Saturday, November 30, 2013

Downward-Facing Dog: A How-to

This article was originally posted on TheKnow on Oct 15, 2013, in an edited format.

Could totally just be me projecting my own interests out into the universe (highly likely), but I feel like everyone I meet nowadays is getting into the yoga spirit. There’s a studio on just about every corner here in NYC (some corners have two) and men, women, kids, dogs, babies, grandmas, what-have-you – nearly everybody I know seems to be, at the very least, yoga-curious.

This is essentially the ultimate situation and lights me up like a Christmas tree – if only the world could find a practice together, maybe we could use NPR for, I don’t know. Ice cream recipe broadcast or something. We wouldn’t need to hear about poverty and hatred and all the horrendous stuff that’s going on all over the place and would have a ton of empty airtime due to everyone being so high on yogi love all the time, is what I’m trying to say.

Anyhow, I am one such proud owner of a happy yogi soul and am so looking forward to sharing some asana love with you on the regular. I’ll be passing on a cultivation of insights from my amazing teachers as well as what I’ve learned from my own body as I move through my practice each day.

I teach and practice Vinyasa yoga, meaning that postures are placed in a specific order and all movement is inspired by the breath. Vinyasa is lovely and flowy, like flying, really, but can get a bit loosey-goosey with all the inhales and exhales - sometimes it flies a touch too quickly and I find myself halfway into the next pose before I’ve reached the crux of whatever I was supposed to be getting into at the time. So, somewhat out of keeping with the Western mindset, we’re going to slow things down a touch and laser-focus in on one pose at a time, hopefully giving you something to chew on and keep in your back pocket for when you hit the mat.
You know, one pose, ish. Some of this is going to require a bit more context.

The Asana of the Week for this, our very first week, is Downward-Facing Dog.

In Sanskrit (respect!): Adho Mukha Svanasana
Pronunciation: ahhh-duh moo-kah sfahn-AHH-sah-nah

Adho, meaning down, downward
Mukha, meaning face
Svana, meaning dog
Asana, meaning pose, posture, seat

Adho mukha svanasana actually translates exactly to… downward-facing dog pose. The full expression of the pose resembles that delicious just-woke-up stretch that you’ve seen your dog do a million times – front paws splayed wide, ribcage on the ground, tail and triumphant doggie booty to the sky.

Typically follows: urdva mukha svanasana (upward-facing dog), plank

Why this pose?
Downward-facing dog, as you know if you’ve ever darkened the doorway of a Vinyasa studio, is a foundational pose for all Vinyasa yoga – in an hour or ninety-minute practice, you’ll hit adho mukha at least twenty times. It’s a palate-cleanser, a super active and energizing resting pose that stretches and tones and creates space from your fingertips to your toes. It seems a bit basic, but working towards a strong downward dog can be a total game-changer for your practice.

Breaking it down
Start by lying facedown on your mat. Tuck your toes underneath you, feet about hip-width distance apart, and place your palms on the mat underneath and just wider than your armpits, spreading your fingers apart to create a strong base. Take a deep inhale through your nose.

As you exhale, press yourself up into a plank, creating one long line from the crown of your skull straight out through the backs of your heels. Shoulders directly in line with wrists, press down through each fingerpad and knuckle with fingers spread wide. I'm going to say it again: wide. Like a gecko. Pull your belly in and up towards your spine, keeping your glutes relaxed and sacrum flat. Soften that icy spot between your shoulder blades, giving your sternum room to reach forwards. Your drishti is soft, eyes to the mat an inch or two in front of your fingertips. Take a few deep breaths here, giving your muscles a minute to get all warm and trembly, ending with an inhale.

As you exhale, lift your hips up and back until your body forms an inverted V shape, tail high in the air and heels softening towards the mat. Your hands and feet should stay right where they were in your plank, planting down into the mat with splayed (wide!) fingers and toes. All that space between your hands is going to mirror across your chest, giving you so much room to breathe and expand. Rotate your elbow creases forward, shoulder blades softening down your back and away from your ears. Your head is heavy, neck relaxed and your heart is reaching towards your thighs, navel scooping up and in. Parallel the outer edges of your feet to the sides of your mat, creating a slight pigeon-toe as your inner thighs rotate inwards and out towards the back of the room. Sometimes I like to tuck a foam block between my thighs here to encourage that rotation – it creates muscle memory for future alignment and just plain feels excellent, which is how yoga should feel. Set your drishti either right past your feet or towards your navel, eyes soft and easy (or hell, closed).

Breathe here, sending your tailbone to the sky with each inhale and softening your heels towards the earth with each exhale. Your heels, by the way, might never reach the ground. Mine don’t. Doesn’t matter. Wiggle around – pedal out your feet, stretch up to the tips of your toes, send your hips side to side – whatever feels right, eventually settling into stillness. Observe how while your external body comes to a halt, everything on the inside is still vibrant and alive and moving and growing with your breath. Stay here for three to five long breaths.

Seriously guys, downward-facing dog. Longer and stronger all over and such a great place to start to really grow your practice. This is a fantastic pose to take in the office when things are getting nutty or when you need to wake up a little bit. You will look a little weird. Yes. But so good - it’s technically an inversion (hips higher than head and heart) and all that fresh blood to the brain is about a thousand times better than a shot of espresso when mid-afternoon hits.
I mostly drink herbal tea, so I actually wouldn’t know. But you follow, yeah? It’s the best.

Tails in the air, happy practicing!


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