When I first began studying yoga, I nearly fell out of my seat laughing when I saw a friend's dog doing the yoga pose that I was learning as "Downward-Facing Dog."
It is natural for canines, dog lovers know—that post-nap stretch with the rump high in the air and paws outstretched in what looks like pooch heaven. But it takes awhile for humans to befriend Adho Mukha Svanasana (AW-doh MOO-ka Shvan-AH-sa-na), a pose in which a lot is happening all at once.
How can you find sukha (comfort or joy) in Down Dog? This is a worthy question, as it is not easy to escape this pose. It is part of Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation) in most systems of hatha yoga and a quintessential pose in Iyengar Yoga. If you struggle with Down Dog, be compassionate and patient with yourself; you are not the first person with tight hamstrings or weak arms.
On the other hand, be diligent. Ultimately, Down Dog will start to feel so good that you will really empathize with the full-body joy that dogs display while doing the pose.
Build a Good Foundation
The first thing about Down Dog is learning to ritualistically place your hands in alignment with your shoulders and hips. Typically, new students will have their arms too wide and their feet too close together. If your base is out of proportion, the pose becomes unstable, your joints stressed, and organs compressed. Come onto all fours. Place your knees right under your hips, making sure first that you have fully extended your spine. When you place your hands on your mat, shoulder-width apart, lightly spread your fingers, making sure your middle finger faces directly forward. Really study your hands, and without tensing them, connect all of the joints of your fingers and your inner and outer palm into the earth.
As you lift your pelvis to the ceiling and draw your hips back, look at your feet. They should be hip-distance apart, aligned with your pelvis. Beginners will often walk their feet towards their hands to prematurely bring their heels to the ground. Have patience, grasshopper. Your heels may or may not touch the ground, but you want to feel that you have room to continuously grow in this pose.
Down Dog very clearly puts you in touch with the inherent isometric or push-pull dynamics of yoga asanas, where a movement in one direction is balanced and enhanced by an action in the opposite direction. This has deep philosophical and spiritual significance, corresponding to the meaning of hatha yoga as the union of the sun and moon, the masculine and feminine. The practical benefit of this yogic principle is that in any pose, Down Dog included, you are simultaneously creating strength and flexibility, extension and stability.
What is the farthest vertical point from your hands in Down Dog? Your hips. What is the farthest point down from your hips? Your heels. Assume your Down Dog now and work those opposite points away from each other. Press into your hands and stretch your hips back from the tops of your thighs. Try to ground your heels. (Even if they don't touch the floor, imagine roots growing from your heels down through the earth.) This movement starts to stretch your spine while evenly opening your hamstrings, hips, and shoulders, which leads us to a short tip regarding your weight—not how much you weigh but how you distribute what you've got.
Shift Your Weight Back
To get the blissful feeling and benefits of Down Dog, you need to shift your weight back into your hips. Again assume your best Down Dog. This time bend your knees so that you can really stretch back into your hips by simultaneously pressing into your hands, extending your arms, and drawing your belly slightly in. Imagine that someone is pulling back on your hips. When you get that "Aha!" it will feel as if your weight is centered in your pelvis, and your arms will feel light. If your hamstrings are very tight, you may need to practice like this for a while, gradually straightening your legs as if a strong wind were pressing your thighs and shins back. You can also place a block between the middle of your inner thighs to learn how to work your legs and develop the inner rotation of the thighs. Grip the block and press it back to feel greater extension in your spine.
Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
Learning how to both internally and externally rotate your arms at the same time to connect to your inner wrist, open your shoulders, and broaden your upper back is a key Down Dog trick. Start on your knees again with your hands in position. Typically the inner wrists start to peel off the ground, causing stress on your joints and a subtle disconnection. To ground through your inner wrist, internally rotate your arms towards each other from your elbows down. Thanks to the anatomy of your arms, your upper arms are naturally going to move in the opposite direction (external rotation). To witness how this happens naturally, when you press back into Down Dog, bend your elbows to the side in a diamond shape. Now rotate your elbows under and straighten your arms, maintaining the internal rotation from your elbow to your inner wrist. You should feel your shoulders broadening.
If this seems confusing, just try rotating your arms in the opposite direction and see how compressed the area around your neck feels. Are you starting to feel any sukha arising as you find relief in your shoulders and neck?
Support and Release Your Neck
Often humans aren't sure what to do with their necks in Down Dog. Do you hold your neck up? Do you let it hang down to the floor? The general tip is to align the crown of your head with the natural line of your spine. If you tilt the crown of your head up, you crunch your cervical vertebrae. Dropping your head forward gives you a nice stretch, but over time can stress your neck. When you are in Down Dog, try aligning your ears with your upper arms. That should connect your head with your spine, simultaneously supporting your head while lengthening the sides of your neck.
Breathe, Relax, Enjoy the Ride
Now is the time to breathe life and vitality into your Down Dog. On the inhalation, emphasize the broadening of your shoulders and extension through your arms to bring more space into your lungs. As you exhale, focus on the movement of your legs back and down through your shins and heels. I have found this breath meditation in Down Dog to be very relaxing and powerful at the same time. As you relax, you will start to feel how nourishing this stretch is. All of the actions of the pose and your strength and flexibility to maintain them will gradually become more and more natural. Dogs have excellent devotion and patience as well as genuine joie de vie. Think of a golden retriever in the back of a jeep with its hair blowing in the wind. See if you can bring that kind of receiving quality to Down Dog in the midst of its challenges. Most of all, enjoy the ride.
Shiva Rea teaches flow (vinyasa) based yoga integrating alignment and intuition, strength and fluidity, meditation and wisdom in action at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California, and UCLA's World Arts and Cultures Program. She is the author of the home practice CD, Yoga Sanctuary, and leads workshops and adventure retreats worldwide.