Mukha – face
Shvana – dog
Asana – posture
Downward facing dog is an iconic pose. In the first half of the 20th century, adho mukha shvanasana was a forerunner of headstand, and students were told to bring the front of the head to the floor. This caused a lot of strain in the shoulders. These days Down Dog is pictured as the perfect inverted V shape, with hands and feet flat on the ground.
For most of us, straightening our legs and bringing our heels to the floor are just not options right off the bat. Here are a few ways to find the benefits of Downward Facing Dog without overdoing it.
Finding the Shape
Hands: Press into the pads of your fingers and the "ball" of your hand (as if your hand were a foot), especially the base of your index finger and thumbs.
Arms: Let your elbows be straight but not locked. The “eyes” of your elbows are halfway between facing each other and facing forward.
Shoulders: Sink the humerus (the long bone of the upper arm) up into the shoulder socket. Keep your shoulders relaxed as you widen the upper back, sliding the shoulder blades away from each other.
Neck: Let your head hang and your neck relax. Your head acts a weight at the end of your spine, helping extend it.
Spine: This whole pose is about spinal extension. When you enter Down Dog, keep your knees bent and heels lifted while you press back and lengthen through your arms and spine.
Legs: If it doesn’t cause excessive strain, lower your heels toward the mat and straighten your knees, but do not lock them.
Feet: "Hips-distance" is the usual cue given here, as in, "Keep your feet hips-distance apart." This refers to where the femur enters the hip socket, not the outside edge of our hips. A wider stance may make the pose more accessible.
Feeling a strap around the thighs being pulled from behind can help us learn to shift the weight back and find more evenness in the pose.
To add more challenge, put a strap around your thighs or around your upper arms and press out. Other variations include:
- Extended dog, wherein you take one leg straight back and up at a time
- Hip-opening extended dog, wherein you take one leg back and up and then roll the lifted leg’s hip up, bend the lifted knee and bring the foot toward your seat
- Dolphin, which is Down Dog from forearms
- How Long Should I Hold the Pose?
Interestingly, Down Dog only shows up in schools that stem from Krishnamacharya’s lineage, making its origin at Mysore in the early 20th century quite likely.
Eventually, believe it or not, Down Dog becomes a resting pose, a place where we can pull energy up from the earth through our hands and feet and recharge.