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.
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.