Breaking Down Downward Facing Dog

Downward facing dog is one of the most commonly practiced asanas. In a given ashtanga or vinyasa class we come into down dog more often than just about any other pose. (Just flowing through five rounds of Sun Salutations A & B we find ourselves in down dog 20 times!). Let’s deconstruct down dog and explore a few ways that we can bring ourselves deeper into this pose. Instructions for establishing alignment are in blackĀ and tips for moving deeper are in red.

Upper Body

  1. Spread your fingers wide and place them firmly onto the mat. (If someone were to try to pry your fingers off the mat they should have a difficult time.)

  2. Externally rotate your shoulders to broaden your chest. Think about drawing the bottom tips of your shoulder blades towards one another. This creates more space for your chest to move deeper towards your thighs.

  3. Internally rotate your forearm from the elbow down. This creates a strong coiling motion that allows the shoulders to externally rotate without the thumb lifting off the ground.
    (Due to differences in individual range of motion, it may be impossible to achieve this combination of motions. Try this exercise to determine the range of motion in your forearm. Hold your forearm steady just underneath the elbow. Rotate your forearm to see how far your hand pronates and supinates by flipping your palm over. If your palm does not reach parallel to the ground, do not attempt to externally rotate the shoulders as this will place a lot of pressure on the nerves on the outside of your hand.)

  4. Imagine you are dragging your hands towards the front of your mat. This isometric contraction will open your anterior deltoids, leading to relaxation in the back of the body.

  5. Extend your head and neck away from your shoulders like a turtle sticking its head out of its shell. This will relax your trapezius muscles between your neck and shoulders.

  6. Contract your abs. This helps to flex your upper body deeper, bringing your chest more towards your thighs. It also relaxes your back muscles, allowing them to stretch further.

Lower Body

  1. Begin with bent knees. Spread your toes wide and make sure that your feet are parallel to one another and straight. (You should not be able to see your heels if your feet are straight.)

  2. Send your hips and pelvis as high as possible. Our main focus in down dog is to maximize our pelvic tilt.

  3. Internally rotate your thighs towards one another. You can try to ‘drag’ the outside edges of your feet away from one another. This isometric movement engages the Tensor Fascia Lata muscles which create internal rotation. This broadens the lower back and allows you to move deeper.

  4. Straighten your legs as much as possible. This may cause your heels to lift off the ground, which is perfectly alright! (Many people will never be able to place their heels on the ground due to tight hamstrings and/or compression in their ankles, it’s very common!)

  5. Gently contract your quadriceps. This helps to straighten the legs and creates deeper relaxation of the hamstrings, allowing them to stretch further. The sensation will feel like your kneecaps are lifting.

Down dog is a forward fold and a mild inversion. For some people it can be a relaxing pose where we can reconnect with our breath. For others it can be a very challenging pose that requires a lot of our strength. According to your intention, you can adjust the posture to change its focus.

By walking the feet closer towards the hands, you will feel more of a stretch in the hamstrings. This will place more weight on the legs and there will be less stretching and strengthening of the upper body. Walking the feet further away from the hands places more weight on the upper body, shifting the focus to strengthening and stretching the upper body and decreasing the stretch of the hamstrings. In essence, a shorter stance focuses on the lower body while a longer stance focuses on the upper body.

I encourage you to experiment with different variations to find what works best for you and to try applying a few of the tips for deepening. You may find that they help or you may find them distracting. Everybody’s body is unique so find what resonates with you and incorporate it into your down dog!

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