Downward facing dog or down dog is one of the most common poses in a vinyasa style class. However, rarely have I been in a class when an instructor cues students into this pose. I learned how to properly practice down dog when I was at my 200 hour yoga teacher training. I had been doing yoga for years before learning the proper alignment for one of the most fundamental poses in a vinyasa class.
Down dog is a more advanced pose than yogi's acknowledge. Before my yoga teacher training, I believed down dog was a beginner, warm up pose. However, after learning the proper alignment for the pose, my opinion has changed. Down dog is an intermediate, moderate inversion. I always warm up before coming into this pose. My favorite warm ups for down dog are: cat/cow pose, hip circles, runners lunge, and low lunge. There are many muscles being worked in down dog. Your deltiods bear the weight of your torso. Your quadriceps extend your legs and press your heels towards the floor. Your erector spinae lengthens your spine and allows your hips to raise towards the sky. Your hamstrings are lengthened by pressing down through your heels. Your abdominals are stretched through the dynamic tension of your heels reaching towards the ground and your hips reaching towards the sky.
Down dog is not a pose for every BODY. In fact there are several contraindications for this pose. If you have any of the below conditions or symptoms you should avoid doing this posture:
Now, let's look at 5 common misalignments in down dog:
1. Locking elbows or knees
I have a tendency to lock my elbows and knees, I am constantly reminding myself to soften my knees and elbows in down dog. When you lock your knees or elbows, you place an enormous amount of pressure on your joints. If you are hypermobile, like myself, it is important to constantly remind yourself to soften your elbows and knees. You should feel your muscles working to support you.
2. Feet too wide apart or too close together
Work to bring your feet hip-width apart. To find your hip-width: jump up and down 2-3 times, when you land on the ground don't adjust your stance, then use your fingers to find your hip bones or "headlights", you should feel one hip bone on each side of your body and it may be slightly protruding forward. Once you find your hip bones, adjust your feet to match the distance. Your feet should be hip bone distance apart in down dog and many other yoga poses.
3. Rounding the low spine
Rounding your low spine during down dog may be caused by tight hamstrings. Make sure your hamstrings are warmed up before practicing down dog. Some warm ups you can try are: runners lunge, standing forward fold, bound angle pose, and staff pose. If your lumbar spine is still rounded in down dog, you can begin to "walk your dog", by bending your knees slightly and bring one heel to ground and then the other. You may feel your hamstrings release tension. However, if your lumbar spine is still rounded, keep both of your knees bent in down dog.
4. Collapsed chest
If you find your chin touching the ground in down dog, you may be collapsing your chest between your arms. If you are unable to hold down dog for a few breaths, you can gain upper body strength by flowing from table to down dog. If you have the upper body strength and still find yourself collapsing your chest between your arms, make sure your stance isn't too short. If your stance is short, walk your feet towards the back of your mat. One tip I learned from an instructor during my yoga teacher training that has really helped me to make sure my arms are properly engaged, is to imagine I am squeezing a lemon under each of my armpits.
5. Weight on your wrists
Ideally, your body weight will go into the pads of your hands, not your wrists. Before you enter the pose it is important to spread your fingers wide and plant your hands shoulder-width apart on the ground. Throughout the pose actively press into the pads of your hands, this will distribute the weight into your hands and arms, not your wrists.
Please leave me a comment with any down dog misalignments you have noticed in your own practice.