Discipline & Surrender: The Art of Down Dog
I’m a yoga teacher who’s been teaching for over 20 years and doing down dog every day. So technically I can do the pose, but because of a pinched nerve in my elbow I’ve developed a problem akin to tennis elbow and it hurts like hell.
For years I’ve heard one student after another complain about down dog. They tell me it’s too hard, it’s boring and it sometimes hurts the hands and the feet. I would remind them about limitation, relaxing and letting go. “Breathe,” I would say.
I love down dog. It reminds me to surrender every part of my body to the pose. It requires discipline to first get into the pose and then a sense of surrender to maintain it. I remind my students that such is down dog, such is life. It takes discipline to stick to your goals and surrender to maintain them.
What I love about down dog is that it’s a one-for-all pose, meaning that it requires the integration of the whole body. It stretches the muscles of the back of the legs, shoulders, the belly and the back. It strengthens the arms, relieves neck tension and offers some of the benefits of inverted poses, such as cleaning the internal organs and relieving tension. It can be done for a warm up or a cool down.
Patanjali, who organized the knowledge of yoga into The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, understood down dog. His book compiles 196 sutras that are essentially a road map for life. The second sutra, if fully understood, is enough to understand yoga. The rest of the sutras only serve to explain. Basically the second sutra is about the modification of the mind or the balance between the two qualities of abhyasa and variragya or “discipline” and “surrender.” This is down dog.
These two qualities form the foundation of yoga. It’s the balancing and the blending of the two opposing forces of discipline (practice) and surrender (letting go) that create harmony. It’s precisely the physical discipline of moving into down dog and the letting go so as to maintain it: that is why I love down dog, and why I was so disappointed when my body would no longer allow me to embrace the pose.
Not to be one to give up, I saw my doctor who sent me to a physical therapist. For six weeks I worked to relieve the pain in my elbow so that I could return to the mat. It also took discipline to faithfully make time to see the physical therapist three times a week. It took a sense of surrender to let go and remain unattached to the outcome of my therapy. My focus was to establish that sense of balance between abhyasa and variragya.
This process of therapy was a discovery that called upon me to transcend my ego. I’ve always prided myself on being able to easily slip in and out of down dog. My body has always been strong, flexible and resilient. Now my body was tired and worn, and I had to let go of my self-imposed boundaries and admit that I too had my limitations. I’m the yoga teacher and I cannot do a down dog?! But like all things in life, this too shall pass. Everything changes. With time and a little rest my elbow improved, and before I knew it, I was back on the mat in down dog with my students.
But something changed. I no longer take for granted that my body will always respond with the discipline I impose. Sometimes we need to pull back and surrender to the flow of life, even if that flow is one that is not so pleasant. As I like to remind my students, everything has an element of good. We just need to surrender to it and quietly learn to accept. In that, we will discover a sense of discipline and the ability to surrender; and if truly understood, this is enough to understand yoga. The resting of my elbow, like the remaining sutras, simply served to instill in me the importance of balance and the modification of the mind.
4 Yoga Poses to Unlock Emotions
Have you ever felt upset without being able to clearly identify why? It’s not unusual for someone to struggle with identifying what exactly is concerning them.
You may need some time and space to process how you’re feeling and, what
- if anything – you want to do about it. If ignored, this type of disconnect from a person’s sense of self can cause stress, internal conflict and negatively effect relationships.
Breathing, meditation and taking time to slow down can often help provide clarity and a better connection to a person’s sense of self. You can find this through a regular yoga practice and incorporating the following four asanas into a sequence:
Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
From downward facing dog, step the left knee through your center and towards your left wrist. Slowly drop the left leg down while moving the foot towards the right hip. Lower on to your mat, keeping both hips parallel. If this is uncomfortable, you can prop up the hip and pelvic muscles by placing a block or blanket under the left hip. Adjust the alignment on the back leg to ensure it’s not falling over to either side. It should be lengthening directly out of your hip rotator. If having the back leg straight is uncomfortable to you, keep a slight bend in the knee. The left foot can stay close to your hip, or if it’s available to you, you can gently extend it forward, keeping the foot flexed. Begin to fold forward and lower the torso to a height that is comfortable to you, maybe bending through the elbows and resting your forehead on the back on your hands.
Pigeon is a fabulous hip opener pose and engages your sacral (Swadhishthana) chakra. Hips are a part of the body where people often hold tension, especially women. Pigeon pose opens both the hip flexors (located on the front of your body) and the hip rotators (located on the back of your body). It can also help release tension in the lower back. In advance versions, a person can simultaneously practice shoulder and chest openers while in this pose.
The awakening of the sacral chakra in your lower belly will help connect you to your emotions, relationships and creativity. Take time in this pose to notice any sensations you feel in your body and breathe into those areas. Focusing on your breath, allow yourself to feel grounded and safe while in this pose. Let it serve as a reminder that everything will be alright.
Stay low and long in this pose for 10-20 breaths on each side.
Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
Lying on your back, bend your knees with the soles of your feet flat on the mat and inch your heels a little closer to your hips. Take your hands behind your head, bend through the elbows and place the palms of the hands on the mat, directly under the shoulders, fingertips facing towards your body. Lift the hips as you press into your hands and feet. Press through the upper thighs as you shine your heart upwards.
The Wheel pose is great for allowing yourself to feel vulnerable as it awakens your heart (Anahata) chakra. Releasing the neck and dropping the gaze in this pose will help you to see things differently, maybe give you a new perspective on life. It is especially helpful while mending a broken heart and will encourage you to fill yourself with love, gratitude and appreciation.
Remember to breathe slowly and deeply as your lungs naturally begin to work harder for you. Feel your chest expand and heart soar.
For a less intense variation, enter your Mini Bridge pose.
Work your way up to staying in wheel pose for a minute at a time, for up to three times.
Wisdom Pose (Balasana)
Kneeling on your mat, bring your knees together and sit your bum back your heels. Fold your chest over your thighs and relax your neck, dropping your gaze down and closing the eyes. Place your arms down and back by your side, palms facing up, and release into your shoulders.
This variation of Child’s Pose offers all the same benefits that Child’s does, including balancing your sacral (Swadhishthana) chakra, but this variation allows the shoulders to relax a little bit deeper. It also allows more openness to your thoughts as your stretch the crown of your head towards the front of your mat, inviting your crown (Sahasrara) chakra to open. While resting in this humble and still pose, notice thoughts as they come and go, inviting wisdom and creativity.
If performed with an open mind, the full-body, gravitational pull of Balasana can induce a great sense of physical, mental and emotional release.
Continue to deepen the breath and hold for about a minute.
Supported Corpse (Salamba Savasana)
Take a bolster or roll up a blanket and tuck it under your knees. Lay flat out on your back, on your mat, letting your feet flop open to your sides and hands resting down by your sides, palms facing up. Feel a soft release into the lower spine. Close the eyes, and begin to focus on the natural rhythm of your breath.
This pose will help you relieve stress and bring peace to the mind. Your body should feel relaxed as you take your practice inwards, silently experiencing gratitude and acceptance. If you find tears streaming down your face, let them fall. This is a relaxing and releasing pose – both physically and mentally.
It is suggested a person stay in this pose five minutes for every 30 minutes of practice.
Practice these asanas in your own way, noticing what’s right for you and your body. Become aware of how you feel in them and let your natural energy guide you to your answers. You may be surprised at what surfaces when you can unlock your emotions through the practice of yoga.