Discipline & Surrender: The Art of Down Dog

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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.



Why Savasana Is Good for Your Heart

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Corpse pose (Savasana) is the final pose of a yoga practice. In Savasana you are encouraged to let the breath be free, but also bring awareness to it as you quiet the mind. To help yourself move deeper into the pose, practice in a quiet and warm space. Mindfully relax all of your muscles, and as you do this, you may want to deepen the breath.

Even though it’s a resting pose, it can be one of the most difficult poses of the practice. Savasana challenges you in ways that you are not used to being challenged. Patience, control of the mind, and complete acceptance of oneself are things that we don’t practice very often. And while some may enjoy the emotional experience it shares, Savasana has many physical health benefits to offer, too, especially for the heart. This February, celebrate heart health and learn about the benefits Savasana offers to your vital organ.

Decreases Blood Pressure

High blood pressure can be caused by several factors, one of them being stress. Having high blood pressure can put you at risk for a number of serious health conditions, including stroke and heart disease. Taking time to slow down, deepen your breath, and relax during Savasana can help decrease your blood pressure.

Reduces Your Heart Rate

High or constant levels of stress can also cause your heart rate to increase – but so can other things, such as caffeine, alcohol and certain health conditions. The slow breathing techniques and relaxation opportunities that Savasana offers can help reduce your heart rate.

Allows the Heart to Rest

Deep breathing exercises major organs of the body, including the lungs. It forces your lungs to work more than they typically do throughout the day and brings in more oxygen to the blood, which then gets sent to the heart. With the lungs working a little harder, it eases the pressure needed by the heart to pump oxygen through the body. This gives the heart a bit of a break, making both your lungs and heart more efficient throughout your daily activities.

Helps You Lead a Healthier Lifestyle

Living a stressful life makes it more difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle. Cooking healthy food at home, doing things that you love and fitting physical activity into your day are harder to do when you live a high-stress life. But neglecting these things can put your health at risk. Some people respond to stress by overeating, smoking, or drinking alcohol – all of which increase your chances of developing heart disease and stroke. Taking the time to practice Savasana along with your slow, deep breaths helps you to reduce stress, calm your nervous system, and think more clearly. Overall, practicing Savasana can help you make healthier choices.

It is recommended to practice this pose for five minutes for every thirty minutes you have spent practicing the asanas/physical poses and movements of yoga. But remember – you can take this practice off your mat and learn how to do this throughout the day, too, helping your heart stay healthy all day long.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Do not disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read in this article.

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