It’s a rare yoga class that doesn’t include downward-facing dog pose at least once. But how do you perfect "down dog" to get the maximum benefits from it?
For starters, you can mentally work through a list of alignment pointers and checks from the ground up. In downward-facing dog, begin by ensuring the hands are shoulder-width apart. Check that your wrist creases are parallel to the top of the mat and spread your fingers wide. Rather than placing all your weight into the heels of your hands, press the whole surface of your hands into the ground, especially the knuckles of your index fingers and thumbs.This engages all the auxiliary muscles in your arms and shoulders, helping you avoid wrist strain. Moving your attention higher, externally rotate your upper arms, wrapping your shoulder blades and firming them on to your back while maintaining space between the tops of your shoulders and ears. (Learn more in Top 4 Yoga Poses.)
Your feet should be hip-width apart and parallel. Some of us overestimate how wide our hips are, so be sure to check this. With a slight lift, draw the arches of your feet up toward the inner groin. Your heels can release toward the ground, but don’t worry if they don’t touch.
Bend your knees as much as you need to in order to take your lower belly closer to your thighs and tilt the pelvis back and up. It should feel as if someone is pulling your hips up and back so that your tailbone reaches toward the sky. The most important aspect of down dog is to create length and space in the spine. Once you’ve found this alignment, you can straighten your legs; however, it is better to maintain a long spine with bent knees than it is to straighten your knees and round your lower back. If you feel yourself collapsing into your shoulders, draw your lower front ribs in slightly to maintain integrity in the pose.
Keep your ears positioned between your biceps and your drishti toward your toes or navel. Practice makes perfect, so once you’ve found your alignment in downward-facing dog, stay here for at least five breaths. Press the ground away, lift your hips and lengthen your spine. You’ll find that the more you work through these alignment cues, the more it becomes second nature for you to naturally make these adjustments.
You can also do work in the rest of your yoga practice that will help with your downward-facing dog. To work out what you need, consider what your limiting factors in your downward-facing dog are. For example, is hamstring flexibility limiting your extension? If so, spending longer times in seated forward folds will help. Is a lack of shoulder strength holding you back? If so, practice chaturanga with your knees down; and variations of plank pose will help you to find more strength to hold yourself up.
Enjoy working with this asana and learning all it has to teach you. Happy downward-dogging! (Read more in 5 Best Poses for the Workaholic.)