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  • Writer's pictureSarah McFadden

Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga... Part 1: Downward Dog posture

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

This series of blog posts will cover some of the essential foundations of the poses often seen within a flowing style of yoga.

Before we go into the poses, I want to set some general expectations and challenge some of the common beliefs/myths around making shapes with our bodies.

I believe it is very important to offer variations of all poses, so there is something for everyone, and whatever your history with yoga or your experience in other movement disciplines there will be options that you can work with in a comfortable way.

Essentially ‘comfortable’ in your practice should suggest moderate challenge, but in a balanced way - that ensures you are balancing a sense of effort and ease, and also where you can maintain a steady breathing rhythm.

It’s very easy when we are bombarded by images in the media to succumb to the idea that yoga should look a particular way, and that there is one ‘right’ way to do a pose. Ie. the most physically impressive version of a pose that makes for a WOW picture on social media.

If you’re someone who hasn’t done yoga - it might be these kinds of images which lead you to believe yoga is just a type of gymnastics and not accessible to you?

Which would be a huge shame, as there is so much benefit by getting started with a yoga practice.

Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to admit that we are beginners at something, we see more experienced practitioners doing a wider repertoire of poses and it can be intimidating, but it's perfectly fine to be a newbie, we all need to start somewhere. This is about your journey, not others.

Even if you’re an existing practitioner (and while you know yoga to hold more options that the ‘typical’ one way) it can be easy for those images to taint our expectations and restrict our experience.

It may be that we end up with more inner-criticism or judgement if we can’t quite achieve that often-portrayed image of a pose, or push ourselves to go beyond our healthy-edge that compromises our enjoyment of the yoga movements.

So, I’d like to offer up an idea that there are MANY variations of each posture.

We don’t even have to term them ‘modifications’. They’re just variations, that’s all.

They’re not worse, or less skilful.

Variations simply give us the opportunity to have a different experience of a pose.

And that experience may turn out to be a comfortable and releasing option for our body at a particular time.

Anyway, now those concepts are out of the way – let’s look at the posture!

Foundations of yoga: downward facing dog pose

I decided to start with Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) as this pose is oh so common in this practice, plus it is a fantastic shape to open and stabilise the body in a multitude of places.

The idea of this pose is to lengthen the back of the body. It has many benefits – such as strengthening and opening the shoulders and the chest, creating more space through the length of the torso, stretching out the back of the legs, and as a mild-inversion it can have a calming effect on the nervous system.

Check out my video for a full and comprehensive guide to your downward dog experience:

yoga pose tutorial: downward dog

The Importance of the Hands

When we’re newer to yoga or even just this posture we often find it can be difficult to bear weight on the hands.

There are quite a few poses within a typical flow yoga class which involve bearing weight on the hands in different ways, so it is worthwhile to work on building an improvement in the mobility in your hands.

The most fundamental aim in this posture is to try to bear weight in an even way within your hands.

I instruct this as trying to ground the 4 corners of your palm, while also spreading your fingers wide. Both these actions are important for stability, and the former is really important to ensure you don’t just dump all the weight into the heel of your hand and put undue pressure on your wrist joint.

Lengthening your legs

If you’re not a naturally flexible person, or you don’t have a history with other movement disciplines that involve stretching (eg dance, gymnastics etc) chances are you’ll feel quite restricted in the back of your legs when you settle into this pose.

The back of the legs are easy parts of the body to tighten, this is especially common because we (as a collective western society) spend a lot of time sitting in chairs.

So, instead of putting the emphasis on trying to straighten your legs to their maximum, instead work with a little of that extension, but only so much that you can maintain a nice long spine.

When you look at the shape of your spine in this pose, it should be fairly flat (from your shoulders up to your hips), if this is the case you’re achieving a healthy amount of spinal extension. Everyone's spine will be a little different, so it doesn't have to be perfectly flat - you'll see mine isn't - so just a relatively smooth, long line is what you're going for.

There are plenty of other poses that will provide opportunity to lengthen your hamstrings, so make the priority in downward dog to work with spinal extension rather than straight legs.

Rest when you need to

A typical vinyasa flow type of class might involve upwards of 10 minutes (accumulated throughout the class) in the pose!

This is because it is often offered as a general type of resting pose and as a transition pose between movements and sides. Holding this pose even for 30 seconds at a time can be very taxing for many of us…so my advice here is to not force it.

Don’t stay for long periods of time if you’re feeling it becomes a struggle to maintain the general shape and/or to maintain your steady breath.

It’s particularly important to tune into any sensations of pain, and that’s another really important sign to ease off. Commonly, feelings of pain and/or fatigue might crop up in the wrists, hands and shoulders.

But of course, there are some variations you can work with instead of staying in the conventional version all the time:

1) Come down onto your knees

This option is great for taking weight out of the posture. And what I love is that it still offers a wonderful balance of strengthening and opening the shoulder area and keeping spinal extension.

So, the only thing that drops away is the opportunity to stretch the legs – but as I said before – there are many other poses that will do this, so don’t worry about the loss of that from your downward dog.

When you come into this knees-down version, keep your hands, arms and shoulders really active. You should still feel that sense of resisting the floor away and send your hips back.

2) Take childs pose instead

We should always be thinking about the principle of balancing effort and ease in our practice, so I encourage you to tune in, and anytime it feels like the balance has flipped towards effort too much, then come into childs pose for a few breaths.

Also, as childs pose is generally more a more restful pose it gives you a nice opportunity to calm your energy and turn your attention more deeply inwards.

What if you’re really flexible?

If you’re someone naturally on the flexible side, you’ll actually want to contain your flexibility a bit. This principle applies to most poses actually, because pushing further and further for more range of motion if you’re already very mobile - creates a risk of destabilizing the ligaments that support your joint integrity.

Often I see people pushing their lower ribs back towards their thighs a lot - to the maximum their flexibility allows. While this idea will help people who are on the stiffer-side of things, it doesn't suit the more naturally flexible.

A sign that you're already on the naturally flexible side is if downward dog feels very easy and comfortable for you from the get-go. You'll easily be able to straighten your legs and have a long spine.

If that sounds like you - just watch that you don't end up like this too often:

Want to know more…

Check out my video for a full and comprehensive guide to your downward dog experience:


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