If you were to ask a random sampling of people on the street to name the first yoga pose that comes to mind, chances are they will come up with the same one: downward dog. This hips-in-the-air posture is often included in films featuring yoga classes and has been established in popular culture as the quintessential yoga pose.
Downward-facing dog, or, in Sanskrit, adho mukha svanasana, is deceptively simple. What could be so hard about keeping your hands and feet on the ground while lifting your butt? The answer is: plenty. While often taught in beginner yoga classes, downward dog requires every muscle in the body to be engaged and is a challenging pose to perfect. If learned correctly, this pose can serve to strengthen and stretch the body in preparation for myriad other postures, and stimulates many internal benefits.
To adopt downward dog most correctly and safely, begin in a table position, kneeling on the ground with your hands placed on the floor directly below your shoulders. Your knees should be hip-width apart, forming an exact rectangle with your hands below your torso. Direct your gaze to the floor between your hands, so that your spine is straight from the crown of your head to your sacrum at the base of your spine. Tuck your toes underneath the balls of your feet, preparing to lift your hips into downward dog. Inhale deeply, and, on an exhale, lift your hips up toward the sky, supporting the weight of your body with your hands and feet.
Ensure that you are bearing the weight of your body with the palms of your hands, not your wrists. Each finger should be pressing firmly into the ground, with your middle fingers pointing straight ahead of you. Take a look at your forearms and ensure that your inner elbows are rotated to face each other with a slight bend, engaging the triceps in your upper arm. Rotate your shoulders down and back, away from your ears. Press your shoulder blades strongly together, keeping your neck loose and relaxed. Do a few gentle neck rotations while inhaling and exhaling through your nose; this will help keep your neck muscles open. Your abdomen should be strong and engaged; imagine that your belly button is touching your spine.
Bring awareness to your hips, legs and heels. Your hips should be rotated up, reaching skyward. Your thighs are engaged and strong, and your heels are seeking the ground, stretching your calves. Don’t worry if your heels don’t touch the floor – this comes with practice. Breathe in and out deeply through your nose, filling and emptying your lungs completely with each inhale and exhale. Continue to breathe until you need a rest, then return to table position. Repeat as many times as you like.
As you work within downward dog, consider the many benefits to your outer and inner self. This pose will loosen tight hamstrings and calves, and serves to stretch and extend the spine for those with back pain. The gentle inverted action of the pose improves digestion and circulation, contributing to positive cell regeneration. The strengthening of the upper body and abdominal muscles is excellent for posture correction, and will help those seeking to work with more advanced inversions such as head- and handstands.
The classic downward dog can be a beginner, intermediate or advanced pose, depending on the approach of the practitioner. I challenge you, wherever you are in your practice, to return to downward dog. Isolate each limb and muscle, explore, and enjoy! And, as always, remember to breathe.
Jennifer McLennan is a certified Iyengar yoga instructor who has practiced in India, Canada and Costa Rica. She is currently a private yoga teacher in the beach community of Santa Teresa, on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.