Downward facing dog pose, adho muka svanasana, is one of the most common poses in yoga practice, yet it is also commonly practiced out of alignment. Not only will the misaligned student not benefit from this spine-lengthening, invigorating, heart pose, but s/he may also damage the shoulders.
Last week’s post focused on the half-dog pose, which prepares the yoga student with correct alignment for the full downward facing dog. This week, we add one more alignment tool, the block between the elbows, before taking the pose into its full expression.
Continuing the work on the forearms, place the block between the elbows, rather than between the hands; knees are on the ground under the hips. Align the lower arms in the same way as for half dog – be especially aware of not placing the hands too close to each other, thereby holding the block up by triangulating the forearms when you are asked to pick it up off the floor.
Squeeze the block using the elbows, draw the shoulder blades down the spine, and lift the block off the floor while keeping the knees on the ground; engage your core to prevent the lower back from sagging. Notice whether you are engaging the muscles just below the shoulder blades – this is good!
Continue to practice the above until you can hold the block up and take your knees off the ground, keeping them bent. Shift the shoulders and hips back and keep the abdominals strong.
The block between the elbows teaches us to externally rotate the upper arm bones, widen the collar bones and to organize the back muscles to flatten the shoulder blades against the back. Informed by the way you used your muscles when holding the block between the elbows, imagine that it’s there, but take the full downward facing dog pose (think: upside down V) – start with knees bent, and straighten the legs only to the point where you are able to maintain the arm alignment, a straight back, and lifted seat bones. If you cannot maintain this alignment with legs straight, then keep them bent – daily practice will eventually allow the legs to straighten.
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Happy practicing & namaste,
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.
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.
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: 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).
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.
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.
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! 🙂