Teaching yoga for over 30 years, I am always happy to discover something that I have overlooked in how to convey movement (sometimes very abstract movement) to my students so that they get it! We all get stuck sometimes. Teachers can get stuck in how they express poses and students can get stuck in how they translate directions into their own postures.
To a new student, yoga is an unused language for their mind as well as their body. It may take a moment or it may take years for the student to translate this language into the body of the pose. For a teacher, it is a poetic journey to look deeper into what we say, what we see, and what we understand to convey our experience to our students.
Many poses get lost in translation, and it is up to teachers to see how our students are interpreting the words and expression of the posture that we are teaching. Downward facing dog is a pose that is highly misunderstood and at the same time is being practiced and taught more then any other yoga posture in studios all around the world.
Yoga Tune Up® has so many wonderful tools to prepare students in order to understand the building blocks of this powerful and popular pose; particularly the specifics of externally rotating the upper arm in relationship to the shoulder joint while pronating the wrist and hand to root solidly on the ground.
It all starts with stabilizing the shoulders, but it doesn’t end there. The hamstrings experience dramatic extension while the quadriceps contract (in a perfect yoga world) to lift the knees upward and to move the head of the femur back. The force continues back and down to the heels, inspiring and completing the rooting of feet to the earth. Once the heels can ground to the earth the lower back can truly extend and open.
But how do we get there – and why do so many students misunderstand Adho Mukha Svanasana?
While in the dog pose one sees hands and feet, so the typical direction is “Move back to your heels,” or “Move your legs back.” This misperception often leads to jamming in the shoulder joint from internal rotation. For the student at this point nothing else matters, because any further direction only leads them to fall more into the ditch of the joint causing excessive wear and possible injury. The student can no longer sense how to move up through the spine and then down the legs into the feet. The spine ends up dull, the lower back ends up in kyphosis and no awareness can move down to the legs. The asana is lost in translation and the student struggles to bring the heels towards the ground while pressing back from hands to feet causing more stress on the achilles, shoulders and back.
When the arms are positioned in external rotation the stage is set for the back to really begin to move towards extension. The great latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and erector spinae lift up the side seams of the body hoisting up to the tailbone reaching the apex of the pose to the sky, then the hamstring’s massive extension begins releasing the calves, the achilles, and eventually the heels can reach the ground. This in turn gives even greater lightness to the shoulders, elbows and wrist joints.
If these can all be achieved, we then receive the product of a wonderful pose that brings strength, flexibility, and awareness to the entire body.
(By the way, I have short Achilles. I squat for at least 5 minutes every morning and have been for probably 30 years as a morning routine. I am able with this emphasis to always get my heels down to the ground in dog pose.)
So folks, another day, another dog. My puppy would be proud.
Read about the most important part of a yoga pose.
Learn about Yoga Tune Up at home.
One of the things that drew me to yoga was taking verbal cues from the teacher and learning to translate them into physical movement or poses. Appropriate cues make an immense difference in the ability of students to achieve proper form and as a result to most benefit from the pose. Thank you for breaking this down and reminding me all that is really going on in Down dog!
One of the things that drew me to yoga was learning to interpret verbal cues into physical movement or poses. I think as we get older this is an especially important skill to develop. In this regard, the right cues make a world of difference. Thank you for reminding me what is actually going on in Down Dog and how to help my students achieve their best Dog.
I find that Downward Dog is one of the most difficult poses to teach! It is so complex and perhaps too often inserted into the class too early. I wonder if everyone’s shoulders benefit from external rotation in full flexion? I have always thought that I need to improve my external rotation in 180 degree flexion, because at some point during loaded flexion I feel like my humerus gets “stuck” and in order to continue into full shoulder flexion with my arms internally rotated (somewhat). In other words, for me, it feels like I actually have more room and perhaps… Read more »
In response to the comment about protraction of the scapula, in Down Dog and Plank, pushing away from the floor initiates the protraction, firing the serratus anterior.
I notice in this article that there is no mention of serratus anterior which is a key muscle in bringing stability to the scapular and shoulder. Engaging this muscle draws the shoulder blades wider (protraction) and rotates the scapular up which makes for a more stable foundation in downward facing dog.
Nice perspective on a “staple” pose that often seems so complex for some bodies. I also like to teach it with bent knees to take the hamstrings out of the pose, so to speak, thus focusing on the length in the spine and giving people the awareness thereof. If they can’t keep a long spine with straight knees, I recommend them to keep their knees bent for the time being.
Wonderful tips! You pointed all the factors that come into play to allow pieces to fall into place so the shoulders and wrists dont take all the weight. As you mentioned, getting the arms into external rotation starts the wave of openings and natural adjustments, including the lengthening of the hamstrings. Thank you for taking the time. Very educational!
Great reminder on the importance of mastering the basics. Shows that performing a pose for flexibility can be detrimental and is not worth the risk.
Downdog prep was probably my most favorite part of the Level 1 training. I now take at least 20 min of intense shoulder opening before i put my students in the pose and it is so worth it. such a complicated pose that needs to be revisited time and time again. thanks for posting!