Dealing with Down Dog.

Via on Feb 8, 2014

Down dog yoga

We all have our favorite poses. And then there is the pose we h— (ahem) find very challenging.

The pose that I dread is Down Dog: Adhomukha Svanasna. Every single time my teacher tells us to go into downward dog, I cringe. So why is this such a struggle?

My hamstrings are tight so my knees are difficult to straighten. My heels are so far off the floor I could be wearing a pair of stilettos. My body weight is shifted to my arms since I can’t get my heels on the floor which makes my arms shake and my wrists hurt. With all of this combined, my back rounds into an arch, so instead of resembling the upside down “V” that I am supposed to be doing I look more like the small letter “N.”

Yet, I have been told that the pose we find the hardest is the one we need the most. The benefits are not only a great full body stretch of the back, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, arms and hands but is said to aid in relieving depression and stress. It eases digestion, soothes headaches, prevents and alleviates sciatica, and quiets menstrual cramps.

It seems like a pose I need to be on friendlier terms with, then.

How I deal with Down Dog:

1) I get my hands up on a brick. By placing a brick under each hand, the pressure is decreased off your hamstrings and forces some of the weight onto your lower body. If the bricks aren’t enough, you can place your hands on a chair. Another option is to place your heels against a wall. This keeps me stable and gives a place for my heels to rest.

2) I stretch out my calves first. I have extremely tight Achilles tendons. They are so tight in fact, that when I was a child a doctor wanted to perform surgery and cut a muscle in the back of my leg. My mom didn’t really want to put me through surgery and asked for a second opinion. The other doctor suggested she sign me up for ballet which she did. While I may have gotten more flexible then, my muscles have returned to their constricted spots.

I find if I stretch out a little before I go to yoga, my heels fall slightly closer to the floor and make the whole pose a little bit easier.

3) I place my hands on a towel or slant board prop. At the studio I attend, there are a plethora of props to choose from to assist us in our poses. One of these props is a piece of wood that measures 1-3/8 by 4-1/4 x 24 inches long and is rounded on the top. It raises your wrists off the ground which eases the pressure. Another option is to place it under your heels.

4) I don’t stay in it very long. While I like to push my self a little bit, I find the longer I stay in a pose that I am struggling so hard with that my arms are shaking, the worse the pose gets. I’ve heard my teacher say it many times before: Don’t stay in a bad pose. If I need to come out, I do. This isn’t a competition (although we may feel like it is sometimes). Gradually increasing time is best.

5) I practice (sometimes). Okay, I really do h— (ahem) find this pose challenging. I dread practicing it. But yoga is not just about being more flexible, is it now? Yoga starts out by stretching our muscles, but it also broadens our minds. It throws the things in our faces that we don’t want to deal with and says Guess what? Deal with me. So part of this is practicing the poses we don’t like. So I practice. And in my practice I learn that the challenges we don’t want to face are sometimes the challenges that will make us stronger in the long run.

Do any of these tips make me enjoy this pose anymore? No, they do not.

Maybe I will never enjoy downward facing dog. Maybe every time I go to yoga and my teacher calls out Adhomukha Svanasna I will cringe inside. Maybe my heels will never feel the cool floor of the yoga studio. But what I have found is that while there is joy in success, there is also joy in the journey.

And we all have to start somewhere.

Relephant:

The Real Reason Downward-Facing Dog Is So Good for You. 

A Downward Facing Dog Doesn’t Mind How It Looks.

 

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Editor: Cat Beekmans

Photo credit: US Air Force/Flickr Creative Commons

About Dana Gornall

Dana Gornall is a mom of three crazy kids and a dog. She works as a licensed massage therapist in Amherst, Ohio and is a certified sign language interpreter. She is always looking forward to even more personal growth. While not interpreting, doing massage, or being with her family she loves going to yoga. You can connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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19 Responses to “Dealing with Down Dog.”

  1. Darla says:

    Always enjoy your articles!

  2. Nekussa says:

    Dana, I know how you feel.

    Down dog has never been comfortable for me and when my current yoga teacher told the class that down dog is actually a resting pose in yoga, I went, "what?!?" She also told us that if we need to come out of a pose or can't hold our balance, this is fine. It's about working with your body, not against it. I love that so, so much. (I'm new to classes and have only practiced in my home and am finding classes better than I expected!)

    Thanks for the tips. I think I might use blocks next class! I also have a problem with sweaty hands and sliding while in down dog!

    • Dana Gornall DanaGornall says:

      I know, that's my reaction to about it being a 'resting pose"…. huh? I'm glad you liked my tips. Yes, try to blocks for sure!

