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.
5 Tips to Balance in Handstand
Almost no yoga pose brings as invigorating, fun and light-hearted joy as balancing in Handstand. When we can’t balance, though, it’s frustrating and a true test of yogic mindfulness. For the intermediate practitioner who’s already familiar with Adho Mukha Vrksanasa (Handstand), there’s a multitude of things to do to make balancing in it easier. These are a few favorites to get you away from the wall and out into the middle of the room.
- Stretch Your Legs and Hips First.
A crucial component to balancing in Handstand is to stack our center of gravity, in this case, the pelvis, over the balance point between our hands. Without limberness in the legs and hips, getting the pelvis up over the hands is much more difficult. It also requires more effort to kick up if we feel stiff and tight.
A few great yoga poses to open the legs and hips are: Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Dog), Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose), Adho Mukha Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Downward Facing Pigeon Pose) and Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose).
- Squeeze Your Legs Straight.
Once we kick up into Handstand, we absolutely must bring our legs together and straighten them. Floppy legs and separated feet make Handstand feel heavy; the result places the workload too much into the arms. Powered up legs, squeezed together and reaching for the sky brings more of our bodies into the pose. It also creates length, lightness and openness in Handstand, all of which make it easier to balance.
- Work Your Hands and Feet.
The hands and feet are such small parts of our bodies, but what we do with them makes a huge impact on how long and easily we can balance in Handstand. First, we need to spread our fingers and toes so that we are fully alert and active in the posture. In our hands the weight will shift slightly between the fingers and from finger tips to heels of the hands.
To absorb the fluctuations in balance that we experience in Handstand, we have to allow for this subtle weight shift in the foundation. It’s also important, both for balance, as well as for the support of the wrists, to press down with each finger tip and all four corners of the palms simultaneously.
The feet mirror the hands and can be used to controlled and calm the normal oscillations that occur in Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Once you are up in the pose, act as if your feet are on the ceiling. Push up strongly through the soles of your feet and spread your toes to manage the wobbles that always come.
- Focus Your Vision.
Where we look in Handstand has a lot to do with our stability in the pose. If our eyes dart this way and that, it means our minds are wandering. Without focus and concentration, balance will be challenging. Look at the ground in between your hands, but slightly out in front of them. Your focal point on the ground draws an equilateral triangle; your hands form the bottom two points, where you are looking is the top point. If you tuck your chin and look between your arms it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll fall into a somersault.
- Learn to Fall Safely.
Nothing, when it comes to balancing in Handstand, will shut us down faster than the fear of falling. To keep our motivation high and our bodies safe, we must learn to fall out of Handstand without falling flat on our backs. The trick is to rotate the pelvis and windmill the legs over, one at a time, much like a cartwheel.
If you overshoot the pose, begin to shift your weight slightly more into one hand — whichever one feel most natural — than the other. Then, turn your hips out towards that side (i.e. if you leaned onto your right hand, turn your hips open to the right) and swing that leg (the right one, in this scenario) over. The second leg will follow and as it lands, shift the weight back into the feet and off the hands.