Downward Facing Dog! Double D! Adho Mukha Svanasana!
Whatever you call this pose, it is widely considered the most fundamental pose in modern, western-style yoga classes these days.
Welcome to our second instalment (check out our first lesson here) of great Yoga exercises to improve your hiking and biking lifestyle. Hell! It will improve all aspects of your life whatever your outdoor activity is. Without further ado, we’ll hand you over to Brogan to tell us all about it.
When you attend one of these classes, after moving through all kinds of challenging poses a teacher will most likely say, “Now rest in downward dog”. You are likely thinking “WHAT!? THIS IS NOT REST” in a very loud, un-yogi-like way in your head. I assure you, I have been there. This is normal.
Downward dog is a fundamental pose. Like many other poses, it both strengthens and stretches the body. Downward dog stretches the calves, hamstrings, hips, glutes, lower back and shoulders, while strengthening the hands, arms, shoulders, upper back, core and more. What doesn’t it do?!
This pose is a building block, a place where we will hang out in class in between sequences. It is often the beginning and the end of a sequence of poses. Despite being so widely featured in classes of all levels, it is a very challenging pose with many subtleties that can take time to become aware of.
Many new students are intimidated by this pose, and it is often very difficult to teach in the beginning as well – these subtleties are hard to explain to newcomers to yoga who may not have the same awareness of their body in space as more seasoned practitioners.
I’ll walk you through some of these below to help you refine your dog, or gain confidence before heading to your first class (at least you know one of the poses, right?).
Step 1: Set up your foundation
Start in plank/pushup. This is a great way to find the distance your hands and feet should be. I like to start in plank, and then walk my feet in a couple of centimetres. [note: you may want to drop the knees as you set up the hands and feet, or feel the burn and stay in plank]
Hands are shoulder distance apart with fingers spread wide, pointing the space between the index and middle fingers straight ahead. Press the base of the index, pinky and thumb into your mat as you grip the mat with your fingertips, turning them white.
If you experience discomfort in the wrists, this is a good place to come back to build strength in the hands and forearms.
Feet are hip distance apart, or wider. If you experience discomfort in your lower back, try a wider stance.
Step 2: Down dog!
Keeping the actions in the hands and feet, tilt your tailbone up and back, bending the knees a little or a lot, moving to downward dog. Take 5-10 breaths here, or more. Try this a few times a day, increasing the time you spend here to build strength and increase flexibility.
The main actions here are:
- Sitbones reach back
- Knees soft, from a micro bend to a deep bend, depending on your own mechanics
- Hands press firmly into the mat
- Balls of the feet and the toes press into the mat
- Heels reach towards the floor
- Core engaged, navel hugs to spine to keep a flat back
- Think “long spine”
- Shoulders strong and broad, pulling down the back, away from the ears (no “shrugging”!)
PHEW! Overwhelmed? Don’t sweat it. I like to give new students all the cues, but not spend too much time correcting until they have been coming to classes more consistently. Begin to get comfortable here before you spend time refining.
Step 3: Troubleshooting
Here are the two most common errors I see in class:
Notice how in an effort to press my heels down, my legs have straightened. I don’t have the flexibility in my hamstrings and calves to keep my feet down, so my back rounds. Correct by bending the knees and lifting the heels, but energetically reaching the heels down to the floor. Maybe one day they will touch, maybe not.
Notice how I want to reach my sitbones back so high that my chest and shoulders have sunk towards the mat, causing my low back to round. Correct by lifting your heart away from the mat and engaging your core.
Step 4: Modifications
Downward dog not working for your body today? That’s ok! I’m glad you noticed. Some alternatives are Child’s Pose or Table Top.
Keep your child’s pose active by pressing your hands firmly into your mat, maybe so much that the forearms lift, building shoulder strength.
In table top, work on the hands (see Step 1), and activate the core.
Step 5: Take it to the next level with movement
Looking for more? Stretch out the hamstrings, calves and ankles by taking your dog for a walk. Bend one knee and then the other, maybe adding a twist through the hips (wagging your tail! x)
Working on a handstand or want some more leg power? Try some jumps from down dog. Walk your feet in an inch or so closer than your typical down dog. Take an inhale as you engage your quads and lift onto your toes, exhale bend your knees (loading your spring), look forwards, and after you are empty of breath with your core strong, jump!
Options to bend the knees in close to the body or try to pike, keeping the legs as straight as you can. Try 5 in a row and build some heat!
Thanks again Brogan for taking time to share another fundamental pose for our readers. We’re already looking forward to the third instalment.
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