There are so many focuses for Down Dog – you could practice this one pose on its’ own for years and it would be different each time you came to it.
Essentially it is a combination between a standing pose, a forward bend, an inversion, an arm balance and belly work all in one!
Adho Mukha Svanasana is all about lines of engagement: activating a dynamic channel of force between the hands/earth, up through the spine to the sit bones, and from these, down the legs into the heels/earth, and the front/back lines of the body simulatneously. Drawing lower ribs in as you lengthen the tailbone slightly will bring core stability to the pose and counter any ‘hammock’ backs. Conscious connection to your hands, belly and feet allows you to play with the superficial muscles like the rhomboids, deltoids and serratus anterior, releasing the neck, chest and heart. Being upside down calms the mind and nourishes the brain and glands in the throat: thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus in the chest. Dog works the heart muscle, lungs and these meridians so you may feel your pulse quicken, body temperature rise and more perspiration. Breathe into it as it’s truly an invigorating, rejuvenating and inspiring pose.
Adho Mukha Svanasana is traditionally incorporated into Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), but is also therapuetic on its’ own, building foundational power and security. It develops the shoulders and lungs, increasing spinal flexibility whilst grounding the legs and heart. It opens the Bladder channel along the back body to cultivate clarity, patience and hormonal balance. It will also build strength, confidence and energetic integrity on all levels by building and deepening heart and lung strength as well as mind-body-soul connection.
* Bend the knees if your lower back or hamstrings are tight. It’s more important to protect and elongate your spine, and if your hamstrings are tight it will be near impossible to straighten your spine because the lower back will jam. Go into ‘crouching Dog’, bending the knees in towards the lower ribs as you coax the chest back towards the thighs, looks sort of like a runners’ starting pose. This will stop agitation in your lumbar and hamstrings and allow you to work on the accessing your spine.
* Do against a wall if suffering from sore wrists, carpal tunnel or very tight shoulders and neck, or if you suffer from high/low blood pressure or glaucoma/retina issues. Or place a wedge under your hands to reduce the angle in the wrist joint. Stand facing the wall, hands at hip height, fingers spread and hands level with each other, step back so your arms straighten, feet under the hips so your body makes a right angle. Hold with same focuses.
* Pregnant women may wish to bend knees with feet wider than hips, or do against the wall, making a right-angle with your body (as above).
* Place a block under the forehead to release the neck if you need – this is also a nice restrorative variation.
* You will perspire and feel your heart/pulse quicken: if uncomfortable or dizzy, rest or avoid.
* Focus on your breathing and visualising each muscle in order to awaken and empower it and always activate bandhas to keep your practice safe. Bandhas are essentially energy locks or seals – the easiest way to engage is to just take your attention to the muscle, organ or joint complex you are working, breathe energy into and around it, visualise it protected and charged. (I like to imagine the pulse of the bandha, expanding and contracting in unison with my breath – inhale expand/exhale contract – like your intention when igniting chakral energy, so it starts to radiate and vibrate; rather than have it become a solid static point or heavy/hard in any way, as the word ‘lock’ can imply. You can then build and channel chi/prana to ‘fill up’ the bandha, as energy starts to flood from other points around the body, as you work deeper into the pose. This is when the fun really starts!) Initially you will most likely squeeze muscles but eventually with practice you will be able to sense the bandha and energetically create a seal during your practice. Be patient, this takes time! and isn’t something you pick up overnight.
Rhomboids, Deltoids, Serratus Anterior, Trapezius
* From the top of the arm press down through index/thumbs into the earth to lift out of wrists joints. This activates your breath points to encourage chi to flow through the lungs and body more efficiently.
* If you sweat/slip, really activate the hands down. You can also use a ‘Yogitoes’ towel or hold the edges of your mat for better grip. Mild sweating however is an indication that you are starting to move chi, cultivating energetic realignment and balancing the heart, bladder and kidney meridians in particular. (* If you are sweating profusely or experiencing extreme responses such as dizziness, numbness or breathlessness it may indicate a deeper imbalance – to be safe, please see an Acupuncturist or Shiatsu practitioner for a proper diagnosis). Breathing Space can recommend some excellent therapists if you need.
* Roll both armpits out and down towards the floor as if to wrap around to the sternum, to broaden upper back and free the neck – ‘turtle-like’ action. You engage your Lats and Serratus Anterior muscles for this – it feels like you’re trying to grip pencils under your armpits from this position.
* Pull the base of trapezius muscles (tops of shoulders) and both shoulder blades into the spine and down towards the hips. (or upwards in this case as you are inverted!). Remember that being upside down can throw your perception and sense awareness so you may need to focus more intently on where your muscles are and how you are moving them.
* Shake your head, roll your shoulders, ‘walk’ your dog by pacing the legs – any organic movement is good so you avoid over thinking and going into habit and/or tension.
Pectinus, Psoas, Tensor Fascia Lata, Gluteals.
* Contract Quadriceps and calves to anchor heels and awaken feet through 3 points: big & little toe pads and the centre of both heels.
* Work heels outwards to make inner thighs spiral internally, almost like pushing or ‘scrubbing’ the feet away from each other, to create space around the sit bones and releasing lower back.
* Push top of thighs up and back as you push the earth down with the palms to lengthen the spine. Doing this action simultaneously feels delicious – you can literally feel the blood moving through the spinal muscles and between each vertebrae as the bones stretch in succession. Sooo good for you!
* Activate belly with a ‘pulling hands to feet’ action as if bunching the mat into the centre. This is strong work so only hold for a couple of breaths.
* Always rest in either childs’ pose or savasana afterwards and connect with your breath and any sensations.
However your Dog manifests ‘on the day’ just remember to be gentle and play with it. Explore with your breath and body intelligence and allow the pose to happen. Each time you come to Adho Mukha Svanasana it will be different – because you are different – emotionally, physically, in your thought patterns etc. You may be sleep deprived, injured, angry, emotional, premenstrual or all of the above!, so that is going to affect how deep you go. Don’t force, rest in the pose, and out of it, and eventually you will go from feeling like a cranky little fluffy terrier with attitude, into a graceful, elongated and athletic greyhound!
Our ancient yogi masters believed that the key to youthfulness was a supple and supportive spine… just one of a myriad of reasons to practice this multi-faceted pose every day…
(YA Accredited Senior Ki and Hatha Yoga/Level 3 teacher, Yoga bodyworker, Reiki Master)
*Stay tuned for the next in my series of seasonal poses - intelligent dissection and explanation of essential Ki Fusion Yoga postures for each season.*
(All information copyright denbysheather/breathingspaceyoga2012)