Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is one of the first poses that yoga students learn, on its own or as part of Surya Namaskara. Because it’s a familiar favorite, the tendency is to slip into Down Dog like a beloved pair of sneakers, often without noticing that the arches are sagging or the heels are worn down. To keep this asana fresh, approach it with a beginner’s mind:
1. Honor the spine. Don’t let “de-tails” wag Down Dog, a very complex pose. Keep the spine long and neutral or in a slight backbend, even if it means lifting the heels off the floor, bending the knees, or placing the hands on blocks. Use your exhalations to increase the length between the opposite poles of head and tailbone.
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2. Enjoy the journey. Anyone who’s walked a dog knows that even a simple circuit around the block offers a myriad of discoveries, many invisible to the human eye. Just so, Downward-Facing Dog can be a rich exploration of refinements. Proceed leisurely. Let go of your preconceptions of a “good dog” and be in the moment. How does the pose change when you deepen the hip crease or relax the fingers? What happens when you spread the sitting bones apart or shift the weight back?
3. Extend your senses. “Relaxed alertness” may sound like a contradiction, but this is the state to cultivate, like the dog who appears to be sleeping, his eyes closed, all the while attuned to his environment. Many of us “fall asleep” in the shoulders during Down Dog, overstretching to compensate for stiff lower bodies. Are the tops of your shoulders creeping up around your ears? Do the shoulder blades wing out? Exhaling, roll the outer armpits toward the floor to free the neck and lengthen the spine even more.
4. Be subtle. In a complex pose, it’s all too easy to stay stuck on the physical aspects, when the path of yoga is meant to lead us to the subtler realms. As Downward Dog comes into physical alignment, the bandhas—especially uddiyana bandha—occur spontaneously and naturally. Free-flowing prana creates a sense of lightness. A less common name for this asana, the Mountain, suggests its energetics. The mountain’s peak—the tailbone—reaches up to the heavens, while the hands and feet root into the earth.
As a forward bend, Downward-Facing Dog stretches the backside of the body. As an inversion, it refreshes, recharging the body’s inner battery by reversing the poles of the spine. Its complexity gives it completeness, so it’s a good choice when you have time to focus on only one asana. It’s also great for those days when you feel uninspired. Dogs, by nature, are fountains of enthusiasm. Chances are good that this dog, once unleashed, will pull you along to explore its One-Legged or Revolved variations, or lead you to an entire sequence.
When you practice Downward-Facing Dog, what are some things you notice? Do you have any favorite tips for a blissful Down Dog?