Once upon a time, I was eager to become a yoga teacher. Sadly, my heels didn’t yet touch the ground in downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana in Sanskirt), and everything I was hearing in asana classes led me to believe that when my practice was advanced enough, they would. So, I practiced and waited...
And they never touched the ground. It’s been almost ten years since I completed my first yoga teacher training, and my heels still don’t touch my mat. It simply isn’t how I’m built.
Why is Downward-Facing Dog so Difficult?
In downward-facing dog, we ask our bodies to do many strenuous things at once: to support weight with our hands, wrists, and shoulders, to lengthen our hamstrings and the posterior chain (the back muscles that support our backs) during forward bending, and to have our heads below our hearts, to name a few.
It’s a complicated pose. For me, it still isn’t, as some traditions call it, ‘a rest pose.’
It is, however, a brilliant pose through which to understand how you relate to your body and your asana practice.
Why is it so Important, Anyway?
Downdog, as it is affectionately called, is a partial inversion, a forward bend, and a back-side-body lengthener. It’s also a perfect in-between pose, so it’s frequently used as a transition between movement and stillness, and between poses (such as in a sun salutation) and segments of practice (such as from a standing sequence to a floor sequence).
Many traditions rely so heavily on adho mukha svanasana that it is rare to go to a studio class without it. That said, before we go any farther, it’s important to note that if the pose simply doesn’t work in your body, you can have a complete and fulfilling practice without it.
It’s Your Pose
You’ll get the most out of downward-facing dog when it does you no harm and you actually enjoy it. Therefore, the most important foundation of the pose is listening to and respecting the parameters of your own body. It’s fine for the pose to be demanding, but not for it to be damaging.
Here are some trouble-shooting tips to help you experience your strongest, most balanced downward facing dog.
Wrists and Hands
If you are new to downward-facing dog, frequently use a computer or cell phone, or haven’t spent the last decade building strength in your wrists and hands, they might hurt after a few seconds in downward-facing dog. Don’t push it. Instead, build strength gradually by doing the pose for a breath or two at a time, then lowering your knees to the ground. Poses like cat/cow, table-top, and plank (perhaps with knees on the ground) can also help build wrist and hand strength. Also see extended puppy pose under ‘Shoulders’ below.
It’s important to work toward keeping your hands and fingers spread wide and engaged. No tent-hands (fingers and wrists touching the floor, knuckles lifted).
Elbow joints are not designed for holding your weight up, which means it’s important to engage the muscles of your arms and shoulders so that your elbows are not locked or hyperextended. Hyperextension occurs when the elbow joint extends beyond 180 degrees. Frequent hyperextension can cause damage to the soft tissue in your joint, so it is important to engage the muscles around your elbow in order to help protection the joint.
This pose is a great opportunity to honor the shoulders you have. Try lying down on your back and lifting your arms above your head. If your arms don’t touch the ground, your arms and torso won't be in a straight line in downward-facing dog, either. For some people this is an issue of inflexibility in the shoulder, and for others it is simply a result of the shape of their shoulder joint.
If another person can’t painlessly push your shoulder to the floor, it’s outside of your range. Working on extended puppy pose might be a good way to build strength and flexibility. With your knees on the ground, hips over knees, arms out straight and back long, press your hands into the ground, spreading your palms wide. Maintaining engagement in your arms, you can safely work toward opening your shoulders.
If you have the flexibility to lift your arms, but your shoulders cause you pain, you may want to experiment with placing your hands farther apart, more toward the outer edge of the mat. For some people, it also helps to turn the hands outward, toward the corners of the mat instead of toward the short edge of the mat.
Neck, Head and Face
Relax, relax, relax. That said, it is usually best not to let the head hang, but instead to keep the neck in line with the rest of the spine. If you feel overly flushed from the inversion, come into child’s pose to rest and resume the inversion if and when you feel ready.
One of the most common misalignments in downward-facing dog comes when people try to straighten their knees. Length in the back is more important than straight legs. (See ‘Legs and knee' below.) Optimally, your curves of your spine will be the same in downward-facing dog as they are when you are in tadasana (standing mountain pose).
Strive for a deep hip-crease, even if it means bending your knees. It’s like folding at least half-way forward when standing. If you start to want to bend your knees to keep your back long when standing, you’ll also want to bend them in downward-facing dog as well.
Legs and Knees
It doesn’t matter if your legs are straight. Really. If you need to bend them when you fold forward from standing or seated, you’ll need to bend them in downward-facing dog. Why? If your hamstrings aren’t long enough for you to do those poses with straight legs, it is the spine that curves to make up the difference. There’s no danger or harm in bending your knees while standing, but it isn’t healthy for your spine to bear weight while curved, particularly not repeatedly or for long periods of time. Thus, bent knees are much more favourable than a curved spine.
Feet and Ankles
Spread your feet and toes as wide as you comfortably can. If your Achilles tendon troubles you, place a rolled blanket underneath your heels.
Once you’re comfortable, feel free to experiment. Lift one leg at a time, or, while keeping your spine long, revolve to reach your left hand to your right calf or ankle (and vice versa). Begin to play with movement.
For the first many years of my asana practice, I found downward-facing dog difficult and painful. When I started honoring my particular form, I found stability, strength, and openness. I believe that you likely can, too.