How to Build An Ashtanga Practice

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Session 5 - Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Shvanasana - is perhaps the most effective pose in the yoga lexicon.


When done properly, Down Dog gives you abdominal strength, upper body strength and flexibility, lower body strength and flexibility, balance and it inverts you so you get a shift in circulation and perspective. It is great for your back too by tractioning the back, and stretching your calves and hamstrings.


Down Dog does not feel so great when you have acid reflux, high blood pressure, sinus issues, concerns related to avoiding eye pressure and shoulder injuries.  Other than that, it’s a pretty friendly pose and most people grow to love it.  


I’ll be honest. In all the years of my teaching, most students really dislike Down Dog. When you’re first learning it, it can feel heavy handed and make your wrists feel angry. It pulls on the tight muscles of your legs and back and when you are in the pose, you can’t see what anyone else is doing and that feels confusing.


Once you learn to find the blueprint of Tadasasna in Down Dog and start to remember and practice the principles of alignment and distribution of energy and oh, yes - BREATHE, Down Dog becomes a great companion in your practice like your favorite doggo.


In nature, Down Dog is a natural movement for lengthening the spine and strengthening the limbs.  Take Sadie for example.  She sleeps somewhere nearby when I am teaching or practicing yoga.  When I am done, and she’s ready to move, she gets up and does Down Dog - beautifully - and languishes in the stretch before moving on to her next thing to do. Cats do it too. For them, it’s another form of pandiculation.


One day, Down Dog will feel that good to you too and it will become a pose you want to return to again and again and again.


Down Dog is scalable, meaning, there are variations if you need modifications and there are ways to manage your energy to make it a practice of equanimity or full body, engaged toning.


In ashtanga, the downward facing dog pose is a place to reflect and come back to the anchors of your awareness.  I like to think of it as a place to check in with my breathing, my bracing and my gaze. It’s like a fresh start if your mind has drifted away from what you are doing.


Mechanics of Downward Facing Dog

Using the template of Tadasana and a little hint I picked up from David Williams, you can easily find your Down Dog and prevent your dog from being too long or too short:

  1. Begin on all fours - shoulders broad and hands underneath the shoulders. Hands not too tight and not too loose. Don’t let the pinkies and thumbs go wider than the palms of your hands.

  2. Walk knees back slightly - 1-2 inches. You will find the right distance as you learn and practice the pose.  Feet remain in the template of 2 fist widths apart at the inner arches of the feet.

  3. Tuck toes/Lift knees (because the balls of your feet are the back anchors - heels may or may not reach the ground it doesn’t matter— as long as you are in a comfortable stretch). HEELS DO NOT HAVE TO TOUCH THE GROUND!

  4. Draw your hips and thighs back (front of the thighs reaching into the hamstrings)

  5. Let your head drop between your arms - drop right into gravity - it feels like a pleasant lengthening of the neck.  Don’t look forward and don’t strain to look at your navel.

  6. Find equanimity between hands and feet/right and left. Find Samasthitithi

Refine and strengthen your Down Dog 

  1. Pay Attention to Building from the ground up and stay in the blueprint - avoid ‘walking your dog’ by avoiding working with the stretch of your hamstrings/back and strengthening your quads/arms/shoulders.

  2. Notice your hands and feet and you place them in position - hands not too wide and not too tight; feel equal distribution of weight in all four corners of your palms. Feet stay in the two fists’ width and weight is distributed equally across the balls of the feet (and into the heels if the feet go to the ground without hustle or force.). Please note your heels do NOT have to be on the ground, they go in that direction to inform the stretch. I can’t say this enough!

  3. Down informs Up - hips rise as you press down through the hands; Prevents dumping into the shoulders

  4. Front Informs Back - take front of the thighs into hamstrings. This will take weight from the front of the dog to the back of the dog - releasing some pressure from the wrists and hands. Gather in and up to make space in the low spine. Prevents arching the low back and caving in the legs

  5. Eyes of the Elbows - External rotation of the upper arm bones helps to balance the shoulders on the back. If the upper arms are internally rotated, the shoulder blades ‘wing’ off the back.  Look to your elbow creases - aka ‘the eyes of your elbows.’  Aim for taking them slightly forward like crossed eyes.


Downward Facing Dog Modifications

  1. If you need less Downward and more Dog - use a chair or table to anchor your hands and create more of a right angle - still pressing into hands and feet to create length and space in the spine and legs.

  2. If you need additional support for wrist conditions like carpel tunnel, arthritis, or healing hand injuries, you can add some padding underneath the heels of the hands - a folded hand towel works well, or you may try a foam wedge which will seat the heels of your hands higher than your finders and will change the angle/pressure.  If these don’t work, consider using Modification A.


Ways not to do downward facing dog

  • too long;

  • too short;

  • looking up; 

  • drawing your head back into your body like a turtle

Practice your downward facing dog a lot. It is a great pose and could be a practice of it’s own, especially when you don’t have a lot of time.


Now who’s a good yogi?  You’re a good yogi!!!!


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