All hail downward facing dog, the great adho mukha svanasana! I would love to know when downward dog entered the yoga canon. It is not mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the 15th century text that first introduced and recorded a number of asanas that we still do today so I wonder when it began.
It is the simplest and most wonderful of exercises. The inverted V of downward dog is a full body workout that invigorates the heart as well as stretching the muscles and aligning the bones.
It’s beauty derives from the grounded hands and feet which allows for a quieter effort than many other poses. Downward dog is classified as an inversion because the head is below the heart. Inversions have many health benefits; one of them is that being turned upside down distributes blood that often resides in a unoxegynated pool at the base of the lungs.
Downward facing dog is not easy for everyone, requiring a certain length in the hamstrings and openness and strength across the shoulders, so starting on the hands and knees is a fine way to begin working your way into the pose. Many Yoga students and some teachers take for granted what can be a difficult pose.
It is also a pose that can be an entire practice. It works the aforementioned hamstrings and shoulders but it works everything else as well leaving no part of the body unused. Downward dog is all about the extension of the back body where most of its limitations can be found.
When I have a class in downward dog there are a number of things I look at—what is going on in everyone’s lower back. What kind of length is available to the practitioner, specifically can the lower spine get long enough to maintain its natural curve.
I also look at the space between the head neck and shoulders—what kind of width is available across the upper back and chest and can the arms straighten?
Another area of the body I check in with is the knees. Can they straighten? Do they hyperextend when I give the instruction to lengthen them?
I will cover these questions and others in some more downward dog posts that are coming up. Working on and mastering downward dog is a great way to begin working with your body if you want to start stretching and changing the way you move. Downward dog can also be the gateway to many other poses.