Yoga teacher Emma Klein looks at one of the core yoga poses, downward dog, and shares some suggestions to find it with accurate focus to get real benefits from this pose
We often do poses without understanding why we do them. Downward Facing Dog is one of the most famous poses, something that most people, including non-yogi’s have probably seen a picture of. We all therefore have an image of what the pose should look like without the understanding of how to achieve the pose or which aspects are more important to accomplish first.
How you get into a pose and ensuring that your posture is correct is usually more important that obtaining that final Instagram worthy "picture/shape".
Key Muscles and Benefits
This is a pose that lengthens and strengthens all the muscles along the back of the body, from the shoulders all the way down to the calves and along the base of the foot.
The areas where it is most obvious to see this is in the upper legs (hamstrings) and shoulders (deltoid muscles) as these are the ones that are often tight and where we start to feel the pose working first.
As this pose works the whole body, arm strength is needed to help keep your back in alignment and to keep you balanced; core and back strength are needed to help lengthen the spine and push the coccyx up and back; the quads need to be engaged to allow the hamstrings to release and the feet to give stability to the pose.
Doing this pose correctly has many benefits, a few of these being: better posture, relieving tension in the spine and assisting with circulation as the head is below the heart.
How to do the Pose Correctly
It is more important to have a neutral spine than to have your legs straight and your heels on the floor. A neutral spine is one where the natural curves of the back are followed, without trying to emphasise a curve or a lessening of that curve. Keeping the spine neutral, enables the muscles and joints in the body to work correctly and to their full potential.
Step 1: Start the posture with knees and feet hip width apart and hands and elbows shoulder width apart while lifting the coccyx (hips) up and back. As you lift the hips, imagine a string attached to your coccyx lifting you up to the sky bringing the chest closer to the thighs. Engage the core.
Step 2: Set a strong, solid foundation. Spread the fingers wide and push down through all the finger joints. We often lift the thumbs or bend the fingers. Spreading the hand and pushing down strongly through the entire hand gives traction and stops you from slipping as easily. Remember flats are easier to walk in than stilettos! Squeeze the thighs, imagining there is a block between them to really engage your legs and keep the heels pointing directly backwards. Continue to lift the coccyx as high as you can.
Step 3: From here, roll the shoulders back and away from your ears making space between your shoulders and your ears. Push up through your hands and back, lifting the hips higher and taking the chest closer to the thighs. Ultimately working towards a neutral back. Keeping the knees bent until the spine is truly in a neutral position is key. Only once the spine is in the correct position should a person work on straightening their legs.
Step 4: Start to straighten the legs without compromising the neutral spine. If the legs are straight slowly start to take the heels towards the mat. Keeping the focus on previous steps. Start to find a micro bend in the elbows taking them slightly closer to the mat.
Step 5: Hold and breathe.
Remember that no posture is completely static. With every breath, check back in from finger tips to toes and making minute adjustments to bring the body into greater alignment or to re-engage muscles that have taken a break.
What should I be doing with my breathing?
Ideally you should exhale into the posture. What I mean by this is as you move from a passive position (all fours) into the active pose (lifting the coccyx), exhale. Your breath should remain even and controlled throughout, always breathing through your nose. If at any stage breathing becomes laboured or short or you start to breathe through your mouth, then you have taken the posture too far, are pushing further than the body is ready for and need to pull back a bit or take a rest.
Great rest poses or intermediate postures are Childs Pose and Puppy Pose.
Other pointers and tips
The head should hang heavy, releasing any tension in the neck with the gaze towards the navel or between the legs
Bending the elbows very slightly helps to ensure that all the muscles in the arms are being used to support you rather than just locking out the joints which could cause injury
This pose is just as effective done on the forearms with a straight spine and legs or on the knees with straight arms and spine
Walking out the feet, bending and straightening one leg and then the other, is a great way to work into the hamstrings and warm up the legs.
Listen to your body and take it one step at a time. Remember that yoga is an ever-evolving practice that changes daily depending on you, your body and mind at that specific time and space.