I’m sure you’ve had that moment when a yoga teacher in class delivers a cue and—aha!—you suddenly feel something shift in your body, your mind, even your spirit. It can feel like utter magic.
In this way, yoga teachers are language artists. We use words and their delivery—cadence, tone, timing—to help people move their bodies through space in such a way that you can inhabit them with more mindfulness.
We know Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) as a pose of stability and lengthening through the back body, a pose that serves as a foundational moment in many yoga classes, a home. It deserves your exquisite attention. How can we use words to help ourselves and others find a balance of structure and ease inside our Downward-Facing Dogs? How can we help ourselves and others move into a position where we feel even more at home in our skin?
Following is an assortment of cues for that old standard. Of course, words are only arrows—the real conversation of the pose takes place between the practitioner and their own self, inside one particular moment. I can think of few things more intimate and sacred than using our language as teachers to lead students to such a space. And students can also locate and express the specific poetry of their own bodies. We can all try these cues and leave to the side what doesn’t feel right in our Down Dogs. Sensation, after all, is the language the body uses. From here, we may experience what is outlined in the second Yoga Sutra: “Chitta vritti nirodha,” translated to “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” Down Dog is a great place to begin that practice.
See also: How to Come Into Downward-Facing Dog
1. Spread your fingers wide like starfish on the mat
This one is a cue from teaching kids yoga that I find works well for adults. By really visualizing the shape of fingers and palms spread on the mat like starfish, we are emphasizing that students can take wide base from their hands. I’ve found visual learners are aided by the starfish allusion. You can take the metaphor a step further—just as starfish have suction cups on their under-body, we can imagine our palms as suction cups. Feel the space of air under your palms. Experiment with pushing or pulling the fingers toward or away from the suction cups of air. Where do you find a sensation of stability?
2. Line up your pointer fingers like the number eleven
Yoga practitioners can experiment with the particular placement of fingers on the mat. Generally speaking, lining up the pointer fingers like the number eleven (a visual cue for parallel) can encourage external rotation through the upper arms. In this shape, the inner elbows might point toward the ceiling, shoulders press away from the ears, and the shoulder blades slide down the back—all from the number eleven!
3. Press through all your finger pads and the base of your palms
While you’ve got your fingers spread wide, use them! Engage through your hands. Notice what it feels like when you press your fingers out on the mat. What does it feel like when you draw the finger pads in toward the palm, while keeping them planted? Find where you like to apply pressure in your Down Dog for a firm base through the hands.
4. Drop your head
Down Dog is an inversion, in which the heart is elevated above the head. I love the metaphor that, in this moment, our hearts lead. I’ve heard other versions of this cue: “Let your head be heavy” or “Let your heavy head drop, encouraging length through the spine.” The idea behind these cues is to release tension through the neck, allowing the weight of the head to help elongate the back body. Some teachers will even say to “Let your head feel like a bowling ball.”
I’ve sometimes added visualization to this moment for students by saying, “Imagine any swirling worries exiting the crown, and falling into the absorbent yoga mat. The mat can hold them.” This concept encourages students to use Downward-Facing Dog as a moment to ease their focus away from their thoughts and into the felt sensations of the body, right here, right now.
5. Heavy your heels toward the Earth
This may be a somewhat more common cue, but it’s worth revisiting. The point here is the action and direction. “Heavy the heels” and “toward” translate to a motion or movement, not a destination. It’s important to not worry about whether our heels actually touch the mat (there’s enough to worry about in life, let’s not add this to the list). But we can feel into the sensation of heavy heels, as if our heels hold little weights at their center, unable to resist the pull of gravity, magnets attracted toward the earth. We can move toward a sinking of the feet that allows for a possible stretch through the back of the legs. This prompt also works well with the next cue.
6. Bend your knees any amount
Yoga teacher Annie Carpenter often uses the phrase “any amount,” and I find that liberating. In this way, the amount is up to me, the student, and reminds me of the power of my own choice. As teachers, we want to use our language to remind students the locus of power is inside them! We are just guides—but the true ownership over what anyone does with their body is up to them. In this way, ultimately, we are our own inner teachers.
Encourage “any amount” experimentation. Try bending both knees a lot and then just a little. Explore any increment of bend in between a lot and a little. Ask to find that place, specific to you, where you feel stretch along the back of the legs, elongation of the spine, a movement into new inner territories of space without pushing too far (which could cause strain or injury). The exact degree of bend is so personal—let students know that. This exploration is part of the fun of yoga. Here we get to be scientists, using the unique laboratories of our own bodies in this exact moment of time to find the “edge” we are seeking. This specific edge can—and does—change each day.
