In most Hatha Yoga classes, downward facing dog will be practiced at least once, and possibly many times throughout the class. Downward facing dog is an important pose that opens the shoulders and lengthens the hamstrings as well as creating strength in the arms, back and legs. Depending on shoulder flexibility and hamstring openness, this can be a very challenging pose and modifications or variations on the pose might be necessary to gain the full benefits. Over time, the body will open and downward facing dog can be more comfortably practiced in its traditional form.
Moving Into and Out of Downward Facing Dog
To move into downward facing dog, start from hands and knees with the wrists just an inch in front of the shoulders. Place the hands so the creases of the wrists are parallel to the front of the yoga mat (the index fingers should point forward) and spread the fingers evenly. Tuck the toes and take the hips up and back, creating a triangle with the body. Press the hands evenly and reach towards the floor through the heels (they do not need to come to the floor). Squeeze the arms to straight by firming the triceps (the outer upper arms). Bring the ears between the upper arms and gaze either at the belly button or between the feet. To come down bring the knees to the floor and take the hips to the heels to rest for a moment in child’s pose.
Downward Facing Dog for Tight Shoulders
If the upper back feels rounded or pain is felt in the shoulders when moving into downward facing dog, it could be a result of tight shoulders. Come out of the pose and back to hands and knees, spin the hands out until the space between the thumb and forefinger faces the front of the mat and move back into the pose. If the shoulders are extremely tight and pain is still felt, move to a wall and try puppy dog pose.
To move into puppy dog pose, stand facing a wall, place both hands flat on the wall at the level of the hip bones. Step the feet back until the hips are over the ankles. Keep the spine extended and the ears between the upper arms, just like in downward facing dog on the floor.
Downward Facing Dog for Tight Hamstrings
If the lower back feels rounded or pain is felt through the back of the legs in traditional downward facing dog, it could be a result of tight hamstrings. To modify, try bending the knees a few inches and taking the feet a little bit wider than the hips.
If the shoulders and the hamstrings are both tight trying turning the hands out and bending the knees with the feet wider than the hips at the same time.
In a yoga class it is always important to work with, rather than against the body. When the body is tight, specifically the shoulders or hamstrings in downward dog it is important to modify the pose so it can be practiced safely and in a way that is of benefit to each person. With a consistent practice the body will begin to open and strengthen and over time the modifications may not be needed.