Feeling yuck or stuck in downward-facing dog? Here's how to improve that basic yet tricky pose
How to find space, strength, and yes, joy, in this foundation yoga pose
Perhaps someone recommended you try yoga to reduce stress, or maybe you decided to give it a go in the hopes of improving your flexibility; whatever brought you to yoga, one of the first poses you likely encountered was downward-facing dog pose. And if you found yourself dangling upside down and feeling considerably more tense and tight than when you started, you would not be alone.
I remember my first foray into downward-facing dog pose: during theatre school, one instructor led us through a daily warm up which included a downward-facing dog pose that seemed interminable. I was pretty sure my shoulders were going to fall off my body, and it felt like my hips and legs were in a sudden traffic jam with each other.
While downward-facing dog pose is a beginner pose, there's nothing easy about it. In fact, it demands a lot of our bodies — spacious shoulders and upper body strength, strong quadriceps and open hamstrings. When we're able to practice this pose and strike a balance between effort and ease in the body, we can feel expansive and vibrant as our spine lengthens, our hips soar up and back, and our whole body builds strength and space.
Let's begin by investigating where you are feeling stuck in the pose.
Start in a tabletop position, with your hands planted under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Walk your hands forward an inch or two, so your hands are slightly forward of your shoulders. Spread your fingers wide apart with your index fingers pointing to the top of your mat, and press down evenly through your fingers and palms. Tuck your toes under, lift your knees off the mat, and reach your hips up to the sky and back to the wall behind you. With your knees bent, press the ground away from you with your hands and actively press the tops of your thighs up and back in the opposite direction, guiding your hips further back. Feel your spine elongating, and try to straighten your arms. Refine the pose by externally rotating your shoulders (away from your ears): hug your triceps (upper, outer arms) in towards each other while broadening your shoulder blades apart from each other. Let your head hang, so your ears are in line with your upper arms.
Next, begin to play with straightening your legs, allowing your heels to drop towards the earth (don't worry if they don't land right away!), and notice the shape of your spine. Has straightening your legs caused your spine to round? If your hamstrings are tight, straightening your legs may pull your hips down, rounding your spine and sending your tailbone down like a scared dog. Fear not; if this is the case, bend your knees again, and stretch your hips up and back while pressing the earth down and forward with your hands, lengthening through your spine. Keep practicing your downward-facing dog with your knees bent, gradually working your legs toward straight as your hamstrings open.
Feeling a lot of restriction and crunching in your upper body? Begin in a table top position, grab two blocks on their lowest level and plant them shoulder width distance apart, slightly forward of your shoulders (if you don't have blocks, books are a great substitute but remove the jackets to that the books don't slip). Plant the heels of your hands on the edge of the blocks and reach your fingers wide and long, rooting down through your knuckles where your fingers join your palm. Curl your toes under, and lift your hips up and back into downward-facing dog. Notice how this propping under your hands gives you a little more space to stretch out of your shoulders. It also allows you to reach your hips a little further up and back, taking some of the weight out of your arms and sending it down through your legs (which can still remain bent, if your hamstrings are tight).
Wrists giving you grief? Many of us have a tendency to dump our weight into the outer edges of our hands, as well as the heels of our hands. We can counteract this by distributing our weight evenly through our palms and fingers, helping to keep the wrists more stable and less prone to injury. Spread your fingers wide apart and root down through the base of your index finger, the base of your thumb, and the base of your pinky finger. Imagine growing your fingers longer, while simultaneously lifting your forearms up out of your wrists. Take this a step further by folding up the front part of your mat once or twice. From a table top position, plant the heels of your hands just in front of the fold, with the fold supporting the underside of your wrists. Tuck your toes under and lift your hips up and back into your downward-facing dog pose. Notice how your folded mat encourages you to lift your forearms up out of your wrists while actively rooting down through the base of your fingers and thumbs.
Still not helping? Consider giving your wrists a break altogether, by dropping down onto your forearms, into a dolphin pose.
Part of our yoga practice is learning to meet ourselves where we are. Our experience of downward-facing dog pose will change from day to day. No matter where we find ourselves, we have the power to tune in and adapt our pose, exploring our unique balance of strength and space every time we practice.
Alexandra Ordolis is an actor and yoga teacher in Toronto. You can find her on twitter and instagram @aleyordolis.