Downward Dog (adho mukha svanasana) is such a foundational and frequently used pose that the term is understood in common parlance, though I’d say that the structure of the asana itself is not. It’s useful to return to adho mukha svanasana – “ams,” for three key reasons. First, the asana builds flexibility and strength in a number of very important muscles – those that are frequently very tight, and a few that are underused and weak. Often, the glutes, hamstrings, and calves are tight, and ams will help to relieve this over time. Muscles farther up, such as the lower traps, lats, and the muscles of the rotator cuff,* tend to be weak because of postural habits and stress, both of which encourage us to keep our shoulders up, close to our ears. When we imagine what it looks like to relax, we often picture shoulders dropping away from a tense, elevated position. The muscles that keep our shoulder-blades “down and back” are those that will be required to work in properly aligned ams. With time, and as these muscles become stronger, your overall posture will improve.
Another reason to revisit and perfect ams is the double-edged sword of popularity. Poses that we use often are ones that we have regular opportunities to study and improve, but unless we are committed to just that sort of examination, these are poses in which we can fossilize habits of misalignment. Returning to these poses deliberately and slowly is important, and it helps us to perform them correctly in faster and more demanding vinyasas. This is critical to the prevention of chronic imbalances that can lead to injury.
Of course, we wouldn’t return to the pose so regularly if it didn’t provide such an excellent place to re-collect ourselves between asanas, if it weren’t such a restorative place to take a few deep, measured breaths, and if it weren’t anatomically such a natural springboard for so many asanas and sequences. Downward Dog leads beautifully into Table pose, which can flow into Cat (marjaryasana), Dolphin, Crane (bakasana), Plank, and a host of others. It can lead to Standing Forward Bend (uttanasana) and Mountain (tadasana). Upward Dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) and Cobra (bhujangasana) are nice counter-balancing poses that work well from Plank after ams. Downward Dog is a useful pose in and of itself, but its value also rests in the fact that it links so many others in vinyasas.
So, how can we revisit the pose and ensure that we’re getting the most out of it?
Begin in Table, and move your hands forward by a few inches. This extra length will make the pose much easier to maintain. Spread your fingers as wide as possible and orient your hands such that your middle finger is pointing forward (useful after your instructor has suggested holding [Awkward] Chair Pose, utkatasana, for a count of five breaths). Next, “grip” the floor with the pads of your fingers – this will alleviate tension in the wrist, which is a common complaint amongst new students. Here, you’ll have an opportunity to play with your elbows. Take a look at the inside creases of your elbows. You’ll notice that you can angle these creases to face each other, or swivel them forward to face the front of the mat. This will take a little practice, but Table gives us the perfect space in which to become familiar with the sensation of our elbows rotating backward and the creases forward.
With your hands firmly planted, press backward, maintaining a deep bend in the knees. A common error is to push up instead of back; imagine that you’re pressing yourself toward the back wall. You should see straight arms, a straight back, and a supportive bend in the knees. Now, begin to lengthen your legs such that your heels descend toward the floor. Keep in mind, your legs do not have to be perfectly straight, nor do your heels have to touch the floor. As in most asanas, the key is your core. Just begin to lengthen out until you can feel a good pull through your hamstrings (the back of your thighs). Check in with your back; it should be flat, with your tailbone tilting upward. A good way to visualize this is to imagine that someone standing behind you is pulling your hips backward and up. If this is difficult to envision, a great exercise is to have a friend weave a yoga strap around the front of your hips, right across the hip bones. Get into Downward Dog, and ask your friend gently and steadily to pull the ends of the strap backward and up. This will give you a grasp of the sensation in the muscles that you’re aiming at achieving in unassisted practice.
Have a look at your hands. Are you still gripping the mat with your finger-tips? Are your fingers still spread out? Move upward along your arms. Play with your elbows again – swivel the creases forward. A little farther up, and imagine broadening your collar-bones. This will have the effect of placing your shoulder-blades where they need to be on your back, and helping you to draw your shoulders away from your ears. One more step upward, and relax your neck; let your head hang down freely.
With this alignment established, see if you can push back just a bit more, keeping the feeling of broadness across your collar-bones, and relaxation in your neck. By now, your hamstrings may have released by a degree or two, and you may find that you can continue to lengthen. Draw your knees back, draw your heels downward. You can “walk your dog” at this point, lifting one heel higher and bending the knee somewhat deeper while you stretch the other leg. Repeat on the other side in a treading motion. Once again, don’t worry if your legs don’t end up perfectly straight or if your heels reach the floor. The most important consideration is that your back is straight, with a slight anterior pelvic tilt.
What you’ll notice overall is that attention to correct alignment has formed an extremely active, challenging pose. There is a significant difference in the sensations created by a correctly established Downward Dog and one that is assumed casually, without intention, or too quickly. It is useful to practice this pose with an instructor or a friend who can help you to determine if you need to focus on a particular aspect of alignment. All of this being said, there are a few words of caution. If you have shoulder problems, you will want to ensure that there is no inflammation present before you try Downward Dog. If your shoulder issues are chronic ones, it’s advisable to consult an instructor, physiotherapist, or sports-therapist for adjustments that will specifically address your needs. Because of the position of the head in this pose, if you have any concerns about your eye-health or blood-pressure, these too should be discussed with a health-care professional.
Take a few minutes after your next warm-up or full session to experiment with Downward Dog – the benefits will be long-lasting.
*Here’s to jargon!