Do you want to refine your yoga practice? Then start with the basics, like some simple changes that will help you master downward dog
If you’re thinking ‘Downward Dog is easy peasy, it’s just hanging out on all fours’ then this is the post for you. Mastering downward dog will help the rest of your practice as it opens up the body in various different ways.
You rarely attend a class that doesn’t bring you through many rounds of downward dog but are you downward dogging right? This transitional pose is trickier to master than you would expect. It can expose areas of tightness in the back of the legs, spine and shoulders. It is one of those poses that when you look around the room of downward dogging yogis you’ll notice some funky interpretations of the pose. Luckily it is not particularly a pose that, when done incorrectly, will cause much in the line of injuries.
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We spend a lot of time hanging out in downward dog. We flow through it in our sun salutations; link poses together with it; and even use it as a resting pose between asana, taking a few deep breaths and being ready to move again. When done with awareness it gives you all the benefits of an inversion; stretches your hamstrings, glutes, arms, spine and shoulders; and strengthens your quads, hip flexors, core, arms, spine and shoulders.
Prepping for downward dog
For your first downward dog keep your knees deeply bent and press strongly through the balls of your feet. This will give a bit of slack to tight calves and hamstrings, and allows you to work on tipping the pelvis forward and reaching your sit bones up. As you start to feel the muscles warm up slowly straighten your legs and start to press the heels down towards the ground. Work on keeping your sit bones pointing up and keep the integrity of the lovely natural curve of your spine. To give a bit of space for tight shoulders try placing bricks under your hands and press your heels towards the ground. Blocks (the flatter version of bricks) can also be used at the back of your mat to give you a surface to press your heels into – getting a further stretch in the backs of the legs.
Try the above sequence and take a bit of time to explore and develop your downward dogs. Notice the difference between your first one at the start of the sequence to your last one at the end, as the body opens up and releases areas of tension.
The following are some alignment cues that you might hear in class. Print them out, along with the sequence, and play around with what makes sense to you:
- Hands shoulder width apart, feet hip width apart, press into all five knuckles of your hands and lightly though the pads of your fingers, fingers spread.
- Roll your biceps forward, broaden the collarbones, back of the neck long, firm your shoulder blades against your back, head in line with your ears.
- Pelvis tips forward, lift your sit bones up, stretch your heels towards the ground, draw your hips up and back.
- Top of the thighs pressing back, roll your inner thighs back. Hug your outer hips to the midline, gaze to the ground under your pelvis.
- Draw your navel towards your spine to support the internal organs.
- Look for symmetry of the whole body between right and left side joining at the midline.
- Experiment with coming in and out of downward dog from cow pose to find the forward tilt of the pelvis. Keep your knees deeply bent to avoid tight hamstrings pulling the pelvis back until you are nicely warmed up.
- Try your first few downward dogs with the feet mat distance apart. You might find it releases tension in tight hamstrings and allows you to press the heels further down towards the ground to help stretch out the calves.
- When you are happy in your dog play around with pressing your hands and feet away from each other, and then towards each other and notice the different muscles activating.
- It can be hard to know what position your hips and shoulders are in when your hanging out in downward dog. Ask a yogi pal to scan through your pose and use the ‘How To’ checklist to check how you’re doing.
Ruth Delahunty is a 200hr Yoga Alliance certified teacher and founder of Yogaru.ie, a yoga lifestyle website that promotes a yoga way of living both on and off the mat. For more information visit yogaru.ie.