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Top 5 Tips to Help Your Down Dog

Start Loving Your Dog:

Many of us have  a love/hate relationship with Downward Facing Dog. It can be a euphoric release of back tension, open the hamstrings and flood your brain with delicious, oxygenated blood reducing anxiety and increasing calm. However, if your body is on the tight side and your alignment isn't quite right, this pose can feel strenuous and very uncomfortable. Here are a few tips that may help you come to love this pose. 

photo credit: Theresa Conahan
1. Spread Your Fingers

This little change has huge effects: think of a circus performer laying across a bed of nails. How can they do this without being injured? The answer is the distribution of body weight. Same goes for downward facing dog; when you spread your fingers as wide as they can go, you help to distribute the weight of your body. 

Many students new to this pose complain of wrist pain, down dog should not hurt your wrists. If it does, try spreading your fingers and pushing down through each of your 30 knuckles. Put an extra strong amount of pressure in the thumbs and index fingers. 

2. Don't Worry About Getting Your Heels Down 

Many people come to yoga with tight lower backs and even tighter hamstrings. One of the biggest benefits of downward facing dog is the elongation of the spine. This is incredibly beneficial for people with lower back pain and can help prevent tightness and pain of the low back. 

All too often, students insist on getting their heels flat to the floor at the expense of the long back. Next time you're in dog, try to see the shape of your spine, if it's rounded, or you feel the stretch of your hamstrings but not really in your back, bend your knees and lift your heels high off the ground. Try to feel the lower back loosen and tail bone stick up to the ceiling. 

Once the spine is in a good alignment, slowly start pressing the heels to the floor. In other words, try focusing on spine first and hamstrings second.

3. Relax your neck

The neck in down dog should be relaxed. We often see students trying to look at their hands or trying to muscle through down dog by contracting the shoulders together and scrunching the neck. 

Every yoga pose seeks to balance effort and ease: there is often a lot of physical exertion but there should be an equal amount of softness or relaxation. 

In the case of down dog, the arms need to actively push the ground away, the hips need to actively reach for the sky, the shoulders should roll away from the ears, but the neck should be long, neutral and relaxed. Try finding a soft gaze between your feet. 

Check in with your neck in down dog, it's easy to strain it; make sure you're trying to create a lot of space between your ears and your shoulders. 

4. Draw Your Belly In

We hear it in almost every pose, "Belly in!" . There is good reason for this, your core helps to pull your entire body together, it's what allows your body to be supported in most poses. 

Your core also connects your lower half to your upper half; there are many moving pieces and the core ties them all together. 

In the case of down dog, lifting your belly into your spine helps to take a lot of the work load out of your arms. Even more importantly, lifting your belly allows your spine to fully lengthen. 

The concept of reciprocal inhibition states that there are always 2 opposing muscle groups, i.e. hamstrings vs. quadriceps, biceps vs. triceps, etc. When you contract one muscle group, the opposing muscle group is able to fully stretch. In this case, the opposing muscle group of the low back is the abdominal muscle group. Engage your abdomen to fully allow your back to stretch. 

5. Breathe!

Again, probably not something new, but all of us need a constant reminder to breathe. If you're straining in dog, if your breathing is short or choppy, guess what? Your muscles will not be very keen on letting go and lengthening. Muscles like to be coerced into a stretch, not jerked around.

Be kind to your body, enter and exit your poses slowly and intentionally. Breath is essential to stretching your body, take long, slow inhales visualizing your breath spreading throughout the whole back side, and exhale long, slow breaths.

Summary:

Downward Facing Dog is a relaxation pose: it rests the heart and allows fresh blood to flood the brain. It's an energizing pose that can create a huge release of the spine, back muscles, shoulders and hamstrings. It must be a balance between effort and relaxation. Without breath, there is no practice to breathe :)


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