How many times have you been in an asana class and found yourself faking your way through a pose that you did not know how to do? This is very common in fast-paced studio classes, and it is the cause of injury in many yogis.
Long before Yoga studios began to appear in every town, learning the asanas took years of dedicated study. A student would work with one teacher over many years, combining formal education with self-study. Ultimately, the student owned and was responsible for their own practice.
Advancement is steady with this model, but the result is powerful. Students develop a practice that is grounded in a strong understanding of how the asanas (and other limbs) clear the subtle channels in the body and calm the mind. They also develop a healthy relationship with their body and come to know more of themselves. It’s the model that we teach in our Yoga trainings, and it makes lifelong students out of all of us.
Yoga from the ground up
This month, we want to invite you to go back to the foundation of your asana practice with a tutorial on adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog.
Adho mukha svanasana is many things at once. Its essence is a spinal extension, but it is also an inversion and a forward bend. It lengthens the hamstrings and strengthens the muscles along the front of the legs. It opens the shoulders and releases tension in the upper back and neck. If you only have time for one pose each day, adho mukha svanasana would do just fine.
How to do downward dog
You might be used to moving quickly through this pose in surya namaskar (sun salutations), but adho mukha svanasana is actually a rejuvenating pose. When you learn to use your pelvic floor and legs as the primary source of strength, rather than relying on your arms, you’ll understand why it is a place to pause and ground.
Take time to tune in to the subtle shifts that make all the difference in this pose. Make sure you are not hyperextending your shoulders, elbows or knees. Rotate your upper arm bones away from your head, bringing your shoulder blades down your back toward your waist. Stay here for 15 to 20 breaths, release and feel the full benefit of this pose.
Here at Hale Pule, we talk about asana with three designations: essence, anchor and strength. This is a simple tool to remember the intention of the pose, where your body is grounded and the muscles you engage for proper alignment. These components will support optimal energy flow and a sustainable practice throughout your life.
Adho mukha svanasana from the ground up
1. Start on your hands and knees. Your hands will be shoulder-width distance apart and wrist creases parallel to the front of the mat.
2. Walk your feet back about two inches, making sure they are hip-width distance apart (if you’re not sure what hip-width is, test by bringing your fist between the widest part of your feet).
3. Press into your hands, especially the first knuckles of your index fingers, and extend through your arms and torso. Lift your buttocks up and back, initiating the movement from your tailbone, and extend through the spine and back. While maintaining the extension of the spine, straighten your legs as much as possible It’s okay to bend your knees (and encouraged as you are building a foundation here), but you may straighten them as long as you maintain the extension in your spine.
Rotate your upper arm bones away from your ears to move the shoulder blades down your back and bring your ears between your upper arms. Your gaze looks toward either your big toes or your navel, but your head follows the extension of your spine.
Bend your knees as much as necessary to maintain the extension in your spine.
Practice at the wall if you have difficulty getting the roundness out of your back.
Common trouble spots
Rounding in lower back. Bend your knees as much as necessary to experience the extension in your spine.
Elbows hyperextended. If you’re prone to hyperextension, slightly bend your elbows back to a straight position to unlearn this habit. Make this a regular practice and you’ll see how much stronger you will feel as your energy flows.
Hyperextending shoulders. Avoid pushing through your shoulders by maintaining a broad open upper back and externally rotating your upper arm bones and shoulders.
Fingers not grounded. Build the foundation of this pose by connecting your knuckles to your mat (especially your index fingers). This will take the work out of your biceps and joints and ease wrist pain.