5 Tweaks to a Better Down Dog
Like many yoga poses, down dog can either feel like heaven or hell. Unlike many yoga poses, down dog is often taken many, many times throughout a class. Thus a better dog goes a long way toward a more enjoyable practice. Done right, it feels amazing in the body and sets a solid foundation for more advanced poses like dolphin, handstand, and forearm stand.
So how do you get your down dog to feel more like ‘home’ or ‘rest’ as many teachers like to refer to it (to the great consternation of their students)?
Following are five important and basic tweaks:
1. Sacred hands. Spread your fingers wide to give yourself a solid base of support. (Many students don’t do this, even when instructed.) Distribute the weight evenly across the hand. (Notice how the weight wants to roll to the outside of the hand, straining the outside of the wrist which is the weakest point of the wrist.) In fact, cheat the weight to the inside of the hand just a bit….a little bit more focus on the base of thumb and pointer finger. Finally, don’t smash your palm into the ground. Bring a little suction cup action to the center of palm…this will strengthen your wrists and give you a sense of lift from the hands, instead of a sense of heaviness.
2. Active arms. With your hands on the floor in down dog, imagine you have a smiley face tattooed to your inner biceps…the part of your biceps closest to the cheeks of your face. Roll that smiley face forward toward the front of the room, which will also roll your outer triceps back. This will help stabilize the shoulder joint, turn on the muscles of your back and prevent crowding of the shoulder blades into the spine. But whoops! What just happened when you did that? The weight in your hands probably shifted back to the outside of your wrist. So now you get to do a dance with your focus…dancing back and forth between rolling the inner biceps forward while maintaining the connection between the inside of the hands and the earth. This dual focus is challenging, but hey, that’s the fun of yoga. (If this puts too much strain anywhere, back out just a bit until you get the affect without the strain.) This arm rotation may be the most challenging down dog concept to wrap your mind around, but the most important to your overall practice… helping you develop the strength needed to have a peaceful dog and the shoulder stability to one day go upside down.
Side note: If you are one of those students with lots of joint mobility and it looks like your elbows are bending backwards, your eyes are probably correct−bring a disciplined micro-bend to the elbow.
3. Bend your knees. I mean really bend them. Keep them bent and then push your hips back in space. The number one goal of down dog is to the lengthen the spine. By bending your knees and stretching your bum back, you let the length of the spine trump the length of your hamstrings. Let me better explain: If you feel like you’re in plank in down dog, you probably are. I’ll repeat that. If you feel like you’re in plank in down dog, you probably are. Why does this happen? Often our hamstrings are too tight to accommodate straight legs, but yet we’re bound and determined to straighten them. To compensate, the body pushes the hips forward in order to give the hamstrings more space. This puts more weight in your shoulders, arms and hands making it feel more like an awkward plank than a dog. (And crowding the spine in the process.) This makes dog feel unsustainable, unenjoyable… making it feel like hell. So instead, bend your knees… bend them a lot (maybe even so much so that your knees could kiss the ground.) Keeping your knees that bent, push your hips/bum back in space and feel the delicious length of your spine. Feel the weight and pressure come off of your shoulders, arms and hands. Say hallelujah I love dog! (You can stay like this or begin to flirt with straightening the legs only a tiny bit at a time, stopping the moment you feel that the tightness of your legs is pushing your weight forward.) We’ll do a whole separate post on bent knees and flesh this out a bit more. But what about those hamstrings, you say? They get loved up on and lengthened in several other poses (see future posts), so let dog be first about the spine.
4. Settle your gaze between your knees. Focussing your eyes on one spot (finding your ‘drishti’) will help you feel calm and peaceful in down dog. Although teachers and traditions vary on where to look, I personally suggest letting the eyes fall between the knees. For most body sizes/heights, this will help keep your cervical spine (neck) in alignment with the rest of the spine. (Some individuals may have to adjust this a bit if looking between the knees means cranking the head up or down). This was a game changer for me personally…when I started to do this, dog felt much more like ‘home’.
5. Say cheese. Hand your phone to a friend and have them take a shot. You’d be shocked how much one picture can tell you about the state of your dog.
Written by The Studio owner, Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau.
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