Saturday, May 11, 2013

Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Downward-facing dog with bent knees

Ok, ok, so it's not Tuesday, but I want to keep this part of the series, and I don't want to wait until Tuesday because this post is in response to a reader request. Brad, I hope you are reading, because this is for you - sorry it's taken me this long to answer!

Brad recently left this comment on one of my posts: "I am just starting out in yoga and I cannot do the downward dog pose with my legs straight. Are you able to show a post for beginners how to do the downward dog pose (for example with bent legs) and then how to slowly build up to doing it properly."

This is an AWESOME question, thanks for asking! So many of us, especially if we gravitate towards a vinyasa, ashtanga or flow-style class, will struggle with what feel like endless repetitions of downward-facing dog. I remember the flood of frustration and despair when one of my early yoga teachers used to quip "remember, downward-dog is supposed to be a resting pose, so just relax!" I would be there, quivering and trembling in the pose, just trying to hold it together, thinking "relax?! is she nuts?!"

Anyway, whether you find it relaxing or not, here are a few tips for how to modify downward-facing dog with bent knees, while still getting all the benefits of the pose. This is not just for beginners! In fact, I often get my intermediate students to practice this pose with bent knees in order to really get a sense of where the focus of the pose is.

1. Downward-facing dog in a class setting

First, it's important to remember that a yoga pose is not about "the pose" - it's about what the pose is doing for you. So when we modify a pose, we want to keep in mind what the pose is really about. In downward-facing dog, the primary anatomical focus is on elongating the spine and opening up your upper back.

So, it doesn't matter if your knees are bent, because this pose is not really about lengthening the hamstrings. Let me repeat: it doesn't matter if your knees are bent.

Here's what  does matter:
  • Your hips need to be high enough so that gravity can work its magic, and your whole spine can extend downwards from the pelvis
  • Your upper back needs to be broad, long and soft, and the backs of your shoulders should be opening - so that means that your centre of gravity has to remain in the pelvis, and most of your body's weight has to remain in the legs and feet
  • Your back needs to be long and fairly straight (apart from the natural curves of the spine), from the tailbone all the way through the back of the neck

So, let's have a look at two variations for downward dog with the knees bent, one in which you are still getting the benefits of the pose, and one in which you are not:

In the first picture, I am making a common mistake by focusing too much on trying to get my legs straight. As you can see, the spine isn't really getting that extension that we are looking for: the effort of trying to straighten the legs pushes too much weight forward onto the hands and drops the hips too low. The centre of gravity of the pose is somewhere just behind the shoulderblades. The backs of the shoulders are rounded, and, with the neck, working hard. We end up fighting against gravity instead of allowing it to help us stretch. The result is something that is hard work, but that isn't really getting us the benefits of the pose.

In the second picture, the knees are bent more deeply, allowing the focus of the pose to come back to the spine. Without locking your elbows, use the hands to press the hips up and back, and draw the belly button slightly towards the navel, using a bit of core engagement to help keep the centre of gravity in the pelvis. Broaden the toes and press strongly through the balls of the feet - don't worry about working the heels down. Broaden the upper back by wrapping your lower shoulderblades towards the armpits, and feel the backs of the shoulders opening. Keep your neck extending in line with your spine and keep your awareness on the stretch in your upper back and the back of your neck.

Depending on your body, you may need to take a longer stance (i.e. more distance between your hands and feet) in order to make this work. Don't worry if that's the case - just focus on finding that long stretch in your upper back and the back of your neck.

Props and modifications:
A really helpful modification if you are just starting out is to do the pose (with the knees bent) with each of your hands resting on a yoga block. This little bit of elevation helps you to bring the centre of gravity of the pose back, so that more of the weight of the pose can rest in your pelvis, legs and feet, and you can start to feel some of the "lightness" that allows you to really let your spine stretch out. I highly recommend doing this if your practice space has yoga blocks available, at least during those moments in class where you are asked to hold the pose for several breaths. This modification is especially helpful if you are feeling the strain of the pose mainly in your wrists, arms or the backs of your neck and shoulders.

Finally, an excellent alternative to those long holds in downward dog is to come down onto your knees and take Puppy Pose, pictured below. As you can see from the photo, by taking the hamstrings out of the equation all together, this pose allows you to get the same awesome stretch in your spine, without putting any strain on the wrists, arms, upper back or the legs. You can also do this with your hands resting on blocks for a bit of an extra shoulder-opener.

It's a great idea to do puppy pose and then downward-facing dog to compare the sensation of stretch in your back. If they feel more or less the same, you know you're getting the benefits of the pose.

2. Downward-facing dog at home

If you are practicing at home, there are SO many everyday props available to help you do this pose. Essentially, these are similar to your in-class modification with your hands on blocks, but at home, you have so many more options that you can use to find exactly the right stretch for you.

Try doing the pose with your hands on a chair, a coffee table, the edge of your bed, your sofa, or the stairs, to figure out what feels right for you. The higher your support, the more you should be able to straighten your legs to get a stretch in the hamstrings while still maintaining the long, straight spine that is the essence of the pose. Please make sure that whatever you use is firmly anchored so that it doesn't slip out from under you!


I hope this post was helpful! Stay tuned on the blog for some targeted hamstring stretches and shoulder-openers that may also be helpful!

If you've read this far, I'd love your feedback! Was this tip helpful? Is there anything else you'd like tips about? Leave a comment!