July 27, 2016

Good Dog, Bad Dog: Are we Overusing Downward Facing Dog?

Stephanie Sicore/Flickr

When I started practicing yoga around 20 years ago, I was an Ashtanga girl and I’ve done lots and lots of Downward Facing Dog over the years.

I love the pose—it makes me feel simultaneously active and passive, strong and supple, stretched and relaxed. It plays on the uniting of the opposites implied by the Sanskrit ha (“sun”) and tha (“moon”), as Hatha Yoga is so often interpreted, and it’s plainly a darling of yoga teachers everywhere—I’d be hard-pressed to think of the last time I took a class, regardless of style, that didn’t include multiple Downward Facing Dogs.

In short, it’s a great pose.

The question of whether we are overusing it—personally or professionally—is not a question I regularly ask myself. But maybe I should. Why? Because over the years, Down Dog has often served as a default, a potentially mindless transition when my own energy has become dulled.

I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching or doing Downward Facing Dog, but I’ll admit I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it as I once was. Here are a few reasons I’m humbly suggesting we work to break the habit (but still love the pose):

A mindful practice.

Part of what we are trying to do as teachers and students of yoga is create an atmosphere that fosters the quality of mindfulness, what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as, “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

We aim to cultivate that atmosphere for our students, but I would argue that we are also trying to cultivate mindfulness in ourselves through the act of teaching. The more we are simply doing things our of habit—whether reminding people to relax or putting them into Downward Facing Dog—the less we are present to the non-judgmental unfolding of moment to moment experience, both with our students and ourselves.

Teaching beginners.

This is a big one for me. In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar ranks Downward Facing Dog as more difficult than Headstand and most beginners would laugh, or cry, or run screaming out of the room if you asked them to stand on their head in their first class.

As an enthusiastic teacher of beginning level students, I must remind myself of my own limits. I know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep an attentive eye on everyone in every pose. So after watching many people struggle with frustration, push too hard, and miss out on the beauty of Downward Facing Dog, I stopped teaching it to beginners unless it was in a workshop or in a very small class where I could actually “workshop” the pose.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Many believe, and rightfully so, that Down Dog can be taught safely and should be taught to beginners. While I respect this opinion, I’ve seen too many potential injuries and witnessed too much overall discomfort from my beginners when we practice this pose in a large class to justify holding onto my habit.

Adho Mukha Svanasana is a beautiful, full body experience that I personally find soothing on multiple levels but I’ve been practicing for a long time, and most students do not find comfort or ease in this pose.

Preventing injury.

“Sthira sukham asanam,” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us. Abiding in ease is asana.

This is a great ideal, but if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find it’s the rare beginner or even intermediate student who has truly learned to embody this pose and abide in ease. Instead, a lot of what I observe in my students is a laundry list of limitations. Their heels are nowhere near the ground, forcing their upper bodies to absorb the weight of the pose with little or no support from the legs. Their hips and lower back refuse to unwind, compressing their abdomen and spine instead of allowing them to extend and expand. Their shoulders are squeezed together painfully making breathing impossible. The list could go on and on.

Of course you can hurt yourself in any pose, but this pose requires so much overall body awareness and mobility that it can be particularly challenging.

Instead of inspiring curiosity and getting students more interested in yoga, Down Dog often just intimidates them. Even worse, with repeated, misaligned practice at home and in class, it injures them. And the biggest tragedy? Most students will simply grin and bear it for the length of the class thinking they’re probably the only ones feeling uncomfortable.

Because Downward Facing Dog appears so straightforward, many people think it is simple. But doing the pose and being in the pose are two very different states—of body, mind and spirit. One is habit; one is presence.

Let’s break the habit and open to the now—Down Dog or no dog at all.


Author: Kate Sargent

Image: Stephanie Sicore/Flickr

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

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