Downward Dog Is A Resting Pose?!
Have you ever been told that Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is a resting pose? Yeah right, I hear you say! Not many people believe it’s possible to rest in this pose and might never get to experience it as restful because of incorrect alignment. Tight hamstrings, locked shoulders or sore wrists can make it a real challenge too but I’m going to share with you some alignment tips, modification options and prop supports that that will change your Downward Dog (DD) experience from an ‘owie’ to an ‘ahhhhh’!
First off, soooo many benefits of this pose!
- Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
- Energizes the body and wakes you up
- Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands
- Strengthens the hands, arms, shoulders and legs
- Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause
- Relieves menstrual discomfort when the head is supported by a rolled blanket or block
- Builds bone density and helps prevent osteoporosis
- Improves digestion
- Relieves headache, insomnia, back pain and fatigue
- Activates the lymphatic system for better circulation
- Can be therapeutic for high blood pressure, asthma, flat feet, sciatica, sinusitis (get sign off from your Doctor before trying this with high blood pressure)
Now that you’re properly motivated to try the pose again, lets look at some tips that will help you enjoy hanging upside down in Downward Dog!
Right from the start, I want to expose a myth about this pose:
You DON’T NEED to have straight legs in Downward Dog!
I know, mind blown right?! In fact, let me go a little bit further and say this:
Straight legs can potentially ruin your alignment!
For anyone with tight hamstrings, trying to straighten your legs in this pose can feel painful and more likely than not, you’ll compensate by curving your back, tilting your torso, locking your knees or leaning extra hard into your wrists – none of this is going to feel restful.
The goal for DD is to lengthen your spine, so as you come into this pose, bend, bend, bend those knees, come on to the balls of your feet and extend your sit bones backwards. Press into the base of your forefingers and thumbs to create leverage and feel like you have an invisible cord attached to your sit bones, drawing you backwards, lengthening your spinal cord and giving your vertebrae and pelvis some space. Draw your tailbone under slightly to lengthen through the sacrum and press your belly against your spine to support your back. Only when you’ve achieved this blissful stretch, will you try to straighten your legs, being careful not to lock your knees if you have hyper-mobile joints.
If you start rounding your back as soon as you straighten your legs, try ‘walking your dog’ by alternately bending and straightening your legs to warm and release them. Once your legs are feeling a bit more loosey goosey, ease into straight legs again. If you’re still rounding your back, then some preparation work in Standing Pose (Uttanasana) can give you some more length in your legs to try again.
Another myth: You DON’T need to bring your heels to the floor!
I was once told by a veteran yoga teacher that most people either have tight hips or tight hamstrings. I’ll be honest with you; if you have tight hamstrings, you may never comfortably get those heels down flat on the floor – but that’s ok! 😊 The goal in DD is to lengthen the body and if you’re lengthening your spine and straightening your legs, then you’re achieving the ideal DD!
Pro Tip: If you want to work towards getting those heels closer to the floor, press your big toes down after straightening your legs. It releases the Achilles tendon (so be careful if you’ve injured this before), which helps get those heels a little lower. If you’re doing long DD holds in a class, a rolled-up blanket or mat under the heels can really help support you too.
We’re quite often given the cue that our feet should be placed hip distance apart with toes pointing to the front of the mat. But a cue that can be missed is to move the feet closer to your hands if you wish. Quite often we come into a DD from a lunge of some kind and your feet are too far back for you to get comfortable, especially if you’re height challenged like myself. Yes, you may be the only person that makes this adjustment but if it adds to your comfort level and getting the most of out of the pose then go for it! Maybe someone else will see you and try it too and experience a bliss they’ve not had in DD before. But in the end, yoga is about connecting to the experience of your own body so adjust, adjust, adjust till it feels right for you.
Hands and Wrists
Sore hands or wrists are a common complaint with DD (usually because of leaning too much into the upper body) and it can be especially painful if you have carpal tunnel. DD is an amazing way to strengthen the wrists and hands though, so injury or some discomfort isn’t a reason to completely take it out of your practice. Get sign off from your Doctor or Physiotherapist before starting yoga with an injury, but a general recommendation is that you can still do a wrist/arm intensive pose like DD if you’re not at a level of 7-10 on the pain scale. Modifications and prop support can also be a great way to hold DD, while protecting your injury.
Some options for support are:
– A rolled up mat or blanket under the base of your palms (fingers are still on the floor in front) to relieve any pressure felt in the wrist.
– Use a yoga wedge, which achieves the same result as a rolled up mat or blanket, but provides a bit more stability and grip.
– Alternate between flat hands and ‘tenting’ the hands (lift palms off the floor and come up on to fingertips).
– Create a suction cup in the middle of your palm by pressing through the outer edges of the palm, bases of the fingers and the fingertips. This will engage Hasta Bandha, or a hand lock.
– Make sure to spread your fingers, pressing into the base of your thumbs and index fingers especially.
– Roll your upper arms out, drawing the arm bones into their sockets, while trying to keep the lower arms rolling inwards (perhaps practice this movement while sitting to get understand the feeling before getting into DD).
– Firm your shoulder blades against the back and then draw them down the spine while spreading your collar bones. Feel broad across your back and chest. This will draw the shoulders away from the ears and allow you to move the pressure off your wrists, as you move your sit bones up and backwards to lengthen your spine.
– Alternate between DD and Dolphin pose, which is DD on the forearms instead of the hands.
– Slightly bend your elbows, especially if you’re hyper-mobile, so that the weight of your body is being supported by the muscles in your arms, rather than the bones.
– Remember to gently rotate or stretch out the wrists after DD to release any tension.
– To support shaky arms, loop a belt around them, just above the elbows and press against the strap, while spiraling your upper arms outwards and lower arms inwards. You can also give the same support to your legs by looping a belt around your upper legs above the knees. While you have this support, you can focus on keeping your legs active, while drawing thighs outwards in a slight external rotation. Hug your shins in toward each other as though you were trying to squeeze a block between them to encourage a slight inward rotation through the lower legs.
– As mentioned before, a wedge, blanket or rolled up mat under the base of the palms will ease the pressure on your wrists and arms.
– If you have difficulty releasing and opening your shoulders, your arms are a bit shaky, or a wrist/arm/shoulder injury is really grumpy, try placing your hands on a pair of blocks or the seat of a metal folding chair and gradually work your way down to the floor as you get stronger/more open/have less pain.
-You can work on getting into the traditional DD pose by practicing against a wall. Face the wall and stand about 3 feet away, with your legs hip distance apart. Place your hands on the wall and walk your hands down until your torso and arms are parallel to the floor. Roll upper arms out, roll lower arms in, draw shoulders away from the ears and broaden across the collar bone as you draw the sitting bones backwards and lengthen through the spine.
Once you’ve found your comfort zone, begin to settle into the pose.
Gently turn your head side to side or slowly shake it yes and no to encourage your neck to relax and your head to become heavy. Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
Take a deep breath in and out and release any tension in your shoulders by drawing the shoulder blades towards each other and down the back to concave the upper back just a little.
Move in and out of ‘walking the dog’ by bending and stretching your legs or ‘wag your tail’ by moving hips from side to side before settling into your hold again.
With every exhale, feel that your head and chest are drawing closer to the floor, as your sit bones lift further up and back.
If you need a break, lower your knees, untuck your toes and come into child pose.
Keep practicing! The one thing that is inevitable in regular yoga practice is change. So pay attention to your body to achieve correct alignment, support your body with modifications or props if you need them and before you know it, you’ll be stretching and lengthening both sides of your upside down triangle, while achieving a blissful rest in this hugely beneficial pose.