This article examines aspects of the downward facing dog pose from the perspective of an understanding of coordination based on the Alexander technique, by a teacher of Alexander Yoga.
The downward facing dog pose is one my favourite poses and one which anyone who has done yoga is familiar with. It has a number of benefits if it is worked correctly. It gives a whole body stretch from the feet, through the legs to the whole of the spine and torso. It provides a wonderful lengthening through the spine and it develops overall strength, in particular strength in the arms and the core postural muscles, helping to strengthen bones which is a key to preventing osteoporosis. And besides strengthening it also develops flexibility and provides us with the benefits of inverted yoga asanas.
With the Alexander technique there is no such thing as one correct way of doing an asana. The most important consideration is working with our unique condition – with our own flexibility, strength, structural issues and habitual movement patterns, mental and emotional state we bring to the activity. That is we don’t try to conform ourselves to an idea of the correct form of the posture, but rather use the asana intelligently as a means of openness, expansion and freeing, and adapting the posture to ourselves. We want to work the body as a coordinated whole, paying particular attention to the length of the whole spine and the balanced relationship of the head, neck and back.
It is commonly described and illustrated in yoga books and classes as being done with the heels fully on the floor. In the picture below we can see a flexible person go into this pose with heels fully on the floor.
She is doing it really well and wouldn’t you like to do the same as her? But do you have the same flexibility? If you don’t and you try to copy what she is doing what do you imagine will be the result? Let’s look what happens when a less flexible person does the same posture with intention of getting her heels on the floor.
What we see here is that instead of having the nicely lengthened torso of the first example we get a torso which is shortened and compressed – and the model in this picture is above average flexibility! The spine is shortened, the breathing is restricted, and the abdominal organs are compressed.
So what is the answer for those of us with less than excellent flexibility? Look at Fig 3.
She has pretty good flexibility, but not enough to both have a lengthening of her torso and a complete straightening of her legs by bringing her heels right down to the floor. So what she needs to do in order not to compromise the integrity and openness of her torso is to slightly bend her legs. Although lifting her heels from the floor she is still working with a good stretch into her calves and at the same time activating the spine into length and her torso into expansion.
Look at the beautiful length though her spine. Her torso is expanded, her breathing is unrestricted and the organs of the abdominal area fully supported without the slightest compression.
For those with much less flexibility it will be necessary to bend the knees considerably more than this in order to work with the full length through the torso. It will also be necessary to bring the torso further through the arms in order to get a lengthened connection through the spine from the head to the sacrum (see Fig 4).
Now lets look below at a very flexible person go into this pose (Fig 5). From the perspective of the Alexander technique this is not an ideal way to coordinate that flexibility in this asana. Instead of the back being rounded out as we will see with the less flexible person in Fig 2, this time the back is shortened and contracted in the opposite direction, particularly the upper back, and the whole shoulder girdle is over-stretched.
Using the Alexander technique in order to work into length and expansion of the torso, open up the breathing and allow for an unimpeded flow of energy through the spine we would need to have both the head and upper back in the same relationship to the arms as we see in Figs 1 and 3.
The problem of asymmetry in this asana
One very common problem with the dog pose is people going into the posture unevenly. For those with a slight or more than slight scoliosis (a sideways curvature of the spine) it is easy to end up exaggerating it, thus installing this pattern even further into the everyday pattern of posture and movement. This is a difficult one to pick up oneself, as you can’t necessarily see it in a mirror. The most obvious manifestation of the twist is a twist through the pelvis and a shortening through one side of the body.
It is not always associated with scoliosis. Many people go into the posture with their hands and/or feet unevenly placed. And another pattern is people sinking their upped back through their shoulders when one shoulder is more flexible than the other, which is the case for most people. Indeed the more one does this sinking, as in Fig 5, there more possibility there is of going into asymmetry.
If this twist is at all exaggerated one will need the assistance of a teacher to guide oneself out of this posture .
How can I use this information in my own yoga practice?
Unfortunately just having this information about a more efficient and effective way of going into an asana is not enough for us to be able to apply it to ourselves.
Ideally we would find an Alexander technique teacher who also teaches or at least practices yoga and get them to look at us in the posture and give us some guidance through the asana.
However the founder of the Technique obviously had no one to guide him in the process of developing more effective posture, movement and vocal habits. He used mirrors so that he could observe what he was doing with himself in activity. The reason that he had to use the mirrors was because he discovered that his sensing of proprioceptive and kinaesthetic information (the feeling of what his body was doing and where it was in space) was faulty. As already mentioned it can be quite difficult to pick going into a habitual twisting contraction, and the use of a video recorder placed in front of you may pick this up.
And indeed in the downward facing dog pose, almost always when I guide people into more length and expansion in a yoga class, their sense of where I have moved them to and what they are actually doing with themselves do not correlate. In such cases I need to use a mirror to show them that what they are sensing does not correlate to what they are actually doing.
So if you want to experiment with the information I strongly recommend, in the absence of a teacher that you use a mirror so that you can deal with your “unreliable sensory appreciation”. Your brain will believe your eyes over your feeling and gradually you will begin to educate and refine your proprioceptive and kinaesthetic senses.
Warnings and things to be aware of in this asana
The most common injuries which people experience from this posture are in the shoulders and they are normally associated with overstretching. You should never feel strain in the shoulder joint whilst doing this posture. The work in the arms should be felt predominately through the muscles, particularly around the deltoids, the big muscle at the top of the arm.
Also people frequently strain their necks in this posture, especially those who tend to tighten their neck muscles in all the activities of daily life. If you cannot remain in the posture with a free neck you should immediately come out of it. Otherwise you are simply practicing and reinforcing the habit of tightening your neck and disco-ordinating yourself.
People may also feel strain in the back, especially if they are not getting the length and freedom through the torso illustrated by the models in Figs 1, 3 & 4. Pain in the back is a sure sign that you are compressing your spine, and again, we don’t want to practice and reinforce that habit. You need to come out of the posture immediately and rethink what you are doing with yourself.
And finally, some people with wrist problems have difficulty with this. When people have this tightness in the wrist I counsel them to approach the pose slowly. Often as they develop working in the posture the wrist tightness begins to free up. However, this is not guaranteed and I advise people to start by going into the posture quite briefly and checking after a yoga session that their wrists feel OK. Some people find it useful to put a folded blanket under the mat to soften the contact of the hands with the floor and it can also be placed in a way that reduces the bend.
There is no yoga posture I know of that benefits everybody and this pose is no exception. Some people are just too stiff to be able to work this pose with benefit and need to develop more flexibility to be able to do it.
Here is a modification of the pose which may be useful for those with wrist or elbow injuries which prevent them from doing the dog pose, but be aware this requires a reasonable level of flexibility. For some it is also a useful alternative to the dog pose working different muscles of the arm.
This article formed the beginning of my chapter on the Downward Facing Dog Pose in my book "Smart Yoga: Apply the Alexander Technique to Enhance Your Practice, Prevent Injury and Increase Body Awareness" The chapter on the Dog Pose in my book goes into a lot more detail and the book provides a very indepth look at the application of the Alexander Technique to yoga.
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