Stay Safe In Downward Facing Dog: Part 1
When I started to write this alignment post, I was going to write/focus on all of the components of postural alignment in downward facing dog (Sanskrit: adho mukha svanasana). I quickly decided to change my focus. There is SO much happening in this pose, and every piece is equally important that I could spend quit a bit of time and make this article far too long!
So here’s what we’re gonna do.
In this post, we will focus on postural alignment of the shoulders, arms, and hands in downward facing dog. In the following post (Part 2), we’ll take a look at the entire spine and lower body. This way we can really get into the nitty gritty of it and have time to apply what we’ve learned. Let’s begin!
I always take students through table top and then into downward facing dog. This way, they start in axial extension, lead with their tail, and when they arrive, their spine is already set up for length. So let’s begin that way.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
- Come to table top position
- Palms are shoulder width apart (or slightly less) and wrists are slightly in front of your shoulders
- Find your neutral spine, crown of your head reaches towards the front of the room while keeping head and neck in line with your spine
- Draw your belly in and feel an energetic support beneath you, palms are pressing into the earth
- Inhale and rock forward slightly
- Exhale push the earth away through your palms, yielding your weight into the earth, as you lead with your tail gliding into downward facing dog
Now that we’re here let’s take a closer look beginning at the bottom. Uuummm…and now I’m singing Drake’s “started from the bottom now we here” LOL!
Pro tip: Always build your poses from the ground up.
- Ensure your palms are pressing into the earth (hasta bandha) so you don’t allow your palms to cup.
- Pressing the base (metacarpal bones) of the thumb and first two fingers into the earth-this lifts the center of the hand.
- Push through the palms and wrists lifting in the joints (not compressing or collapsing)
- Do not lock your elbows. I always like to get a little bounce first to find that softness before I straighten (without locking)
- Elbow eyes face each other
- Do NOT collapse in the shoulders (this also means don’t force your chest toward your thighs! This will create an unstable shoulder girdle and a collapse)
- This is not a place you want to “drop” your shoulders
- Push through your hands, reaching. There’s also a reaching of your tailbone toward the sky
- Feel as long as you can from your hands to your tail and head to tail
- Just let your arms reach, biceps by your ears (this ensures you’re not tucking your chin putting strain on the cervical spine)
- Feel length in the side body
Take a look at these photos. Can you see which one shows collapsing in the shoulders and which one shows reaching?
How about the hands? Can you see which photo shows cupping of the palms and which one shows Hasta Bandha?
We build from the ground up in our asana. If you don’t have hasta bandha then you undoubtedly will be collapsing in the wrists and shoulders in downward facing dog. This is super unsafe and unstable for the shoulder girdle and can lead to wrist issues as well.
Next time, we’ll bring our awareness to the rest of the body in downward facing dog. Experiment. Feel what these cues feel like in your body and let me know how it feels! Comment below!
DwayneAugust 17, 2018 at 9:26 pm
But regarding “Elbow eyes face each other”, my teachers always strongly recommend externally rotating the shoulders so that the elbow eyes face a little up/forwards. That seems to be the prevailing cue, and I find it works better for me. Looking around the Internet, one can find many recommendations to externally rotate the shoulders in DFD, but it’s not universal and at least one pundit questions it.
JoyAugust 17, 2018 at 10:19 pm
In the studio, we hear many different cues from different instructors which is why I always encourage students to do what feels best in their body. And it sounds like you do, so that’s perfect! When we bring the ‘elbow eyes to face each other’ this engages the biceps which helps avoid dumping in the shoulder girdle (among several other things).
I believe the original cueing of ‘externally rotating the shoulders’ in Downward Dog came about because so many people, especially men, come in with muscular tight shoulders and those individuals do need to find a mild external rotation. But in general, externally rotating the shoulders can cause dumping in the shoulder girdle, so it’s not a cue I would do for the general public. This is why teaching to a room full of people can be challenging? Because every body is shaped differently, has different musculature, and ROM so it’s not a one-size-fits all. Ultimately, yoga instructors are simply guides and the student is the expert on their body and needs to notice and feel what makes sense and feels right for them.
DwayneAugust 18, 2018 at 4:25 pm
Thanks, agreed. The full cue I most often hear is “internally rotate the forearms and externally rotate the upper arms/shoulders”, which I’m not sure I even understand. 🙂 I’ve probably mentioned before that many traditional asana cues are being reevaluated; see for instance Bernie Clark’s book “Your Body, Your Yoga”.