What is downward facing dog?Oct 05, 2022
Downward facing dog is a capstone pose. We take this pose so frequently in yoga practice, returning to it over and over again. If you practice in the style of vinyasa yoga, which is what I practice and teach, downward facing dog is considered our “active resting pose.” The thing is, when you’re new to yoga, downward facing dog is ANYTHING but restful. I remember when yoga teachers used to refer to downward dog as a resting pose and I’d actually be angry about it. It requires a huge amount of energy and strength to not only get into this pose, but hold it.
Once I started practicing frequently, I became more comfortable with holding this pose. Truly, it takes practice to build the strength that will keep you here for multiple breath cycles. We enter most warrior postures from downward dog and return to this pose throughout our sun salutations. It’s important for the sustainability of your yoga practice that you find a way to reconcile with this pose, or it may get you a little grumpy at first.
It took a long time before downward dog felt restful to me. When I first started practicing regularly, I had this idea that my heels had to touch the ground. In order to do that, I would need to bring my feet pretty close to my hands, which added a lot of extra pressure on my hands and in my head. By getting my feet too close to my hands, I also didn't have much space to step my foot forward to enter into different poses. Truly, there is no need to have your heels touching the ground, in fact, I find the pose more enjoyable without it.
I like to take a long, expansive downward dog. My feet are close to the back of the mat, my heels are elevated, and my knees are soft. Soft knees are an important feature to a sustainable downward dog. Soft knees give you more bounciness and allow the backs of your legs to open slowly. If I force my heels to the floor, then I feel a cranky stretch in my hamstrings rather than a soft opening. Soft knees also give more access to the pelvis. When the knees are soft you have more ability to tilt your tailbone towards the sky, as your hips are the highest point on your body when practicing this pose. Keep your feet hip width apart or wider for a more stable position.
Next, consider what your hands are doing. I frequently see folks take a narrow stance with their hands and this feels crunchy on the shoulders. Personally, when I practice downward dog, I place my thumb and forefinger to the edge of the mat, and my other three fingers are off the mat and on the floor. This provides me enough space to feel broad across my chest and upper back. The forefinger is either pointing straight forward towards 12 o’clock, or can be slightly externally rotated more to 11 and 1 o’clock. Avoid turning the forefingers inward. This creates an internal rotation of the shoulders and will place unnecessary tensions on the shoulders and joints.
When working on your downward facing dog, be at play with the space between your hands and feet. Notice what positioning of your hands and feet allows for the most comfort in your body. Notice how your breath responds to the pose. Our breath is arguably the most important thing we’re practicing in yoga. The breath is like a mirror for what's happening to us internally. If your breath feels choppy and short, you might be placing too much pressure on yourself in the pose. If the breath feels light and expansive, you may have found your “goldilocks” pose. Find the downward dog pose that suits your practice and give yourself permission to experiment with the best placement of your hands and feet. Give up the fixed notion that it has to be a certain way and allow yourself the experience of being at play with your body and your practice.
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