The Yoga Pose You’re Doing Wrong (and How to Modify it Safely)
Take any yoga class and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll do downward facing dog, or adho mukha svanasana, at least once. If you’re a fan of flow classes, the amount of times you’ll find yourself in down dog increases exponentially. For beginners, despite their teacher’s touting down dog as a pose of rest, it feels less like rest and more like a full body workout. This isn’t exactly untrue. When downward facing dog is executed properly the core is engaged and the entire back body is stretching, with the arms bearing some of the body’s weight, making down dog a pose that works the entire body from hands to heels. A correctly executed down dog also has many physical and mental benefits, including building bone density, increasing circulation, developing flexibility, calming the mind and counteracting fatigue. But when done wrong the benefits of the posture may be lost and put the yogi at risk for injury, especially if they’re hitting downward facing dog repeatedly.
Most of the students I see in class doing down dog incorrectly are making the same mistake. They slump forward into their shoulders, hunching their upper back and misplacing the majority of the weight from their trunk and hips into their shoulders and wrists. The shoulder, a ball and socket joint, is a shallow joint with a complex network of muscle and ligament attachments. This gives the joint a lot of flexibility but also increases the risk of injury, especially dislocation or wear and tear injuries involving the rotator cuff. Shoulder injuries can be extremely painful, and in some cases, can become chronic problems. Because of the complexity of the shoulder’s structure and a modern lifestyle that doesn’t always encourage strong muscle development in the area, shoulder injuries can be hard or impossible to repair, even with surgery. This makes properly practicing poses where the shoulder can be vulnerable, such as down dog, extremely important. Yoga is supposed to make us feel good inside and out, not leave us with chronic pain.
So how do you know if you are doing down dog correctly? First and foremost, listen to your body. If you are feeling discomfort or sensations that don’t resemble the description above, chances are something is off. Are the heels of your hands digging uncomfortably into the ground? Do your shoulders feel heavy and seem to sag toward your ears? Is there little to no feeling of stretch happening throughout your back or hamstrings? Does it feel as though your back is curving upward, like it does during cat pose? These may be signals that you need to make adjustments.
In a proper down dog the base of the pointer and pinky fingers and the heel of the hand should be pressed firmly into the mat. The arms should feel engaged, long, and be externally rotating, with the bony part of the elbows tracking backwards toward the body, rather than facing outwards. The shoulders should be pushing back from the ears with the shoulder blades pressing flat to the ribs. The back body should feel long and flat. The hips should continue this line, so that the entire top half of your body creates a long line from the base of the hands to the tailbone. The legs should feel a stretch through the hamstrings, with the knees straight, but not locked, and the heels pressing toward, or onto, the mat. The feeling should be of the thighs pressing back away from the arms. The lower half of the body is ideally a long line from hip to heel. The entire pose should look like two lines forming an inverted “V”.
Aren’t there exceptions to every rule? Isn’t a yoga practice about showing up and working to your level, rather than striving for the perfect posture all the time? Absolutely. But there is a difference between working on a posture where you are at, and working on a posture unsafely, even if you aren’t striving to put your body into a pose it isn’t ready for. As practitioners, part of being accountable for our practice is seeking guidance when something doesn’t feel right for our bodies. This goes beyond listening to descriptions or corrections given out in class. It means remembering that being pro-active can save us from unnecessary injury or chronic pain. If your down dog doesn’t seem quite right, an experienced teacher can provide you with the guidance to modify it to suit your body and practice while allowing you to safely reap the benefits of the pose.
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.