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Yoga 101: Downward Facing Dog

Find strength and flexibility in your unique breed of downward facing dog, or adho mukha svanasana.

This week we transform ourselves into human's best friend, the dog. In downward facing dog, or "down dog" for short, each of us is a unique breed.

I remember the first time I tried down dog. I felt upside down, confused, weak, frustrated and in a bit of discomfort. It did not feel relaxing to me at first — I felt like I was straining in my shoulders, arms and legs, and I used to get anxious about going to a power or vinyasa class, where down dog is freqently used. Eight years later, down dog is one of my favorite postures. I now find it relaxing and invigorating.

Down dog is a full body stabilizer. As it strengthens the hands, wrists, feet and ankles, it increases flexibility in the legs, spine, arms and shoulders. To me, it feels like I am my own chiropractor. Using a combination of gravity, my own strength and body weight, I find space in the warmth of the joints and ligaments.

Not only does it help the physical body, but it also creates shifts in the subtle energetic body. Hanging between the hands and feet, you might visualize the body draining out negative energy and allowing the Earth to draw that useless energy out of you as you hang out in the posture.

Yoga master instructor Annie Carpenter told us in a workshop a few years ago at Yogani, “Down dog is a resting posture. We should be able to hang out here for a long time, 5 minutes or more, before we begin to fatigue.”

Carpenter, like many other instructors, considers down dog a place of suhka, or ease. I understand her point because down dog eventually begins to feel comforting, agreeable, even restful to the degree that our breathing and body can find a place where tension is released.

Get clearance from your physician before attempting a new yoga practice. For knee, wrist, shoulder or back issues, or high or low blood pressure, please refer to the modifications offered in the photos to find your unique breed of dog.

Let's get started!

1. Find the table top position, with your hands spread wide under your shoulders or slightly wider, and your knees under your hips.

2. Inhale fully through your nose, and curl your toes under.

3. Exhale, lifting your hips up to the sky. Keep your knees bent a bit at first.

4. Bringing awareness to your hands, make sure your fingers are pointed forward and your hands are spread open on the mat. Engage your forearms, elbows and upper arms.

5. Draw the shoulders away from the earlobes and soften your chest. If you can keep your shoulders engaged this way, begin to lengthen your legs.

6. “Walk your dog”: Bring one heel down as you bend one knee. This will help you begin to loosen the back of the legs and the whole back of the body.

7. If you are going to straighten your legs, do so little by little. Treat your dog well. If the posture hurts, back off or stop and come out of the posture. Over time, you will find that your flexibility and strength will be transformed by doing this posture regularly.

8. See if you can engage your front and back of your thighs, as in . Feeling the thighs rolling in, reach your tailbone back toward the back of the mat. Hang here and breathe.

9. Shake your head out, making sure you feel no tightness in the neck or head. This is where you can connect to the energetic body and imagine releasing negative chatter or tension, allowing it to drain from the mind to the mat. As I shake my head, I imagine those thoughts falling away, dropping like water and being absorbed into the earth.

Try this variation of down dog or the photo modifications a few times, and then for at least 3-5 minutes.

Our dog posture will change and grow like our own life cycle. Just like a dog learns as a puppy and grows into a mature adult dog, so will your dog change over time.

Like all friendships, it takes time to get to know each other. Think of your down dog as a pet that needs training, love and consistency to grow into an obedient, friendly posture over time. Our approach to down dog creates a unique breed and lifelong friendship.  

Namaste!

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