‘This will be your resting pose’, you hear all over yoga studios. Usually at a time when the downward facing dog does not feel very restful at all. But a few planks, warriors and half moons later, it becomes a refuge. You happily come back to downward facing dog to catch your breath, finally understanding what Mr Iyengar meant when he wrote in Light on Yoga: ‘When one is exhausted, a longer stay in this pose removes fatigue and brings back the lost energy’. There we go, confirmed by THE authority on yoga.
As a beginner, I used to dislike the downward facing dog quite a bit. It hurt everything, particularly my wrists and my shoulders. Then it turned out that I was doing it all wrong and, with a few simple alignment fixes, the downdog suddenly became a joy to behold. Read on to find out how.
♥ Come onto all fours, place your hips over your knees and your hands slightly forward of your shoulders
♥ Make sure that the wrist creases are parallel with each other and facing forward (I will elaborate on this at a later stage)
♥ Next, tuck the toes under and, with an exhalation, slowly lift the knees off the ground
♥ Don't go all the way for now: keep the knees slightly bent and the heels lifted off the ground
Solid foundation, hands and arms in this case, is the first element to focus on. Every single hand and arm muscle needs to be engaged: fingers, palms, forearms, upper arms, the whole lot. Otherwise the whole body weight presses down on the wrist joint = not good. With the hands engaged and finger pads pressing towards the ground, the weight will be instead distributed throughout the palms and fingers.
First of all, the top of the armbones need to pull back into the shoulder sockets to fully integrate (armpits should feel hollow as a result). Next, the biceps (upper arms) roll out to widen the shoulders. And finally, the forearms roll in a little bit to balance the action of the upper arms. This helps the shoulder blades to widen, flatten on the back and move down the towards the tailbone. It's like a domino effect up and down the body.
With the foundation sorted, lengthen your tailbone up and lift the sitting bones towards the ceiling. In other words, stick your bum up in the air as high as you can. At the same time, keep your front ribs pulled in to stop your lower back from overarching. A couple of actions can help with this. Breathe deeply towards the middle of your back where your kidneys are and see if it helps to bring the whole ribcage back. Or achieve it by looking towards your navel and then relax your head down again. The aim is to create as much length as possible between the sitting bones and the crown of your head, ie through the spine. This is one of the key alignments of this pose.
With the knees still slightly bent, roll your inner thighs back and out - imagine that you are squeezing a block between your thighs, it's the same action. Keeping this, start slowly straightening the legs and, finally, extend your heels towards the ground. Completely straight legs (without locked knees) and heels all the way down on the floor is the ideal - although not necessarily optimal - version of the pose. But, with tight hamstrings being quite the norm these days, it is absolutely enough and ok to just imagine the legs straightening and the heels moving towards the ground rather than actually touching it.
You can find a brilliant anatomical study of the pose here, scroll down to Adho Mukha Svanasana.