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.
Yin Yoga Poses
This article is an exploration of 10 Yin yoga poses. Yin is a style that is practiced by holding poses for a long time in a relaxed state. Yin stands in contrast to other contemporary styles of yoga, such as Vinyasa or Hatha, which generally move the practitioner from pose to pose quickly. Yin yoga ‘asana’, the Sanskrit word for poses, are practiced by following the three principles that Bernie Clark explains in Yin Yoga with Bernie Clark.
Three Principles of Yin Yoga
- Principal 1: Play with your edge
- Principal 2: Stillness
- Principal 3: Hold for Time
Play With Your Edge
Yin is a lunar practice, which tends to be healing and cooling. Unlike solar practices such as sun salutations, yin does not call for heating postures, breathing styles, or sequencing. Therefore the muscles are typically not warm throughout a Yin practice. Entering into poses with cool muscles requires special attention to the first edge.
The first edge is found by gently getting into the shape of a pose and noticing where the body naturally wants to stop. Yielding the natural limitations of the body prevents injury. There should be no pain at the first or any other edge, yet there may be some discomfort. Discomfort without radiating pain is a sign that the connective tissue around the joints is stretching. Reasonable discomfort is a gateway to more flexibility and greater range of motion. Props can add additional comfort and accessibility to yin yoga poses.
You may experience strong physical sensations during a Yin practice such as heat or discomfort. Finding the first edge is a method of exploring the strong sensations and sitting with them. When yoga asana is briefly mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, they are prescribed to be Sthira sukham asanam, or done with steadiness and ease. Steadiness points to the second principal, stillness, which is explored later in the article.
About 30-60 seconds into a pose, or if and when the body shows signs of being able to go deeper, it is safe to move to the second edge (or third or forth). It is important that the body, not the ego, give the signal to deepen. This humble practice never asks the yogi to prove or force anything. There is no need to try to “achieve” or to look a certain way. Gentleness, acceptance and honesty are critical in a yin practice. If the body starts to tighten, it’s a sign to slowly come out of the pose.
Classical yoga was practiced as a means to still the mind for meditation. Sitting still in yin yoga poses lets the contemporary yogi dip their toes into the waters of deep meditation. One exception to stillness is when the body opens to a new edge. With the awareness that the body is ready to deepen, Yin yogis consciously move deeper and return again to stillness and breath. Another exception to stillness is the awareness of pain. In response to pain, it’s time to come out of the pose slowly.
Hold for Time
The third principal is to hold the poses for time. Poses can last anywhere from one minute to longer than 15 and in general are done for 5-10 minutes. Using a timer tells you how long you are staying still, which can be a way to gauge stillness from practice to practice. A timer can also ensure that both sides of the body get the same amount of time, which results in feeling delightfully balanced. The breath can continue to deepen the longer a pose is held. The lungs can expand seemingly forever. Counting breath is an interesting way to observe the expansive nature of the breath, which becomes possible during long holds. Profound experiences become accessible only when conscious and deepening pranayama is practiced.
Breathing expansively while remaining still presents the practitioner with what is rarely otherwise observed: the quiet inner dance of consciousness, an inner world so rich and mysterious, it is invisible most of the time. Holding (still) for time never seemed so tempting.
What Do You Need to Practice Yin Yoga?
- Yoga mat or as an alternative, a thick blanket or carpet.
- Yoga blankets and bolsters or as an alternative, towels and pillows nearby
- Blocks or (or books if you have none)
- Sand timer
- Soft music
10 Yin Yoga Poses
Sit cross-legged, your right side adjacent to the wall, reach your right hand back so the palm is flat against the wall at about shoulder height. Scoot your right hip in closer to the wall if you feel you can safely tolerate more stretch. Once the shoulder feels settled, bend the arm so you have the palm directly above the elbow at the height of your gaze. Sit and breathe for several moments. If you feel you can safely deepen, allow the left hand to come beside and slightly behind your left hip and press fingertips into the floor. Lift and open your chest. Slowly drop the left shoulder down and perhaps the chin and gaze point follow. Stay for 1-5 minutes breathing gently.