  3. Muks says:

    I have had my troubles with downward dog, but I have dreaded the warrior poses. After some years of practice these poses got better and actually do enjoy them now, especially the upper back stretch in dd. I like your approach.

  4. Joe Sparks says:

    Hi Dana, when you are pushing down the heels to the floor it puts excessive pressure upon your anterior discs, compressing the lumbar spine. This will not lengthen the hamstrings only strain them including your calves, a chillies , plantar fascia. Shortening the front of the body to stretch the back of the body makes no anatomical sense. A sore back is a short or weak front body. If your body is hurting and having a hard time it might be the pose and not you.
    In Down Dog " Whether you engage in this straight-kneed, forward-bent posture while standing or sitting, the discs in the anterior spine are being compressed, and the spinal and sacral ligaments along the entire back line of the body are being overstretched." Michaelle Edwards, pg. 369-taken from her book, YogAlign. She is also a contributor on Elephant Journal, And was featured in the NY Times article , Flexibility is a Liabilty with Women in Yoga. We all need to re- think what we are actually doing to our bodies and why. It is time the yoga world re-examine poses like down dog and not assume anything.

  5. Trixie says:

    Bend your knees! A lot, even. That should help the spine extend a bit more. And who cares if your heels EVER reach the floor? But bend your knees.

    • Dana Gornall DanaGornall says:

      My teacher is not big on us bending our knees..but I do that at home. :-) I kow..but I hope one day they just might at least come close to the floor.

  6. Karen says:

    Love this! I can relate so much!

  7. Anthony says:

    Try practicing Downward Facing Dog with your hands against a wall. You can keep your heels on the floor and take all of the load out of the wrists and shoulders while stretching the legs and torso.

  8. bringingyouohm says:

    To give you some hope, when I started yoga 8 years ago, my two most hated positions were anything done standing in a straddle position due to scar tissue in my ankles and pigeon. My teacher said the same thing about needing them the most, so I kept at it, coming out of them whenever I needed to, honoring my body.

    After a few years, all the scar tissue was gone and I was able to do them comfortably. I had actually forgotten how difficult they were for me until this post. Miracles happen, one millimeter at a time :)

  9. Nadine says:

    Bend your knees. Your teacher isn't big on 'letting' you? I'm sure your teacher is wonderful, but I'd get a second opinion on that.

  10. Drunkenyogamaster says:

    First of all, I will apologize in advance for my bluntness. But you need a new teacher. Or at least another teacher. Yes, Down Dog can be very difficult to master and at times frustrating or tiring. But judging from your article, I can confidently say that you are not being instructed properly. Sadly, I encounter many students and instructors who have never received the proper training for correct anatomical position and muscular actions. The Down Dog you describe sounds just like my own did before I came into contact with knowledgeable teachers. In short, you’re doing it wrong. I will try to give you a few tips. I also recommend trying many different instructors and actively seeking out anyone with an Iyengar lineage training. Ok, so first the knee thing – trying to straighten the knees and touch the floor with your heels. This may be true in the perfect pose of an experienced yogi, it is absolutely unnecessary. Having the legs straight and the heels planted is not something to work towards, but something that happens after all the other key points are mastered. One of which is keeping the spine in neutral. That means lengthening the spine from the crown of the head to the tailbone while keeping the natural curves. Of course your back is rounding. That’s because you’re trying to straighten your legs. No wonder it’s a frustrating pose for you because you are defeating the proper alignment! Instead, take a bend in the knees and take as deep a bend as you need to to get that spine in neutral. Bend, bend those knees and dont be afraid to even bring your belly to touch your thighs to get the length you need in your spine. Once you do this you can press the floor away with your hands, carry that through your arms (making sure to roll your biceps out so your upper arms are externally rotating) and continue that to lengthen your spine. As you actively reach your sit bones back start to straighten your legs and draw your heels down. You can work at this by moving dynamically with your breath and bending your knees on the inhale and straigthening them on the exhale. And if you dont want to change instuctors you can just tell her you’re ‘working into’ the pose.

    Good luck!

    • Dana Gornall DanaGornall says:

      Thanks for your recommendations! Please understand that this is my interpretation of what is going on in the class and in my head. My teacher is an Iyengar teacher and is certified. She also has been to India to study at BKS Iyengar's institute.

      I will definitely try your suggestions! Thanks again!

  11. Drunkenyogamaster says:

    Also try Puppy Dog, which is an upright (sort of) version of Down Dog at the wall. Stand in front of a wall and place your palms on the wall at the level of your frontal hip bones, fingers pointed up. Now walk backwards until you are hinging at your hips and your spine is long through its natural curves. Guaranteed that this will give you a different perspective on the same pose, but done with a different relationship to gravity. Yoga is, after all, all about relationships.

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