adho = downward
mukha = face
svana = dog
One of the most popular poses practiced in yoga is Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward Facing Dog. Almost everyone I meet has some knowledge of this pose and you can find it translated across many lineages. Why? This asana is a great "home base" for any practice as well as a good transition point for different standing poses. You can practice down dog to warm up the body for a gentle class or use it during your "vinyasa" for a more vigorous practice. For me, finding my way to down dog quickly helps me identify where I'm at on my mat each day, sort of like a compass. I can easily sense if I'm too tight in one area or ready to go just by moving into and out of the pose. Practicing this posture helps to strengthen and lengthen the body as well as stretch and open the backs of the legs and torso.
photo by Mina Habibi
To practice, find your way to table position (on all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips). Spread the fingers wide and engage the palms of the hands to the ground. Start to roll the shoulders away from the ears and pull the belly button in and up to support the spine. Tuck your toes and slowly start to straighten your legs so that your hips rise towards the sky. Push down through your heels to stretch the legs and slightly rotate your thighs inwards. This will help to open the backs of the legs. Turn you gaze towards your belly button or thighs. Keep the arms engaged so that the shoulders can roll away from the ears. Fingers should be spread nice and wide, like starfish. Keep feet hips distance apart, which is about two fists distance. Eventually the heels will engage with the floor and your head may come close to the mat as you work with this pose to get long and strong!
Note: many traditions will vary on the distance between the feet. I like to practice with the feet at hips distance as it helps to move to and from standing poses and keeps me aligned.
photo by Mina Habibi
Once you're in the pose begin to work with it and play! If it's the first one of the day pedal the feet or maybe bend the knees deeply and then extend and straighten a few times to warm up the backs of the legs. Shake and roll the head to release any tension you may be holding in the neck. Move forward and back a few times to warm up the body. Move the hips from side to side and stretch the sides of the body. The best way to experience this pose is to move in it with your breath. The more you do, the more familiar you'll become with this awesome asana.
Benefits of down dog include:
- Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
- Energizes the body
- Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands
- Strengthens the arms and legs
- Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause
- Relieves menstrual discomfort when done with head supported
- Helps prevent osteoporosis
- Improves digestion
- Relieves headache, insomnia, back pain, and fatigue
- Therapeutic for high blood pressure, asthma, flat feet, sciatica, sinusitis
Be mindful in this pose if you have any discomfort with the wrists, including carpal tunnel syndrome and modify by using fists instead of flat palms. You may also want to seek modifications if you have high blood pressure or in the late term of pregnancy.
How do you experience down dog? Do you find it comforting or stressful? What variations do you take in this pose?