Half dog and variations – great, big shoulder stretches!

The half-dog pose preparation and the pose itself are wonderful shoulder stretches – when done in proper alignment. I cannot emphasize the importance of alignment enough for these poses: if practiced incorrectly, a student can not only tighten the shoulders more, but also damage his/her shoulder tendons and ligaments. Below are some tips on how to practice this excellent pose.

Starting position: on hands and knees, block lengthwise between thumb and index finger (which form an “L” around the block). Elbows no wider than shoulders (hedge your bets on the narrower side), lower arms parallel to each other.

Starting position for half dog pose

Detail of arm position: Correct position is when the middle finger of hand is in line with the middle of the elbow – imagine drawing a straight line from middle finger to elbow (“YES” picture). Incorrect positions (“NO” pictures) show hands holding block, elbows too wide, and hands out of alignment with elbows – all of which will put extra pressure on shoulders and cause problems.

Details of correct and incorrect arm alignment for half dog

Half-dog prep: appropriate as a starting point and offering many people plenty of shoulder stretching action. Move knees back about 6 inches, then shift hips back just beyond the vertical line behind the hips – as though you were going to sit on your heels, but the knees are too far back for you to do that. This will also pull the shoulders behind the vertical line of the elbows – how far you can go will depend on the flexibility of your shoulders. Allow forehead to come to floor, or put a folded towel under forehead if it does not readily go to the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles, so that the lower back does not sag down/do all the work. Focus your attention on the sternum (breast bone) moving towards the floor (it will not go to the floor, but this action will encourage your mid-spine to extend). Notice whether one shoulder feels tighter than the other.

Half dog prep

Half dog: From half dog prep, curl toes under and lift knees off floor, hips up. Head will not be on the floor, but neck will be relaxed/long. Begin by keeping knees slightly bent. Focus on keeping weight on the index finger and thumb of both hands and the inner wrists, and do not allow the elbows to move out wider under any circumstances (come down and readjust if they do slip). Think of bringing belly towards the thighs, while keeping abdominal muscles engaged so that lower back does not sag. If possible for you without too much strain (think of staying in an intensity level of 7 or 8/10), straighten the legs and work to stretch the heels down to the floor. Repeat 2-3 times, breathing well, 5-15 breaths at a time (length of time you can  stay up comfortably will depend on the openness of the shoulders).

Half dog with bent knees
Half dog

Variations for greater shoulder stretching action: Begin in starting position, but curl chin into chest, and place crown of head on the floor between and as far behind the elbows as possible. Same alignment cues as for half dog prep apply: do not allow elbows to splay out or hands to come together.

Variation with crown of head on floor

If the first variation feels good, then try lifting the knees off the floor while keeping the crown of the head on the floor. Do not, under any circumstances, try to come up if your head is ahead of the elbows – it must be behind the elbows for this pose to be helpful.

Half dog variation with head on floor

Remember, these poses must be done in proper alignment, i.e., without the forearms moving from parallel to each other, for them to be effective and not cause problems, rather than ease, in the shoulders.

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste, Sylvia

Author: Sylvia Vitazkova, PhD, CYT

Dr. Sylvia K. Vitazkova is a certified yoga teacher, life coach, horsewoman, and conservation biologist. Sylvia’s formal study of yoga began while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and intensified when she began to practice Ashtanga Yoga in 1997 while attending Columbia University for doctoral studies in biology. Sylvia soon realized that she wanted to help others experience the consciousness and transformation that her own practice fostered in her and began to teach in 1998, subsequently studying in Mysore, India, in 2002. Sylvia continues to evolve her practice by learning from senior teachers, the most influential of whom has been Barbara Benagh. Her teaching focus is on correct alignment, the joy of being fully present in one’s body, and the psychological and spiritual context within which the physical practice is embedded. Parallel to being a yoga teacher, Sylvia had a full-time career as a professor of Conservation Biology, having taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including a course she created on nature and spirituality, which brought her two areas of expertise together. She has conducted and published the results of her research on wildlife in the tropics, and has been involved in the creation of a number of conservation studies programs. Sylvia’s experience in mentoring students naturally led her to life coaching, in which she became certified through George Mason University in 2014. A lifelong connection with horses has been woven throughout these experiences, from her first pony while a child in Africa, to teaching at riding camp in the U.S., then Claremont Riding Academy in NYC, to the current and ongoing exploration of how yoga can be a tool for better and more connected riding. Sylvia now leads InBodied Living LLC, a wellbeing organization and consultancy, with her partner, James Houston. 

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