Why adjust downward facing dog?
Downward dog is one of the most foundational and ubiquitous postures in most styles of yoga. And yet, it’s not uncommon for students to feel uncertain about what the right intention for them should be in this posture. Beginning students especially may struggle trying to figure out how to find a sense of ease and stability in downward dog. A good adjustment or assist in this posture can go a long way toward helping students experience a felt sense of the direction they are trying to go in this pose. It can give them really useful information about how to work downward dog more effectively on their own.
As with any good adjustment, it’s important to observe the student and see what’s going on in their body before we jump in and start making any changes. Students come to yoga with lots of different body types and variations of strength and flexibility. There are different aspects of the pose that we might want to emphasize when adjusting downward dog depending on what’s going on in the student’s body, so it’s important that we observe first so that the adjustments that we offer are truly of value to the student.
Some things that we might want to pay attention to before adjusting downward dog include:
- How tight or open is the student generally in their lower body?
- Do their legs easily straighten in downward dog or do they need to keep their knees bent?
- Do their heels easily come to the floor or are they off of the floor?
- How tight or open is the student in their upper body?
- Can they straighten their arms?
- Are their shoulders relaxed in their sockets or up by their ears?
- How strong is the student in their upper body?
- Which direction are their knees pointing: straight ahead, more inward, or more outward?
Intention and technique
Like most standing postures and foundational postures, there are two general intentions that I want to emphasize in downward dog: grounding and lengthening.
Let’s take a look at grounding first.
One reason that students might feel a little ungrounded in downward dog is because tension somewhere along the back line is preventing them from resting the whole foot on the floor. This restriction might be in the calf muscles, Achilles tendons, hamstrings, or some combination. Tension anywhere along this line can have the effect of dumping more of the student’s weight into their shoulders and it can get in the way of finding a sense of ease in this pose. Downward dog is sometimes referred to as a resting posture, but that might sound crazy if we’re still struggling just to hold this pose.
Working with the lower body
In order to help students have the feeling of shifting some of their weight out of the shoulders and moving it back toward their legs, I could use my hands on their sacrum or pelvis to press their pelvis back. My direction of intention with that adjustment is up and back. I could also use a variation for the same intention. I could stand behind the student, place my hands on their hips or use a strap around their waist, and pull their pelvis back towards me. My direction of intention would still be up and back in the same line as their spine.
Simply helping the student move their pelvis and shift more of the weight out of the shoulders and into the legs in downward dog can help them feel more grounded in their feet. It can also contribute to our second general intention, which is length. Taking some weight out of the shoulders, arms, and hands, usually allows students to straighten the arms, adjust their own shoulders, and possibly feel more length along the spine. If the student is comfortably in the pose, then adding more of my body weight when adjusting downward dog can help the student deepen the posture.
Working with the upper body
We could also work with the upper body when adjusting downward dog. I might notice that a student’s shoulders are up by their ears and offer an adjustment to help the student get a feel for a direction to work with the shoulders. I could help them get a feeling for widening that space around the neck and upper trapezius by using my hands to widen the shoulder blades, allowing for more external rotation in the shoulder joint itself. I could add on to that by then taking my own body weight back towards their feet to work with the intention of length even further.
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David summarizes research which evaluates physical effort needed to do common standing yoga postures and how that effort compares to walking.