Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward Facing Dog, is likely the most ubiquitous pose in the entire yoga practice. Utilizing the full body, creating both strength and flexibility, it is really no wonder that so many differing schools and styles of yoga have adopted this all-encompassing posture into their disciplines.
A forward fold and a spinal neutralizing pose, Down Dog works to create length in the back body while simultaneously strengthening the arms, back and core. But even beyond just the physical, Adho Mukha Svanasana is often used as a ‘resting’ pose between other more challenging postures to both relax the mind and restore the breath. Allowing practitioners to draw their attention inward, this pose provides the perfect space to bring meditation into the physical asana practice.
How To Practice
Although Down Dog is one of the most visited poses in yoga, it is also one of the most intricate and detailed poses of the practice. Many, many subtle movements and articulations of the muscles, joints and bones cohesively come together to craft the greater whole of the posture.
In order to practice, one must pay careful attention to many details.
1. Prepare Your Foundation
Start by coming to your hands and knees on all fours (a table-top position) to build a steady foundation for your Down Dog. Align your shoulders directly over your wrists and stack your hips over your knees. Plant your palms shoulder-width apart and spread your fingers wide, evenly spacing between each. Press down into all four corners of your hands, especially making sure that the mound beneath your index finger and the mound beneath your thumb stay planted on the floor. Keeping your weight evenly distributed throughout your palms will help to alleviate any pressure on your wrists in the full pose. Grip at the mat with your fingertips, allowing little puffs of air to gather underneath each knuckle. Let your palm suction the floor, permitting just the very center of your hand to lift up away from the mat.
Now, focus on your arms. Try to roll your biceps and triceps (upper arms) open toward the sides of your mat while simultaneously working the opposing action with your forearms (let them roll in toward each other). Create an external rotation with your upper arms and an internal rotation with your lower arms. All the while, keep your chest broad and your upper arm bones plugging into your shoulder sockets.
Maintain this foundation in your hands and arms as you add on more intricate details to the posture.
2. Find Your Length
Often practiced either too narrow or too wide, many practitioners are unsure of the correct distance to place between their hands and their feet in Down Dog. A general rule of thumb is that you want the length of your Down Dog to be exactly the same length as your Plank.
So, maintaining the foundation you created in your hands and arms from table-top, walk your feet back and lift your knees up off the floor finding your way into a high Plank position. Create a straight line from the back of your skull to your heels. Do not allow your hips to hike up toward the ceiling or sag down toward the floor. Place your feet hip-distance apart. Engage your core by drawing your bellybutton toward your back and hugging in around your waistline.
Maintain all of these actions as you add on even more…
3. Lengthen & Strengthen
Working toward the full pose from Plank, without moving your hands or your feet, simply lift your hips up high reaching them skyward. Allow this action to really expand and lengthen your whole spine, creating lots of space in the back body.
If you have tighter hamstrings, bend your knees anywhere from a little to a lot (whatever amount allows you to lengthen your back). Prioritize elongating your spine over straightening your legs. Once you start to feel more and more open in this pose, you can work toward extending your legs straight, allowing your heels to become heavy, melting down toward the floor. Depending on your own body dimensions and mechanics, your heels may never actually reach the floor, but continue to focus on the action of reaching them downward.
Press the floor away from you with your hands and keep rotating the lower and upper arms, internally and externally, respectively. Continue to draw the head of your upper arm bones in toward your shoulder sockets. Relax your head and lengthen your neck. Gaze wherever feels comfortable for you.
Extend your tailbone skyward and oppose this action by softening the weight of your legs toward the floor. Feel the expansion of your whole body as all of these actions work in opposition to each other, creating more and more space.
Find The Meditative Quality
When you practice this pose enough, it can become a kind of ‘home base,’ or a safe space for relaxing deeper into meditation. As mentioned previously, Downward Facing Dog is often referred to as a ‘resting’ posture or a place to restore your breath between flows. It is also a spine ‘neutralizing’ pose that can be used as a counter-pose to most other postures. Because of these characteristics, Adho Mukha Svanasana is an excellent place to find your breath and turn inward during your practice.
With your gaze facing yourself, it is easy to soften your eyes (or even close them) to really draw your attention inside. As an introspective forward fold, Down Dog creates a safe, isolated and ‘closed off’ environment for you to meditate. Finding full, expansive breaths in this pose allows you to create space not only in your body but also in your mind. Slowing your heart rate by controlling the rhythm of your breath in this position soothes every aspect of your being, creating a greater sense of ease and effortlessness.
Although it takes a great deal of time to build the strength and flexibility necessary to make Down Dog feel like an ‘effortless’ posture, the benefits of reaching that state are truly worth the effort to get there. Finding silence and stillness within a flow, even if just for a few deep breaths in Downward Facing Dog, brings a type of magic to the practice that can only be described as moving meditation.