‘Downward Facing Dog is the garlic of yoga,’ said Donna Farhi. The reason for the analogy she explained, is that just as garlic enhances a dish, Downward Facing Dog enhances asana practice. Benefits include – lengthening muscles in the backs of legs, strengthening hands, arms, shoulders and core; in addition, it’s a mild inversion and can have a neutralising effect on the spine.
There are many concepts and beliefs as to how the pose should be practised. My own aims for the practice and teaching of Downward Facing Dog, will always involve clear pathways of weight through the bones and the facilitation of breath movement through the body. Alongside these aims, it’s good to find a springy, lively quality that can be transferred from the hands, via upper limbs, shoulder girdle, spine, ultimately through lower limbs and to the feet. An important premise to bear in mind when practising asana – Downward Facing Dog in particular – is that the hands and upper limb bones belong with the shoulder blades (scapulae), the feet and lower limb bones belong with the two pelvic halves, the spine belongs with the sacrum and tail. Our embryological development informs this premise.
Now try Downward Facing Dog as follows and see how it feels!
Hands – begin with your hands on the mat – shoulder width is a good place to start but move them slightly wider, or closer together if you need to. Organise your hands so that your fingers (phalanges) are aligned with the longer bones of your hands (the metacarpals). Aim for a kind of ‘gathering in’ in the underside of the hands – the feel of an arch. This will involve a little bit of flexion through the carpal joints and where the carpals meet the metacarpals (but not where the metacarpals articulate with the phalanges). Then transition into Downward Facing Dog – how does it feel? Can you find a springy, lively quality that’s responsive – both in terms of receiving weight from arms and torso and in sending it back again? Can you feel the effect travel all the way through your spine and ultimately to your feet? Can you find a reach of your tail? Can you sense balanced joint space between the vertebrae of your spine, so that it feels light?
Then try spreading and flattening your fingers/hands wide – as often instructed (I call this splatting them down!) How does it compare? Over time, I believe that practising this way creates the possibility for soft tissue damage in the hands, including the carpal tunnel. In addition, when fingers are spread wide, elbows are more likely to hyper-extend. If health is the aim, hands should not be flattened out and spread. Flattened hands with fingers spread wide, can also have an effect on the spine – which may move towards extension, rather than being neutral with balanced joint space.
Elbows – now consider your elbows, aim to align them so weight can travel through – can the springy, responsive quality travel through from hands to shoulders, thence to spine? Next try hyper-extending your elbows. (take care not to hurt them) What happens? Is the springy, responsive quality still there, or has everything ‘stopped’ at the elbows?
Shoulders – come back to hands and knees and we’ll consider the shoulders. Align your hands as before and soften your elbows. Bring your awareness to the area of your spine that’s between the shoulder blades. As you exhale, see if you can release your spine away from the shoulder blades (it’s a subtle action). Then move into Downward Facing Dog. The aim of this little inquiry is to bring shoulder blades into a sensed relationship with the arms and hands – the embryological connection mentioned above. The scapula in each arm should follow the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) – they should be in relationship. How do your shoulders feel? Do they feel snug, with a feeling of connection through the bones – all the way from your fingers, your hands, through elbows and into shoulder joints? When there’s a felt sense of alignment through the bones, the muscles don’t have to work so hard. Are you able to find alignment without a lot of muscular effort?
There’s a common instruction to ‘outwardly rotate’ the shoulders in Downward Facing Dog – try this and see how it compares with the inquiry above? Does this action help you find a clear pathway of weight, or not? Ask yourself if you really need to use the muscular effort involved in outwardly rotating your shoulders, or can you find alignment that feels pleasant and relatively quiet in comparison? It’s likely that outwardly rotating the shoulders will ask the scapulae to do one thing and heads of humeri another. Regularly practising in a way that does not allow the scapula to move in relationship to the head of the humerus can be a cause of bursitis/tendonitis.
Spine – sacrum – tail – as I said above, the effect of allowing weight to drop down into flattened hands can impact on the spine and cause extension in the lumbar. If there’s a feeling of springy connection that can travel all the way from hands and upper limbs into the spine, there’ll be a light quality and breath movement will happen with ease. The spine, sacrum and coccyx are part of the axial skeleton – their relationship explains why the light quality in the spine can be enhanced by a reach of the tail in Downward Facing Dog. Try it and see how it feels? Compare reaching with the tail to reaching with the sitting bones. It’s likely that a ‘reach back’ of the sitting bones will cause extension in the lumbar instead of a quality that feels light. As mentioned previously, the sitting bones are part of the pelvic halves – and these belong with the legs.
Feet – legs – bring your awareness to your feet and legs. Is there a light, springy quality in your feet and legs? If not, bring your awareness to your knees – are you effortfully lifting your knee caps and thighs? Are your knees hyper-extending? Sometimes the action of lifting knee caps and thighs can cause hyper-extension – the very thing the action is intended to prevent. See ‘Knees – to lock or not lock? Another common aim/instruction in Downward Facing Dog is to push the heels down. Just as lifting the knee caps and thighs can cause rigidity in the legs, so can pushing the heels down. Have a look at the front of your ankles – can you see substantial creases there? If yes, it’s likely that you’re effortfully pushing heels down – this can diminish lightness in your legs and spine. Try letting go of effort in front of your ankles and focus on a reach of your tail instead. How does it feel? Remember that habitual posture can feel comfortable because it’s just that – a habit, rather than being functional and ultimately the most pleasant option!
I like these words by Ruth Alon in Mindful Spontaneity: “Take a moment to clarify for yourself if you are truly willing to give up the approach that pretends to create ease through harshness. In order to restore in yourself a quality of softness and lightness, you may need to wrap yourself in an attitude you could perhaps have received only from good parents – parents who don’t hold on to theories with preconceived knowledge of what is best for their child but follow their intuition and always find ways to support a child’s well-being with gentleness and mindfulness.”
PS My video Healthy Happy Hands aims to help with mobilisation and organising of the hands for optimal function in daily life and also in asana, where the weight is on the hands, as in Downward Facing Dog – see the video