by Kara-Leah Grant
It’s one of the most common and most popular of all yoga postures, yet like the other postures we’ve looked at in recent months, Adho Mukda Svanasana is far from being a beginner’s yoga pose.
No, downward dog is one of those postures which, when done badly, can do more damage than it does good.
Fortunately, it’s also a posture we usually get to spend serious time in – most sun salutations will allow five breaths in a downward dog, and it’s a posture we return to again and again during a yoga class.
In fact, given time and practice, Adho Mukha Svanasana becomes a resting pose, just like Balasana, or Child’s pose. It certainly doesn’t feel like that though when you first start practicing it!
Like Urdhva Muka Svanasana (Upward Dog) and Chaturanga Dandasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana requires open and free shoulders. All the alignments cues we played with in Upward Dog apply here – and so too does the technique we used to feel into the correct alignment of the hands and shoulders, without adding any weight to our posture. You can read more about that here.
So for this article on Downward Dog, I’m going to focus on the movement of the pelvis and how the legs, ankles and feet open up – or don’t.
The most common mistake I see people make in Downward Dog is straightening their legs before they have the openness and forward tilt of the pelvis necessary. Without that movement in the pelvis, straight legs pull the pelvis into a tucked under position which then rounds the spine, pulling the entire posture out of alignment.
Instead, always approach Downward Dog by focusing first and foremost on a straight and open spine – and if that means bending the knees deeply to create enough forward tilt through the pelvis to allow the spine to open, so be it. That’s where you start. It doesn’t mean you’re doing any less of a posture, or you’re doing the posture wrong – it means you’re working within your limitations in a safe manner that allows the posture to open up over time.
Usually in a class situation, I start by cueing everyone into bent legs, because invariably if you tell people to modify by bending their knees if they need it… they either can’t tell that they need it or they don’t want to do a modification that means they’re ‘less than’.
But that’s the thing with yoga. It ain’t a competition and it’s not about attaining the perfect pose.
It’s about using the postures to work with your body as it is. The perfect pose – for you – arises naturally out of that.
With bent knees, it’s possible to accentuate the forward tilt of the pelvis – think about bringing the hip bones towards the top of the thighs. For some people, this may even start to bring the spine into a slight backbend, and that’s ok initially.
Here’s a point by point cueing of Downward Dog that I use in class:
- Start on hands and knees.
- Spread the fingers and press the palms firmly into the ground, ensuring the hands are shoulder width apart.
- Tuck your toes under and push firmly back into the little toe side and the big toe side of your feet.
- Keep the knees bent and lift your hips up into the air.
- Hug your armpits in toward your body (this helps with externally rotating the shoulders, an instruction that is generally meaningless to most people).
- Extend through your arms, hugging the biceps and triceps to your arm bones.
- As you inhale, let that inhale go up the spine and lengthen the tailbone toward the sky.
- As you exhale, extend firmly through the arms and hands and extend your ribs away from your hands.
- Legs are still bent – now start to walk each leg out, one by one, in rhythm with your breath.
- Take your time and notice how the movement goes through your feet.
- Be aware of pressing evenly through little toe and big toe side of your feet.
- Check in with the spine and pelvis again – there’s a strong, straight line of energy from your fingertips, all the way up your arms, through your shoulders, up the spine and out the tailbone.
- If you can maintain that straight line of energy, allow your legs to straighten and release your heels towards the ground.
- If you feel your pelvis pull or your spine round when you straighten your legs, keep your knees bent.
- Whether your knees are straight or bent, focus on allowing your heels to release into the earth – it’s easy to hold tension in the ankles, calves or feet and not even know it.
- It doesn’t matter if your feet don’t touch the ground – the point is the releasing action, not where your feet end up.
- Continue to actively breathe in the posture – inhales extend your hips and tailbone towards the ski, exhales ground your feet and hands into the earth.
Now, watch Seka on video take you through the same process.