Myth #4: You shouldn’t change the distance between hands and feet for downward dog
In this article I’m continuing my series on examining more deeply the common yoga alignment cues that we hear. I’ll explore a question this month that I often get from students: should you walk the feet in for downward dog? I think what we’re really asking with this question is: should you change the distance between hands and feet when transitioning from chaturanga to upward dog and then downward dog? Read on and I’ll explain what makes sense to me and why the distance between the hands and feet probably will change.
No pose lives in a vacuum
Every practitioner and teacher has a particular lens through which they view poses in a yoga practice. One of the ways that I understand and teach the practice is with the idea of an interrelationship between postures. I don’t see any pose as existing alone, but rather in relationship to the poses that come before and after it. This idea is especially relevant when we are talking about downward facing dog. I think what we do when we get to downward facing dog to establish a comfortable, steady pose, depends on how we arrived there. We could arrive in downward dog in many different ways. For example, we might simply fold forward from a standing position to place our hands on the mat and then step our feet right back to downward dog. If we were arriving in downward dog in this way, it’s unlikely that we would feel the need to adjust the distance between our hands and feet by walking the feet in for downward dog. We would naturally just step back to a distance that feels comfortable.
Arriving in downward dog from chaturanga and upward dog
What is very common though, particularly in any vinyasa style practice, is arriving in downward dog from a transition through chaturanga and then upward dog. This is when we might feel like we want to change the length between our hands and feet, or walk the feet in for downward dog. When we arrive in downward dog from this transition then, the distance between our hands and feet is set up for either our chaturanga or upward dog, depending on whether we change distance between our hands and feet while we transition through those two poses. For instance, we may slide our feet or flip them, when we transition between postures, to adjust how far back the feet are. While there might be reasons that we want the same distance between hands and feet in downward dog as we have in upward dog, there are many good reasons why we might also want the distance between hands and feet to be different in these two postures.
I discussed in previous posts why we might want to explore the distance between our hands and feet in chaturanga and in upward facing dog. The distance between our hands and feet in those two postures can affect how pressure is felt in our lower back, shoulders, and wrists. But downward dog is a different posture, so we might expect that it would have a different distance between the hands and feet.
Why would we be told not to walk the feet in for downward dog
This is the question and the “myth”, isn’t it? There could be an argument for giving this cue to students who tend to fidget too much throughout their practice and want to fidget here as well. Perhaps one could argue that if your chaturanga and upward facing dog are “correct” that you should naturally arrive in the right place in downward facing dog as well.
The problem with any of these potential arguments is that all of these postures are different. They are different in shape and form as well as in terms of their intentions. Mix that together with our own variables such as proportions, strengths, and flexibilities, and you have a complex mix of variables that all have to be considered.
Why we might need to change the feet in downward dog
There are a few reasons we might need or want to walk the feet in for downward dog if we arrive there from a longer distance between hands and feet in upward dog.
If we’re coming to downward facing dog from upward facing dog, remember that our hand to foot relationship is often dictated by the flexibility of our spine. The more flexible it is, the closer our hands and feet can be to one another. The less flexibility we have in our spine, the more distance we will need between hands and feet. Without factoring in our proportions yet, if we have a longer distance in upward facing dog there is a good chance that we will need to adjust that distance into a shorter position when we arrive in downward facing dog. This could also be dependant on how we literally do our transition from upward facing dog to downward facing dog.
Since I brought up proportions, they matter. If we have shorter legs/longer torso relative to our own body, walking the feet in may change the distance between our hands and our feet so that we can achieve a comfortable resting place in downward facing dog.
We may also want to change the distance depending on what we do or do not want to emphasize in this posture. Generally speaking, we want to move the weight out of the hands as much as possible. Instead, we want to send that weight and energy into the feet. If we want to emphasize the pressure in the calf muscles, then we may want the feet to be a little further away, and dare I say, even have the heels lifted as a result of the distance. This will of course, emphasize the stretch sensation into the calf muscles.
If we want to focus on grounding through all areas and parts of our foot, we may very well want to walk our feet in for downward dog, which will reduce the angle at the ankle joint. Although we may feel this in our calves anyway, it de-emphasizes that we are trying to stretch the calf muscles in particular. If this leads us to our intention of grounding the foot, that’s great.
There are also reasons for or against moving your feet forward if you have tight hamstrings, and as a result of those tight hamstrings you have to bend your knees just to be in the posture comfortably. If we are very tight along the back of the body and we keep our feet farther back from our hands, we may find it difficult to even have the intention of straightening the legs. All three of the hamstrings and one of the calf muscles cross the knee joint. So, if our knees are very bent, we will not be able to stretch the calves and hamstrings in the same way as we would if we could straighten the legs a little bit more. Walking the feet in a little bit in downward dog can have the effect of taking some of that tension out, allowing us to put a more even stretch through the calves and hamstrings.
The last reason that we might want to walk the feet in for downward dog is to take some of the weight out of the shoulders and move it backward into the legs. Beginners, in particular, may find that they don’t quite have the strength to repeatedly hold downward dog. Tension in the body that prevents balancing the weight between the hands and feet, combined with insufficient strength, can result in students starting to overwork the shoulders. By walking the feet in a little bit, we can reduce some of the tension, which can make it easier to move some of the weight out of the shoulders and back towards the feet.
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David explains why the key to lowering into chaturanga is doing two things at once: maintaining an active serratus anterior and relaxing the triceps and deltoids.