I have a slight curvature to my spine, because I have scoliosis. It's always made downward dog a frustrating pose for me. But since the pose occurs throughout my daily practice, I knew I had to make peace with it. And, really, once you learn about the dynamics and inward attention this pose requires, you can see why it’s such an essential part of every practice, no matter the style of yoga.
Many teachers will refer to this as a resting pose. I don't know if I'd go that far. After all, coordinating hips, knees, core, shoulders, spine, feet, hands, and elbows is no small feat! But I do think it's a reflective pose.
Think about it: your hands and feet are grounded. Your bandhas are engaged, and your gaze is directed inward, back to the center of your body. This is the place in which to take stock and, even if it doesn’t feel like a vacation, it’s definitely a place of restoration.
Here's what to keep in mind when practicing downward-facing dog:
- Is my navel drawn in?
- Is the pelvic floor drawn up?
- Now that I’ve created space in the core, can I press my hamstrings back while sending my heels down?
- Are my knees drawn up, encouraging that line of energy to move up the midline of my body?
- Having flat feet, I always send my awareness there next.
- Am I collapsing through the arches?
- Are my big toes engaged?
- Once that foundation feels stable, I move my awareness to the hips.
- Can I stretch and straighten my lumbar spine? Can I tilt my sitting bones a bit more toward the ceiling, encouraging the hamstrings and spine to lengthen? (This is where the curvature of my spine gets a little frustrating, but we do what we can with the bodies we have.)
Next, the torso.
Belly still drawn in?
Are my ribs splaying open in front, or are they knit together? I draw them in, which helps counteract the impulse to sway my back into an arch.
My elbows tend toward hyperextension, so I do the best I can to keep a microbend here, though I admit I don’t always have an awareness of it, since the bend feels unnatural. I think of pressing my forearms forward while drawing my triceps down and around, wrapping them toward the midline of the body. (Downdog mantra: hug everything to the midline.)
Now the hands. Is there too much pressure in the heels of my hands? Am I distributing my weight evenly through the knuckles of my first fingers and thumb?
I often think here of pressing away from the floor as I draw my belly in and my hips up. That dynamic movement of hands pressing down, hips drawn up, gives me more space for my spine. I think of an elastic band — one end attached to the floor, the other being pulled toward the upper corner of the room. This keeps my shoulder blades from hunching on my back or up by my neck.
Then, I like to take a deep inhale through the nose, sighing it out through the mouth. I settle. I forget the inventory I’ve just taken and I feel the pose in my body. Without having to think about it, I make subtle adjustments and turn my gaze inward, toward my knees or (on flexible days) my belly.
Oh, and I breathe.
Usually, I remember to breathe ...
Graphic: Liang Shi
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