Discipline & Surrender: The Art of Down Dog

article migration image art down dog jpg

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.



Partner Yoga Poses: The Power of Connectivity

article migration image partner yoga poses acroyoga 647x300 jpeg

Want to heighten your yoga experience? Deepen your practice through body and mind with partner yoga: Partner Yoga Level One and Partner Yoga Level Two, led by instructor Pedro Franco, are perfect for yoga lovers. Partner yoga is a practice for any level of yogi. It can be done with a friend, loved one or acquaintance. Through this fun and connected series, you will learn to strengthen and amplify your practice by creating a greater sense of awareness in your own body while also paying close attention to the presence and movements of your partner. Partner yoga poses are great if you want to try something new or to spice things up in your relationship with more intimate couples yoga poses.

Things to Keep in Mind When You Start Your Partner Practice

  • Partner yoga does not have to be complicated to be beneficial
  • Partner yoga can simply be sitting back-to-back with your partner and breathing. It can be meditative. It can be as simple as massaging your partner’s sacrum after a stretch or wiggling your partner’s legs after a flying pose
  • Partner yoga works on the same principles as individual yoga: Listen to your body and do what feels right. Challenge yourself, but only to a healthy limit
  • If you’re new to partner yoga, take time to build strength, stability and flexibility in order to grow in the practice. Remember that in any form of yoga, there is no competition. For as many times as you stumble, you have just as many opportunities to try again. It is the act of connecting that matters most, not reaching a pose

Start with a Simple Partner Yoga Pose

Partner yoga can be a challenge for even the most advanced practitioner: It doesn’t matter how many hours you have spent on your mat, how many downward dogs or side crows you have done in your life. Maybe you are focused and resilient but need to work on your strength. Maybe you are strong and advanced in your movements but need to work on the act of giving yourself to your partner in a selfless manner.

Partner Seated Spinal Twist (Janu Sirsasana)

  1. Begin by sitting back-to back in a comfortable cross-legged seated position

  2. Each partner places their right hand on the other’s partner’s left thigh just above knee

  3. Put your left hand on your own right knee

  4. Coordinate your breathing by lengthening through spine on each inhale

  5. During each exhale, twist a little more

  6. Come back to center seated and repeat on other side

Learn the Art of Balancing with Your Partner

Partner yoga is not just about you. It is about the other person, too. Partner yoga poses exist to teach yogis and anyone interested in the practice how to gain better awareness and alignment of the body through precise adjustments and articulated movements.

Partner Boat Pose (Navasana)

Partner Boat Pose
Navasana

  1. Start by having each partner sit at the end of the mat facing each other

  2. Each partner will bend their knees and press the soles of their feet together

  3. Connect by clasping each other’s hands

  4. While keeping the soles of your feet together, lean back slowly

  5. Lengthen your legs and reach your feet upward to a bent-legged boat pose

  6. Continue to breathe while you work on your balance

Create Greater Intimacy with Your Partner

Partner yoga can be as intimate as you allow it to be. Partner yoga is for anyone and everyone. It is about trust. It is about connection. It is about feeling the electric sensation between you and another person. It has the power to strengthen bonds between friends, unite strangers and fuse couples together in a new and stimulating way. Partner yoga has the powerful ability to create a profound level of intimacy between two people. The combination of breath, balance, trust and connection create for a unity that is unlike any other. It is assumed by many that partner yoga is purely sexual. This is not true. Yes, partner yoga can be a sensual experience if you want it to be, especially in couples yoga poses. It can also be an experience of unity in a completely different way. It can be whatever you want it to be. That is the beauty of the practice.

Partner Dancer’s Pose (Nataranjasana)

Partner Dancer's Pose
Nataranjasana

  1. Start by standing up toward the back edge of your mat, facing your partner

  2. Grab your partner’s right hand

  3. Each partner will slightly bend the knees

  4. Shift your weight onto your right leg

  5. Bend the left knee and gran onto the inside of the left ankle or calf with your left hand

  6. Gently pressing your shin into your left hand, open your back

  7. Finally, reach your right arm up to balance

  8. Repeat on the other side

Connect with Your Partner

Partner yoga is not just about you. Partner yoga has the word partner in it for a reason. It is a practice for two and is a practice that focuses on the unity of two. This is the idea that we should be incorporating in our partner yoga practice. Listen to your partner’s needs. Are they comfortable? Do they feel supported? Do they feel capable of holding you in a pose? Are they calm and present? Through the power of breath and touch, you will be able to sense your partner’s physical and emotional state. Yes, you need a partner to fly. You need a partner to pull your legs and lift you up. But your partner also needs you. It all comes back to unity. In these partner yoga poses and couples yoga poses, we rely on each other and so we must move in a way that represents that.

Double Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)

  1. Stand back-to-back with your partner

  2. Leave about 6 to 12 inches between you and your partner’s heels

  3. Each partner will bend at the waist and come to a forward fold

  4. Reach your hands behind you

  5. Grab onto your partner’s hands

  6. As you increase flexibility, you may be able to grab your partner’s forearms, elbows or even shoulders

  7. Walk your heels closer until your bottoms are touching and straighten your legs

  8. Lengthen the spine, head dangling toward the ground

Explore AcroYoga

AcroYoga is the combination of yoga, massage and acrobatics. As with partner yoga, which often includes acrobatic poses, shown in the Partner Yoga Level Two video, it is important to focus on the building blocks of your practice. Start with what you know and allow yourself to grow through continual practice, one step at a time. Motivation and repetition are the keys to helping you excel at AcroYoga. A common misconception about AcroYoga is that the size of your partner matters. This is not always true. Believe it or not, you have the ability to lift someone twice your weight. It is all about your technique.

As an extension of partner yoga, AcroYoga relies on the same principles: trust, communication and connection. Once you master these skills, you will be flying in the air and lifting people up with your feet in no time. Here is a fun beginner’s partner AcroYoga pose to test out your skills.

Flying Plank (A)

  1. Base lies on back

  2. Base places legs up in the air, heels over hips

  3. Flyer starts by standing facing the base, with their toes almost touching the base’s glutes

  4. Base bents knees slightly to bring feet to the hipbones of the flyer

  5. Base and flyer connect hands, palm to palm and fingers interlaced

  6. Flyer leans forward into the base’s feet

  7. With flyer’s body in a single line, the base will receive the weight of the flyer in their feet

  8. Base will then straighten their legs and stack their heels directly over the flyer’s hips

  9. The flyer should have an engaged core, and the base should have straight arms and shoulder blades firmly grounded into the mat for maximum support and balance

From Flying Plank, yogis can work into the variation below: the flyer leans into the base’s hands instead of feet.

Acroyoga Flying
Plank

Flying plank photo credit: Amy Goalen

Just as we protect our family, friends and loved ones, we must protect each other when practicing partner yoga. Emotionally and physically, we must rely on each other to reach the ultimate goal of unity and connection.

Thank you to Amy Goalen for providing the beautiful main article image!

Read Article

More In Focus

Our unique blend of yoga, meditation, personal transformation, and alternative healing content is designed for those seeking to not just enhance their physical, spiritual, and intellectual capabilities, but to fuse them in the knowledge that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.


Use the same account and membership for TV, desktop, and all mobile devices. Plus you can download videos to your device to watch offline later.

Desktop, laptop, tablet, phone devices with Gaia content on screens

Discover what Gaia has to offer.

Testing message will be here