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Learning to Love your (Downward Facing) Dog

It's been an exciting time in our household - we've just taken delivery of a very little, very excitable, cute little puppy. Expectations were high - lovely long walks that the kids actually want to go on, cosy cuddles and unconditional love. Of course the reality is, initially, quite different - puddles on the floor, chewed shoes, interrupted sleep and kids arguing over whose 'turn' it is to cuddle / stroke / feed her next (they never argue over who's picking up the next poo though - funny that!) This is all new territory - we've got to make adjustments, expect a few mishaps, and find a way that works for our family. Which got me thinking - this is not all that different from the other Dog in my life - the other one I had to 'learn to love' - you've guessed it - my Downward facing Dog. (Yes, I know, slightly tenuous link - my brain works in mysterious ways - especially when slightly sleep deprived!)

It’s one of my favourite poses and whatever style of yoga class you go to, you’re almost guaranteed to come across it. It’s often referred to as a ‘resting’ pose, but when I first started yoga - as my arms shook, my wrists ached and the back of my legs complained - my Down Dog felt anything but restful! Like many asanas (postures), the key to enjoying them is to get your alignment right. Over time, I’ve come to love it and never consider my practice complete without some upside down dog time, so while I wait for my little pup to settle to sleep, let me share with you my top tips for finding your love for this asana.

Downward Facing Dog 101

First a quick caveat – you need to find the correct alignment for your body. Your Down Dog may look quite different to someone else’s. We all have different skeletons, different ranges of movement, and we come in different shapes and sizes. Yoga is not one size fits all – you need to get the right fit for you. And of course these are general tips, which means they don’t take into account any specific injuries or conditions. Eg, if you have a wrist injury, you may need to modify to the forearms (Dolphin Pose) or try this pose against a wall. If you do have any specific conditions, ask me in person about modifications.

So here we go…

Step 1) Start in tabletop on your hands and knees. Knees hip distance apart and hips over your knees. Hands shoulder width apart and shoulders over your wrists. Now check that the creases of your wrists are parallel with the front edge of your mat. Spread your fingers wide and press down firmly through the mounds at the base of your fingers and thumbs and the outer heel of the hand. If you feel lots of pressure in your wrists, then claw your fingertips into the mat a little. Keep your arms straight, without locking your elbows and keep your head in line with your spine. That’s your foundation built!

Step 2) Now we move. Tuck your toes under, engage your low belly, send your bottom back towards your heels to lengthen your spine, then lift your hips high so your knees come off the mat. Focus on shining your sit bones to the ceiling and pressing the tops of your thighs back. IT IS FINE TO KEEP A BEND TO YOUR LEGS! If you have tight hamstrings, keeping your knees bent will help you lift your hips higher as you find length in your spine.

BREATHE!!... and move. Don’t be afraid to shift around a bit. Peddle out your feet, shake your head and neck, extend one leg behind you and then the other, press more firmly into alternate hands and feet…EXPLORE THE POSE…explore what feels good. Come to childs pose whenever you need to rest.

Step 3) Find your perfect length. From Down Dog, shift your weight forwards into plank pose - so your shoulders come over your wrists and your body forms a straight line (remember to turn on those abs – don’t let your lower back dip to the floor). Now notice… did you need to shift your feet back to make your plank? Lower your knees to the mat and WITHOUT MOVING YOUR HANDS OR KNEES come back to all fours. This is your ‘perfect’ distance. Go back to the beginning and move into your Down Dog from here. It might feel quite strange. It might mean your heels feel further from the floor, but that’s fine.

Step 4) Check back in. Check back in with your hands. Are your fingers still spread wide? If your weight equally distributed between your hands? Is the back of your neck long? Keep lifting your hips high and pressing the tops of your thighs back as you reach your heels toward the earth (but don’t worry if they don’t touch – they don’t need to!). The tighter your hamstrings, the more you’ll need to bend your knees to keep your hips high and your spine lengthening. ADAPT THE POSE TO YOU, not your body to the pose.

That’s the basics. Now we refine.

Step 5) Glance back and check your feet. If you can see your heels, try turning them out slightly so you can’t see them anymore. Now see if you can externally rotate your upper arms (as though you’re hiding your armpits from the person next to you). This will move your shoulders away from your ears, broaden your shoulder blades, relax your upper back and give you more space in your neck. At the same time we want the forearms to rotate in slightly. Sounds impossible – but it’s doable! - imagine your thumbs want to draw magnetically in towards one another – that should do the trick. Firm your shoulder blades and feel them draw towards your tailbone.

ARE YOU STILL BREATHING? Remember, yoga is about balancing body and breath, effort and ease. If you’re breath becomes laboured, then come to childs pose. Rest, smooth out the breath. Then try again.

Step 6) Enjoy. Remember, yoga is a practice. No-one starts perfect. There is no ‘perfect’ – just a journey. You need to feel your way, explore your body, explore the poses and enjoy the ride.

There are sooo many benefits to Downward Facing dog, it strengthens and stretches your muscles, refreshes your brain, boosts your complexion, soothes your nervous system and (eventually!) allows you to rest and relax your body as you draw your awareness inwards.

Give it and go and do tell me what you think…do you like, loathe, or LOVE this pose?

Seems my little pup has found her ideal resting pose too... so off I creep to bed. Namaste and goodnight lovely Yogis xx

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