Downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) is a fundamental and ubiquitous pose in part because of its neat place in sun salutations but also because of its benefits.
What I love about down dog is that it is an all-in-one pose—meaning that it requires the integration of the whole body, and provides benefits to the whole body. It stretches the muscles of the shoulders, the belly, the back, and the backs of the legs. It strengthens the arms, relieves neck tension, and, like traditional inversions, can have a calming effect on the nervous system (and as a result, supports digestion). And down dog can be either a warm-up or a cooldown.
Downward facing dog pose offers us the opportunity to find the deep core muscle strength (of the obliques, spinal extensors, and hip flexors) that will support the spine in its elongated neutral shape; to bear weight well in both the hands and the feet; and to strengthen the legs (quadriceps) and the arms and shoulders (triceps, serratus anterior, infraspinatus, teres minor, and deltoids). It also encourages the expansion of the back and sides of the rib cage and shoulders and the lengthening of the backs of the legs (glutes, hamstrings, and calves). It is an asymmetrical pose that facilitates balanced effort between the upper and lower halves of the body as well as between the right and left sides. A downward-facing dog turns us inward, away from the world, which may help to calm us, while as an arm-supported inversion it may impart focus and vitality.
Because many of us practice downward facing dog so frequently, it’s important that our alignment is precise in order to avoid injuries to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders that may result from repetitive misalignment. However, downward facing dog’s very ubiquity means that it often gets less attention in yoga class than trickier poses. In the step-by-step directions below, we’ll explore three facets of the downward-facing dog: the spine; the feet and the knees; and the hands, arms, and shoulders. By transitioning into the pose in three different ways, we can shift the focus to each of these areas individually and create a downward-facing dog that is both safe and challenging.
Walking the hands forward from a half forward fold (ardha uttanasana) to come into downward facing dog allows us to refine the alignment of the legs while bearing weight more effectively through the feet. This work not only strengthens the feet and the legs, but may help alleviate wrist pain and shoulder stress in this pose: when the feet and legs do more, the hands, wrists, and shoulders can do a little less.
1. From a standing position at the back of your mat, hinge at your hips, coming into ardha uttanasana, bringing your hands to your shins or your fingertips to the floor underneath your shoulders. (Reach your heart forward and bring your spine into its elongated neutral shape, as you did in route 1 above.) Though this pose is typically done with straight legs, feel free to bend your knees if your lower back rounds when you straighten your legs.
2. Check that your feet are hip-distance apart and parallel, the outside edges of your feet in line with the outside edges of your mat.
3. Keeping the backs of your knees soft (do not hyperextend), check that the centre of each knee lines between the second and third toe of each foot. (For more on knee/toe alignment, check out “Alignment Help for the Hamstrings,” which I co-wrote with Dr. Jonina Turzi.)
4. Distribute your weight equally between the inner and outer balls of the feet, and the inner and outer heels, while keeping the toes light.
5. Bend your knees enough so you can bring your fingertips to the floor a foot or so in front of your feet, keeping your knees in line with your centermost toes.
6. Keep your knees bent as you gradually walk your hands toward the front of your mat, imagining as you do that there is a rope around the tops of your thighs pulling them back. This should help keep your tailbone tipping up and back and your lower back curving in, and even help you to keep weight in the balls of the feet, though the heels will lift as you come forward. Be careful not to stop too soon! Walk your hands far enough forward that the spine can fully lengthen, as it did in route 1.
7. In a downward-facing dog with knees still bent, check on the alignment of your legs and the weight-bearing of your feet: make sure your middle toes are pointing forward, your knees are tracking toward your middle toes, and the inner and outer balls of your feet are evenly weighted. Even though you don’t necessarily want the heels to touch the floor, reach down with the entirety of your heels as if they were pressing into the floor. For extra credit, lengthen the tips of your toes toward your wrists.
8. Maintaining this work in your legs and feet, straighten your legs only as much as you can while maintaining your lumbar curve.
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