or wider, with the outer edges of the feet parallel.
  10. Firming the thighs and pressing the tops of the femur bones strongly back is a key action (along with rooted hands) in lengthening the spine in this asana.
  11. While firming the thighs, try to slightly spiral the inner thighs back to soften pressure in the sacrum, all the while drawing the pubic bone back and up, the tailbone back and slightly down.
  12. The first few times in this asana in any given practice, it can feel good and help the body in gently opening to “bicycle” the legs, twisting and sashaying alternately into each hip and stretching long through the sides of the body while exploring the hamstrings, lower back, shoulders, ankles, and feet.
  13. Very flexible students tend to hyperextend their knees in Down Dog. If this is you, try to bend your knees slightly.
  14. Students with tight hips and hamstrings will find it difficult, painful, or impossible to straighten their legs. If this is you, try to separate your feet wider apart (even as wide as their yoga mat) to ease the anterior rotation of the pelvis and the natural curvature of the lumbar spine. It is okay to keep your knees bent while holding this asana, very gradually moving into deepening the flexibility of their hamstrings and hip extensors.
  15. With regular practice, the neck will become sufficiently strong and supple to support holding the head between the upper arms, with the ears in line with the arms. Until that strength is developed, let your neck relax and your head hang.
  16. With each and every exhalation, feel the light and natural engagement of their abdominal muscles. Try to maintain that light and subtle engagement in your belly while inhaling, without gripping or bearing down in your belly.
  17. Keep bringing your awareness back to the balanced ujjayi pranayama, to roots-and-extension, to a steady gaze, and to the cultivation of steadiness and ease.