This week we move on to downward facing dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana (pronounced Aw-do Mew-hah Shf-vah-nah-sah- nah... wow that's tricky).
It's the keystone pose of so many sequences in a vinyasa-based practice, and it's great to practice anytime you need a little time-out and energy boost. This pose elongates and releases tension in the entire back of the body, including the calves, ankles, hamstrings, lower back, upper back, neck and top of the head. It is an accessible way to turn yourself upside down, too. Placing the head below the heart keeps the circulatory system toned and running in top form. When the blood flows vigorously, the mind clears, resilience is nurtured, and heavy emotions may lighten. In addition to the back body stretching, downward facing dog allows the mind to behold the world from a new perspective and we see ourselves in a new way.
See the two pictures below for an example of positioning in this pose.
Physical Cues: There are lots of ways to get into downward facing dog, but here's my favorite. Come into Uttansana, standing forward fold. Check out the Week 2 blog for specifics on how to get into it. Bend the knees as deep as you need to place the hands flat on the ground and step both feet back until you are in the shape of an upside down V, usually about 3-4 feet depending on your height. The hands press down firmly into the mat, spreading out through all ten fingers. The head is in line with the biceps, and the neck is relaxed. The shoulder blades press flat against the back and together slightly, to engage the upper arms. The hips lift high toward the sky while the heels search toward the floor. Your heels most likely will not reach the floor yet, and it's ok! The calves and Achilles tendons will open more over time. Take at least 4-5 long inhales and exhales, and feel the back body stretch and open. To come out, I love to set the knees down on the floor, then set the hips to the heels, bringing the upper body to rest on the thighs and forehead toward the ground (Child's Pose). But you can also walk the feet back up to Uttansana, or just come to seated. Lots of options!
Mental Benefits: Have you ever felt stuck in a rut, moving through life in a way that is familiar but unexciting? Maybe you've also had the experience of shaking things up, trying something new, and challenging yourself in a way that brought back energy and excitement in your life? This energy may come from a new job, a new relationship, a new home, a new project, a new daily routine, a new hobby, or anything else that is "new" to you. I liken downward facing dog to that sense of "newness" that brings fresh energy into our lives. This pose gets the circulation flowing, so that fresh energy is carried throughout the body, especially to the brain. Turning ourselves upside down, we literally see the world differently and feel differently about it. We may be able to shift a mood of indifference to interest, or from anger to tolerance. Also, this pose wakes up our physical foundation, the back body. Think about how the back body is intricately engaged in all movements you make throughout the day, whether it's walking, running, resting, or sitting. Your back constantly holds you up and allows you to carry out the tasks required in your daily life. Taking time to invert, stretch, lengthen, and nurture the back also encourages this fresh new mental energy to emerge.
So there we go, downward facing dog. It's a beautiful shape to take!
Next week, let's move on to down dog's complimentary and opposite pose, upward facing dog, or Urdvha Mukha Svanasana.
Kambria Kennedy-Dominguez, Counselor and yoga teacher specializing in mental health, substance abuse and wellness.