Probably the most basic of yoga poses, even if you stopped somebody on the street they would have heard of “down dog.” Heck, even our dogs do it! As, common place as it is, it is not to be taken lightly and is often assumed and untaught in the yoga studio. Downward facing dog has many jobs and functions, among them it is an: assessment pose, transitional pose, resting pose, strengthening pose, inversion pose and a rejuvenator.
To start the pose resembles that of an upside down letter V. Your hands should be shoulders width apart, by that I mean your own shoulders, be honest! Take a look at your hands your wrist line (joint) should be parallel to the front edge of your mat, your fingers will have equal space between each of them and in general your middle finger will point straight ahead. It is VERY important that you engage or “PLUG” your entire hand fully into the ground at all times to avoid excess strain on your wrist joint. Your feet are hips width apart and they are to remain parallel to each other, meaning your heel is directly behind your second toe. If you were to draw an imaginary line from left middle toe down to left heel, left heel across to right heel, and right heel up to right second toe, right second toe over to left second toe….this will create a perfect square. From there you will look at your lower leg or shin area. The shin area from ankle to knee will create a perfect RECTANGLE when in the proper position. Your lower leg should never resemble a potential triangle, with your knees knocking in towards each other, that risks tension on the inside knee. You should be supported equally by your upper and lower body, and not rest heavily in the legs. You will always be pushing the floor away and engaging the shoulders and the upper body, elongating, not sinking your neck into the shoulders and upper back. From a side view you will see a nice V no rounding in the back especially the low back and not arching of the back either. Beginners or people with tight hamstrings (back of the upper leg, thigh) will start with bent knees.
The roll of downward facing dog is vast. The most immediate and direct effects you will notice are: stretching the shoulders and shoulder blade area, hands/ wrists, low back, hamstrings, calves and Achilles tendon. Down dog strengthens your entire back and shoulder girdle, therefore easing back pains. It elongates your cervical spine/neck giving the opportunity to relax your head and benefit from the traction which will ease tension and headaches. Done properly and consistently, the pose will expand the chest, which will deepen respiration, lessen anxiety and stimulate full body circulation. When circulation is increased and stimulated you are refreshed, renewed and glow. Again with a commitment to a regular practice, this pose will stimulate the nervous system which helps with memory and concentration. Maybe we should have Math class, English class lunch, and Down dog!!!
For the lay person or yogi, downward facing dog elongates and lengthens the back. Think about how critical this is for an office worker who is stuck at a desk all day and hunched forward to boot…….As a matter of fact most people whether they are Moms, Brokers, Drivers, Teachers, etc. are in a constant forward bend all day and would benefit immensely by stretching and lengthening the back shoulders and front body. Not only that down dog is, as mentioned a mild inversion (since the head is lower than the hips) and inversions are great for increasing blood flow to the brain and eyes.
For the athlete, this pose is essential for assessing their postural needs and imbalances. You can feel upper or lower body imbalance by the techniques I mention above. It is an important habit to be in for athletes to check themselves and recheck BEFORE something gives way. It is a gentle way for them to open the hamstrings for quickness and speed. Stretch shoulders, keep their wrists strong and supple, for grip strength for baseball to pushing on the offensive line. Keep lower back open and strong, complimenting a strong core, this is important for agility on field from soccer and football to tennis and golf. Finally, stretch toes, calves and arches, open flexibly feet translates directly to speed for any sport that includes a run or sprint.
I also must mention some contraindications to downward facing dog. Although you should always consult your physician before starting a yoga practice as well as research a registered properly trained teacher, you should avoid this pose if you have a history of carpal tunnel syndrome, if you are in the late stages of pregnancy and if you experience sudden sharp pains while performing the pose.
So have fun, breath explore the pose and learn about your body!!
About the Author
Gwen Lawrence has been a practicing fitness professional since 1990. Her current practice includes private yoga training, class instruction and her sport-specific Power Yoga for Sports training program www.poweryogaforsports.com. Gwen’s unique combination of dance, massage and yoga training experience, coupled with her extensive knowledge of anatomy,and nutrition, provide her clients, and athletes with overwhelming benefits. Gwen is the yoga coach for several New York Yankees baseball players, team yoga instructor for the New York Giants, New York Knicks, New York Red Bulls, New York Rangers, several major college teams,including Yale and UNC, and many youth teams in a variety of sports. She is also the official spokesperson for AFRIN PureSea, and ambassador for Lululemon, her writing appears in Men's Health, Women's Health, Fitness Magazine and shape.com. She has made appearances on NBC TODAY show and many TV news and national radio shows. Gwen also owns her own Yoga School where she trains people to teach the power yoga for sports system.
Gwen lives in the New York tri state area with her Husband, and three teenage boys.