This iconic pose is done in almost any hatha yoga class. It captures the essence of yoga in that it combines strength and flexibility, intensity and inner focus.
Points of Body Awareness:
*Root the hands into the ground. The middle fingers point strait ahead and the wrist creases are parallel to the top edge of your mat.
*Is the knuckle of the index finger grounded? It should be. Many people tend to roll towards the outer side of the hand, allowing the first knuckle to pop up, off of the ground. Be sure to keep pressing down through the thumb-side of the hands.
*Can you feel the muscles on the front of the forearms working? These muscles flex the wrist and will help you to keep more weight in the front of the hand and less on the heel of the hand, which may compress the carpal tunnel.
*The elbows are strait and are not locked out or hyperextending.
*The upper arms should "roll in" toward your ears. This will help to keep your shoulder joints in good alignment. (This rolling in action is actually external rotation of the glenohumeral joint which is accomplished by the rotator cuff muscles.)
*Is your upper back in a neutral position? There should be a slight outward curve of the spine between the shoulder blades. Flexible people tend to "hang out" in downward dog resulting in hyperextension though the thoracic spine.
*Keeping the knees slightly bent and the heels off the mat for now, can you lift your sit bones (ischial tuberosities) up toward the ceiling? If so, your lumbar spine will be straiter, closer to a neutral spine position.
*Can you feel a sense of length in the entire spine, through the shoulders, forearms and into the ground? Establish this length first, before trying to straiten the knees or ground the heels.
*Then, can you straiten the knees without losing the upward lift of the sit bones? Tight hamstrings will pull the sit bones back down, rounding the lower back. It’s better to work on stretching the hamstrings with a different posture instead of stretching with a rounded back in down dog.
*Ground the heels evenly. Can you feel a sense of energy moving from the ground up through the legs?
*Where is your gaze? If you keep your gaze on your knees or thighs, your head will be in good alignment between your arms.
*Are your core muscles engaged? Draw your navel up toward your spine to engage the transverse abdominis muscle.
*Breath with slow, steady breaths. Inhale and exhale through the nose.
Wrist and finger flexors, triceps, infraspinatis, teres minor, supraspinatus, serratus anterior, transverse abdominus, lumbar extensor muscles, quadriceps,
Latissimus dorsi, teres major, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus
Inversions like down dog, with the head below the heart, are contraindicated for those with detached retina, glaucoma, and high blood pressure. It is also not recommended for those who have a head cold or sinus infection.
A good alternative for beginners, people with shoulder or elbow injuries or those head colds, high blood pressure or other contraindications is ‘down dog on the wall.’ Instead of bearing weight through the arms on the ground, the arms are placed on a wall with the torso forming a 90 degree angle with the legs. (Note, this requires greater wrist extension range so it may be difficult but perhaps therapeutic for those with wrist injuries.) This is a good way to practice proper alignment of shoulders and spine. This will also be a good stretch for those with tight hamstrings or lats.
For a slightly more restful variation, rest the forehead on a block or bolster.
Lift one leg. Keep the pelvic girdle level in order to develop more strength of core muscles including gluteals and obliques. Or bend the knee of the lifted leg, allow the pelvis to rotate and the foot to cross over midline for a fun, inverted twist. Lifting one leg with a level pelvic girdle level is also an excellent strength-building exercise to do with the wall variation described above. (Although at this point it looks more like Warrior III than Down Dog.)
It is critical to assess patients in this posture if they plan to return to a community-based yoga class as it is almost certain they will be doing down dog. Assuming the patient can bear weight through their arms, I usually introduce the concepts of finding neutral spine position and proper weight bearing through the hands with the patient in quadraped. Then progress to the ‘down dog on the wall’ as described in modifications. This requires the patient to practice those body awareness skills while stretching the shoulders and hamstrings but without yet having to bear weight though the arms. The next step is to try extending one leg. This requires a fairly high degree of core stability and body awareness. Once the patient can do this without any pain or compensations, then assess the traditional downward dog posture.
Another way to use down dog therapeutically is to provide traction while in the pose. One way to do this is to hang from a pole or a strong bar while in the ‘down dog on the wall’ position. Another way is to use a strap around the top of the thighs while in the traditional down dog position. The strap can be held by a partner or it can be secured to a heavy door knob.