February 9, 2014

Dealing with Down Dog.

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.


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

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


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo credit: US Air Force/Flickr Creative Commons

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

Drunkenyogamaster Feb 12, 2014 3:49am

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.

Drunkenyogamaster Feb 12, 2014 3:37am

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!

Nadine Feb 10, 2014 6:30pm

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.

Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

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.