Yoga Break: Get Down with Down Dog!

We’ve finished our eight-part series on the different limbs of yoga (and if you’re new to the blog, I do recommend going back to read these posts as they’ll help to give you a basis), so as long as you’ll excuse my cheesy pun in the title, we’ll continue this week with a quick Yoga Break that’s all about Downard Facing Dog.

Also known as Adho Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit, Downward Facing Dog is one of the most commonly heard-of yoga poses — and for good reason! Although it’s a relatively simple shape, there is a lot going on in the body during this posture. Down Dog will gently work your shoulder mobility as well give your calves and hamstrings a glorious stretch. I’m an Ashtangi, so Adho Mukha Svanasana is a pretty central posture in my practice. Not only do we hold the pose for five breaths each time it comes up in our beginning Sun Salutations, but it also forms part of the vinyasa that’s done between each and every pose of the series. However, no matter what form of yoga you prefer, Down Dog is most likely going to come up, so getting your body comfortable with the shape will help a lot in getting yourself comfortable with the practice.

It’s strange to think about now, but when I first started yoga (with YouTube videos in my apartment), Down Dog was the pose that felt the most awkward. Seriously, though: gauging the proper distance between your hands and feet, learning to rotate the biceps outward, and distributing the weight evenly between your legs and arms is tough! It is, of course, best to have a teacher who can help you adjust the pose to your body and guide you into proper alignment, but if you’re at home trying to figure out just what on earth is up with this Down Dog thing, this is for you!

I find it easiest to begin in a table-top position on the mat, with your knees under your hips and your hands just a bit in front of your shoulders. Spread your fingers wide as you press firmly into both palms and the pads of all ten fingers. Tuck your toes, hover the knees off the ground, and (remembering to keep pressing firmly into the palms) sit your butt up and back, almost like you’re trying to sit into some invisible floating chair. Depending on your hamstring flexibility, your legs may straighten or they may not. Both are fine! Also important to note: you’ll see pictures in books and social media where the person demonstrating has his or her heels on the ground, but this just has to do with the way our individual bodies are built. Don’t worry if your heels are off the ground!

Once you’re in the pose, keep a long, straight spine while relaxing your neck. You’re going for a triangle shape, so think of creating a long straight line from palms to butt, and then another straight line from butt to heels (but again, your legs can totally be bent). Focus on spreading the scapulae away from one another and drawing the low belly in, all the while maintaining a calm, even breath. Keep your thighs activated and rolling in towards each other. I know it’s a lot to think about, but with practice your body will get used to making the shape and you’ll become more aware of the subtle shifts you need to make. When you’re ready to come out of the pose, drop back down to your knees, and then, letting your chest drape onto your thighs and your forehead come down towards the mat, rest in Child’s Pose for a few minutes.

Practicing even just Downward Facing Dog for a few minutes each day can really help with both upper and lower body strength, provided you’re keeping your muscles engaged and working in the pose. It’s also quite nice for calming the mind and getting a good stretch into your day, especially if you’ve been sitting at a computer all day. Give it a shot and report back! I’m always here to answer any questions you might have, so if you find yourself a little unsure of something, let me know. Until next week: Namaste!

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