2. Lower Back Pose
Sit on a cushion if you have tight hamstrings or flat on the mat for more open hamstrings. Let the legs extend and relax so that the feet flop out gently to their respective sides. Knees can be slightly bent. Pressing the fingertips downward into the ground beside the hips, lengthen the heart higher in contrast. Then tuck the chin into the chest. Let the upturned palms fall to the outside of the thighs near the knees. Allow the upper spine to round. For your second edge, the hands may move down the legs closer to the ankles. Remember not to strive or do too much. Stay and breathe 1-5 minutes.
3. West-Facing Pose
This pose just like the lower back pose, sitting up legs relaxed and extended. Place one bolster over your thighs. Lift though the chest as you inhale and as you exhale fold forward and down, hinging from the hips so as to keep length in the low back. If you are not able to lay upon the cushion, add more props until you can easily lay your chest and face on them. Find your first edge. At this time you may determine to remove or reduce the props so that you can go deeper. Stay in the pose for 1-5 minutes. Note, this pose is called “west-facing” because it is cooling, like the setting sun, which sets in the west.
4. Wide Leg Child Pose
On your mat, add cushion beneath the knees using a blanket or towel. Bring the knees as wide or wider than the mat and big toes to touch or towards one another. Press your hips back toward the heels and walk your hands forward as you fold from the hips. Imagine a gentle anchor keeps the hips downward and the low back spreading wide. From there, stretch the arms, chest and head forward and down. If the head cannot touch the floor, put a block or folded blanket beneath it so it can rest. You may prefer to rest upon the forehead or to turn the head to one side and then the other. Let your arms and hands relax into the floor. Notice your edge and deepen if and when it feels right. Come out if the knees start to bother you, moving slowly. Practice for 1-5 minutes.
5. Wide Leg Child Pose, Thread the Needle Variation
From wide leg child pose, slightly raise the head and walk the right hand back. Thread the right hand under the left until the right shoulder is on the ground and put the right temple on the floor. Repeat on the left side. Practice 1-5 minutes on each side.
Come to your hands and knees with a folded blanket under the knees for padding. Bring your right foot forward so it is just to the right on the right hand, make sure your shoulders are over the wrists. The right knee stacks over the right ankle so your shin may feel as though it is moving forward in space. If the right knee pops out to the right, redirect it over the ankle, pressing down into the right foot and imagine pressing the shin forward.
If needed, bring your hands up on blocks, lift through the chest, curl the left toes under and squeeze the left leg so the thigh lifts off the ground. This will cause the thigh to rotate internally, which means the alignment is now safe for deepening. Now , bringing the left knee down onto the blanket and then flatten the top of left foot into the mat. You may stay like that or bring your elbows onto the blocks to deepen. You may end up with no blocks, elbows on the mat beneath the shoulders or you may end up staying high on blocks. Honor where the body needs to go and remain for 1-5 minutes before repeating on the other side.
Place a flat bolster horizontally across the mat or a folded blanket about halfway down the length of the mat. Place both knees on the bolster. Bring the right knee forward of the cushion in front of the right hip and the foot toward on left side of the mat. Place the palms on blocks beneath the shoulders and bring the left leg back so that the thigh and top of left foot are pressing into or towards the floor. Let the pelvis be supported by the cushion. You may stay upright, opening the chest, or choose to ease yourself down, perhaps deepening to the point where your head rests on blocks or on the floor. Remain in the pose 1-5 minutes and repeat on the other side.
8. Supported Reclined Butterfly
The use of props to recline makes this supportive and relaxing. To do so, place a block the tall way and another the short way so they make an L. Lay a bolster or supportive cushion over the blocks so that it a slanted toward the floor. Place yourself with your back against the lower part of the cushion with the souls of your feet touching. To keep the feet together and to allow the hips to relax, use a strap or a long rolled blanket to wrap the feet.
9. Supported Gentle Fish
Place a block at medium height near the top of the mat. Sit so the block is behind you with the legs extended and relaxed. Lay your back over the blocks so they land between your shoulder blades boosted your heart up. Let your head relax back onto a block, making sure the neck is supported. Allow the arms to pour open and drip into the floor on either side. Breathe into the heart and let the body seep down onto the props. As your edge moves, notice the chest may boost higher. Remain 1-5 minutes.
10. Corpse Pose/ Savasana
Lay on the mat on your back. Let the arms and legs relax. Arms by your sides, feet slightly flop out. If your lower back is uncomfortable place blocks or a cushion under the knees. Stay as long as you wish. Let go of doing and drop into being.
Photos courtesy of author Lara Hocheiser and featuring Blair Smalls.