7. Line up your feet like the number eleven
This is another way to say: make your feet parallel with each other and with the sides of the mat. A different way to say this is through a question: “Are your toes pointing straight back at you?” Look beneath and beyond your own shape and estimate, as a starting point, your two hands as fists, fitting between your feet. Generally speaking, a distance of two fists between the feet is a good starting measurement for anatomical hip-width distance. Of course, each yogi’s body is unique—so we each get to add to the poem of the cue with our own variations. Some students may feel more comfortable with a wider base in the feet. Others may wish to narrow it a bit.
Once you set up the number eleven, ask students or yourself to tune into their bodies, searching for a measurement that feels like one they can hold with stability and ease. Guide students to spend some time, mentally, inside their own feet. What is it like to roll forward on the toes, and then back, into the balls of the feet? In general, an even placement of weight in the balls of the feet feels good to many.
As yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar asked, “How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?” You can remind yogis that by bringing focus to one body part, such as the toes, and really listening specifically to that body part, they might also calm the mind. From this calming of the mind may come moments of intuition or connection with something greater.
8. Take off your shoulder earrings
This one is a bit silly—but visual and effective! Sometimes, once we are upside-down, we forget where our shoulders are in space (that’s happened to me.) By asking us to “take off your shoulder earrings,” you’re really asking to create space between the ears and shoulders, again elongating the spine. This can amount to more room inside the pose.
9. Find your bandhas. Use your bandhas.
Newer yoga students will ask: What are bandhas? The simplest definition is “energy locks” or “internal movements that help us contain and direct energy.” New York yoga teacher Liam McConville suggests engaging both mulabandha, the root lock, and uddiyanabandha, the sacral lock, in Downward-Facing Dog. Some students might also find jalandhara bandha, the throat lock, useful.
So how do we verbalize the bandhas, especially to newer practitioners?
For mulabandha: Lift and lock your pelvic floor. This can feel like doing a Kegel exercise and holding it.
For uddiyanabandha: Think of pulling your low belly in and up. Imagine your belly button could touch your spine.
For jalandhara: Try to tuck your chin to your collarbone.
The overall idea here is not to just hang out in Down Dog, but to apply some inner awareness and firmness through these more subtle movements. Students can experiment with that and see how they feel.
See also: Bandhas for Beginners
10. Firm your shoulder blades along your back
Bring your inner awareness into the shoulder blades along your back body. Can you think of bringing the lower tips of the shoulder blades toward each other? This idea brings more stability and integrity to your pose.
11. Bring your low belly in and up
Just because you’re upside-down doesn’t mean you can forget about your core. Cinch your belly in to engage your midsection. Think of your Downward-Facing Dog as an upside-down V. Engaging the core amounts to writing the V in ink instead of pencil—be strong, bold, and firm in your shape. Then fill that shape with the softness of breath.
12. Rotate your inner thighs inward and firm your outer thighs
What are your Down Dog legs doing? Consider rotating your inner thighs to face each other (or think: in and up toward the ceiling). And while you’re at it, engage your outer thighs.
13. Hide your heels behind your toes
While your head—and vision—is upside-down, bring your awareness to the placement of your feet. Hiding your heels behind the toes amounts to parallel alignment in the feet. (See no. 6: “Line up your feet like the number eleven”)
14. Lift your hips toward the wall behind you, where the wall meets the ceiling
Bring your attention to your hips. Think of lifting them not just up or back, but up and back by visualizing reaching back in a straight line to the place where wall and ceiling meet. This cue lengthens the back and shifts the center of gravity toward the lower body, which can relieve the shoulders and upper body of excess pressure.
15. Look toward your navel. How does this feel? You can also try looking between your feet
Your gaze, or drishti, is part of the pose. Where do your eyes fall in Downward-Facing Dog? Try looking at your own core, or the space between the feet for a grounded, centered gaze. No matter where you look, consider the feeling of lengthening the neck. Notice how choosing where your gaze falls can help this elongation.
16. Roll forward into Plank and then back into Down Dog
You can check this alignment by rolling forward into a Plank Pose so your shoulders are over your wrists. Imagine you could see your shape from the outside. Are you in a straight line from your head to your heels? Once you’ve got your Plank in alignment, bring your hips back into Down Dog without moving your hands or feet. This can be a great starting point for the measurement of your pose. Of course, from there, if you feel the need to step your feet in to shorten your dog, go for it.
17. Trace the shape with your breath
I love imagining the breath entering my nostrils in Down Dog and then traveling the shape my body has made up to my hips and out my heels. That way, I think inhale to hips, exhale to heels, which encourages a long Sama Vritti or even breath of same-length inhales and exhales.
Each yoga posture offers a world of exploration within it. Now that you have some language cues, try them and tweak them, refining your own phrasing. If you’re teaching, encourage this experimentation in your students, too. As poet Walt Whitman advised: “Dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
About our contributor
Sarah Herrington is a writer, poet, and teacher. She is the founder of OM Schooled kids yoga teacher trainings and Mindful Writing Workshops.