Downward Facing Dog (down dog) is pretty much a staple in any yoga class you go to.
It’s pretty much an all around pose, serving as a transition pose, provides a stretch to the posterior chain (back of the body), builds some strength in the upper body, can be modified into all types of other poses, and is even considered a resting pose (ha! I knoooow).
Since so much time is possibly spent here, it’s good to know how to get your down dog on without causing pain- totally NOT the point of the pose or yoga in general.
The basics of down dog
Before you can properly perform anything, it’s good to know the basics (in my opinion, if it isn’t yours go ahead and skip down to the how-to section).
It’s a strengthening pose, which is crucial if you want to be stronger, do some handstands or other inversions, decrease pain, and be able to lift saddles/grain bags/hay bales or other horse related lifting activities. Upper body strength comes in handy when your horse is feeling frisky and wants to tug (gently of course) on the end of the lunge line or lead rope.
Because of the need for an active shoulder girdle, down dog also can help upper back pain through strengthening muscles that aren’t otherwise used in daily life.
It also (as does most yoga poses) strengthens the core. While you don’t need to be six-pack flexing, keeping a soft, engaged core will improve both your asana (pose) and your equitation.
Lesser thought of body parts get some much needed attention here too. Your wrists will get stronger- needed if you want an inversion practice and all around useful in life. Ankles, the joint we do so much with and yet treat so little also get a nice compression plus flexibility boost. Helping your ankle mobility will impact your riding and day-to-day movement. If you squat, increasing ankle mobility will help you go deeper when you’re under the bar.
Downward facing dog also is a stretching pose. From your feet to your neck, you will be stretching the entire back of your body. Why is this good? Because improving your mobility will also improve your everyday life and riding. It is especially good for stretching the calves, one of the most used yet neglected body parts in my experience. Having issues keeping your heels down? Start down dogging for a few breaths a day and see if that helps.
How to Down Dog
Downward facing dog is basically an inverted v, with your hands and feet on the mat and hips pushing up.
For the hands; imagine you are trying to palm a basketball- your hand has a slight ‘cup’ to it, take that shape to the mat and try to keep some space between your palm and the mat.
Let your fingers line up with the bones in your hands- the common cue is to spread them wide that may work for you, for me it causes more pain in my hand, see what feels better for you. DO keep your fingers active and let them have a slight curve. Don’t press the flat into the mat. DO press through your fingertips to take pressure off your wrist.
Moving up to the shoulders; engage your shoulder girdle (your pecs all the way around to your back muscles) and keep your ears away from your shoulders with the inside of your elbows facing each other. ‘Pack’ your shoulder by drawing the bone of your upper arm (humerus) into the joint itself so you aren’t just dumping or hanging in the joint.
Core is engaged with the points of your hips and bottom ribs pulled slightly towards each other.
Hips push up and towards the back of the room/mat whatever you are using.
Keep your knees bent if you need to to help your upper body alignment and form.
Feet can be about hips width distance apart or closer together depending on your comfort. Press down through the balls of your feet as your heels don’t have to touch! Walking your feet closer to your hands will make it easier for them to touch, further away will require more flexibility. Play with both and see what works.
You can lift one heel at a time “walking the dog” or shift your weight from side to side, coming to the toes or ball of the non-weight bearing foot.
This may seem like a how the heck? for you right now. That’s cool, just start and sooner than you think, you will find your downward facing dog. Don’t aim to look like a picture of the pose, find how the pose works for you.
Modifications because something hurts
So you tried that, and it’s great but owwwww, your wrist. Or your shoulder. Or your hips. Maybe it’s the knee?
First some contradictions to this pose (yeah even the good stuff can be a detriment to our health): severe pain/surgery/injury in the wrist, elbow, shoulder, back, hips, knee, ankle, or foot. High blood pressure, slipped (or other) disc injuries, vertigo, heart disease, cardiovascular issues, circulation problems.
If your wrists hurt in this pose- check your hands first and work on that. Make a fist and place the flat part on the mat (not the back of your hands, the fingers!), prop your hands up (this will relieve pressure on your wrists) on a block/book/or other higher surface. Place most of your weight in your feet, walking your hands closer to them and working up to more pressure on your hands.
If your knees or hips or ankles bother you- place a rolled up towel/pillow/bolster/block under your ankles to relieve pressure. Bend your knees as much as you need.
Suggested poses to take if you’re over down dog:
Dolphin pose (on forearms instead of wrists), child’s pose, or try down dog with your hands on a wall.
So there you have it! A downward facing dog (thorough) breakdown! Let me know if you’re a dog lover or it’s not your happy place. Here’s a fun yoga flow that uses down dog (and some modifications) so you can practice, because practice makes perfect! (Right?!)
Not sure on your form? My advice is to video yourself so you can see what is really going on.
If you want a second opinion, or you want some personal attention, let’s do a private yoga sesh! They’re done online and I will help you with a custom made yoga sequence that fits your individual needs! Email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the scheduling link.
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