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Yoga: Downward-Facing Dog

December 28, 2011

Most hatha yoga classes have students performing Downward-Facing Dog throughout the class. This invigorating pose is one of the foundational poses that are an integral part of many vinyasa sequences. Downward Dog livens up the body from the hips to the spine right through to the fingers and toes, making you feel more alive and vibrant.

Although the pose appears quite simple, it is actually very complex. Its benefits are also numerous. It demands a balanced effort from the arms, legs and torso and stretches and strengthens the whole body.

Downward Dog is used as a home base in many flow classes to neutralize the spine and bring it back to its natural alignment. Since it involves inversion it’s useful for beginners to experience the sensation of being upside down.

The following two versions will help you to rediscover, refine and “refeel” Downward Dog, even if you have done it countless times. This pose can uncover tightness in areas you never even knew existed. Your elbows may be weak, your lower back may round, but with time and practice the pose will provide wonderful sensations through your body, making you feel long and lithe.

The first version of the pose removes the hamstrings from the equation by bending the knees. This allows you to fully extend through your torso, giving your spine, shoulders and arms a long, full stretch.

Start by lying face down on your mat with your hands by your shoulders on the floor. Come up on your hands and knees, keeping your hand and feet in place. Your knees should be hip width and your hands should be shoulder width apart.

Your awareness should be brought to your hands and feet as they are the foundation of the pose. Spread your fingers wide and press them firmly into the mat dispersing your weight evenly across your hands. Tuck your toes under so your heels come off the floor. Lift your knees off the mat while moving your pelvis up and back and keep your knees bent. Picture yourself pushing the mat down and away from your pelvis.

Start refining the pose during the next few breaths. Check your hands to see if your index fingers and thumbs are off the mat. If they are you are bearing too much weight on the outer hands. Offset this by spreading your fingers and pushing down through your arms, trying to make a perfect palm print on your mat.

Straighten your elbows and rotate your arms away from your ears until the back of your elbows face your thumbs. Notice the sensations in your arms and shoulders and the broadening of your back.

Then shift your chest toward your legs, feeling your chest open and the armpit area lengthen. Continue to extend your arms and lift your pelvis further up and back, lengthening and unraveling your spine.

Finally release the tension in your neck, letting your head hang naturally between your arms. Stay here for 3-5 breaths and then exhale and bring your knees to the floor, resting in Child’s Pose.

Perform the first version of this pose again but lift your heels up off the floor as far as you can. Engage your quadriceps muscles of your thighs, straighten your knees and raise your pelvis to the sky. Your body should resemble a capital “A” and your pelvis should shift forward.

Roll your sitting bones up towards the sky. This should lift your heels further off the floor as the pelvis rotates. Firm your thighs and lift them up towards your hips. Draw your thighbones up into your pelvis and roll your sitting bones even higher. This will form a taller, more angled “A” shape. Use the force of your thighs to lift your legs and keep them straight and do not jam your knees back. Feel how your pelvic lift is supported by the strength of your legs.

Once again press the tops of your thighs back behind you. Do not press the knees. The pelvis should move away from your hands which will take some pressure off your arms. Stay in this position for 3-5 breaths.

The challenge of performing a classic Downward Dog is to keep your lower back from rounding when you fully extend your torso and the backs of the legs. Further practice with the two versions above will serve you well, especially if you find your lower back bulges towards the ceiling or your shoulders hunch forward. Move through versions one and two to come into the full pose.

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