Occasionally a body builder will wander into one of my yoga classes in Venice Beach from the famous Gold's Gym down the block (where Arnold Schwarzenegger trained in the 1970s). These students have powerful bodies, but I've noticed that they often struggle with poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) because their muscle mass isn't balanced with flexibility. Of course, I also have students in class with the opposite problem. I've seen acrobatic contortionists from Cirque du Soleil whose joints are so elastic that they often overstretch and have troubling holding the form of the pose.
For both kinds of students and everyone in between, Downward Dog is the perfect pose to observe and correct your body's imbalances. For some people, this pose is about stretching and opening; for others, it's learning to stabilize your joints with muscular effort. For everyone, Downward Dog uses the strength of your arms and legs to fully and evenly stretch your spine. It stretches your hips, hamstrings, and calves as it strengthens your quadriceps and ankles. It opens your chest and shoulders and tones your arms and abdominals. It even tones your hands and feet, preparing you for standing poses and arm balances.
The two main movements of Downward Dog are common ones: lifting your arms overhead and stretching your legs out at a right angle to your torso. But when you combine these movements and try to hold them upside down against gravity, they get harder. The pose becomes a laboratory where you observe your body's patterns. Where are you weak? strong? tight? flexible? Practiced consciously, Downward Dog can train you to balance strength and flexibility in your whole body. To start, focus on your upper body. If your shoulders are tight, your work is to open your chest, stretch through your armpits, and straighten your arms. If you are already flexible here, resist the temptation to press your chest down toward the floor to experience more stretch. This tends to compress your spine and the backs of your shoulders. Instead, engage your arms and upper abdominals, aligning your upper back to lengthen your spine and create an even, diagonal line from your wrists up to your sitting bones.
Next, check in with your lower body. If your hamstrings are tight, they may pull your hips down and force your back to round. In this case, practice with your knees actively bent at first. If you already have open hamstrings, it may be easy for you to lift your hips toward the ceiling. Don't exaggerate this movement and overarch your lower back. Instead, firm your legs and your lower abdominals to lengthen your spine.
As you practice Downward Dog over the years, perhaps you can develop strong muscles where you never had them before or begin to stretch with the limberness of an acrobat. Whatever your body's qualities, if you are working with energy and awareness, your inner Self will be aligned, and it will shine through with power and grace.
Even if you don't have time for a full home practice, do Downward Dog every day for 1 to 2 minutes. Use the pose as a daily check-in: Notice where you are limber, tight, or fatigued, and observe what feels different day by day. Take the opportunity to settle your mind and connect to your breath.
Step One: Child's Pose
Explore the range of movement in your shoulders by stretching your arms in Child's Pose.
Set It Up
Begin in Child's Pose with your big toes touching and your knees wide apart; rest your forehead on your mat.
1. Stretch your arms in front of you with your hands shoulder-width apart.
2. Press your hands strongly down into the mat and lift your forearms up.
3. Gently roll the outside of your upper arms down and feel a widening across your upper back, establishing external rotation in your shoulder joints.
4. Press your inner hand and thumbs down, to create internal rotation in your forearms.
With your fingers spreading, check to make sure the creases of your wrists are parallel to the front edge of your mat. First, press your hands strongly down and lift your forearms up until you can sense your shoulders connecting to your shoulder blades on your back. Next, from your shoulders, rotate the outer arm muscles down, spreading your shoulder blades apart. You may notice that your inner hand becomes less grounded as you do that. In that case, press down more firmly with your thumbs and inner hands.
Finally, firm your forearms toward each other to straighten your elbows, and press your upper arms out to create a dynamic strength in your arms.
Now press your hands into the mat as if you were trying to push it away from you. You'll feel a bit more space in your shoulders, and your spine and hips will elongate away from your arms. Take a full breath into this length and then rest.
Step Two: Downward-Facing Dog, variation
Work your legs to stretch and align your spine in a variation of Downward Dog Practice holding your body weight with your arms, shoulders, and core muscles.
Set It Up
1. Start in Child's Pose with your arms stretched out in front of you.
2. Curl your toes under and lift your hips up and back, keeping your knees well-bent and heels elevated.
3. Push up and back with your thigh muscles and especially press back from the tops of your thighs.
4. Keep rooting your hands and working your arms, just as you practiced in Step one.
Make sure your feet are about hip-width apart and spread your weight evenly among all 10 toes to keep your ankles well-aligned. Strongly press up and back with the tops of your thighs until you feel your hips being drawn back with them. If your hamstrings are very flexible and you press your sitting bones too high toward the ceiling, you may begin to overarch your lower back. In that case, you'll need to gently curl your tailbone downward and lift your lower belly to bring the spine back to neutral. If, on the other hand, your hamstrings are tight and you're rounding your lower back, bend your knees some more and try to angle your sitting bones higher.
Now try "walking your dog." Keeping your arms firm and both hips high, straighten one leg at a time, and try to press your heels down to the earth. Imagine that you could breathe down the backs of your legs to help lengthen your hamstrings and your calf muscles. Bend both legs again and come down to rest in Child's Pose.
Final Pose: Downward-Facing Dog
Set It Up
1. From Child's Pose, curl your toes under and press up and back into Downward-Facing Dog.
2. Place your hands shoulder-width apart with the wrist creases parallel to the front edge of your mat. Firm and straighten your arms.
3. Keep your feet hip-width apart and the outside edges of your feet parallel to one another.
4. Firm your legs: Lift your kneecaps; press the tops of your thighs up and back; press your heels down.
Check in with each part of your body. Root your hands evenly. Lift the forearms up and away from the mat and press the shoulder blades gently into your back. Lift your bottom front ribs up toward the tops of your thighs and firm the front of your torso. Press the tops of your thighs up and back and root your heels down. If possible, straighten your legs, firming all the muscles as if they were hugging your leg bones.
Feel the full length of your spine and take a few deep breaths. Shift your awareness from each of the specific muscle groups to all of them and then to every cell in your body. Steady your attention on your whole being: strong, still, and luminous.
Try these tips to get the most out of Downward Dog:
If you have tight shoulders, place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders and angle your hands slightly outward.
Protect your elbows from hyperextension by pressing your inner upper arms away from each other until your biceps engage.
For healthy neck placement, bring your ears in line with your upper arms to align your neck and head along the same line as your spine.
If the backs of your legs are very tight, bend your knees or try stepping your feet as wide as the mat.
Are you a sensation junkie? You may have learned to love the feeling of stretching, and now you're in the habit of pushing in your poses until you achieve that delicious sensation of stretch. It's easy to get caught up in wanting more and more: a deeper forward bend, more open shoulders, or a really big backbend. In reality, it's more challenging to discern when enough is enough and to find a state of contentment. This is not complacency; rather, it is shifting your intention away from extreme flexibility to well-aligned stability. And it is a great opportunity to take a look at your habit of wanting more and to consider the benefits of an attitude of contentment, both on and off your mat.
Annie Carpenter teaches yoga classes and leads teacher trainings at the Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California.