HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR DOWN-DOG?
Sebastian Brosche, Yoga Teacher
Norway 30 March 2017
Downward facing dog can be one of the best additions to your Yoga for BJJ practice if you do it properly, or your worst struggle if you’re concentrating on all the wrong things. You might think that your only goal while doing down dog is to bring your heels as close to the ground as possible. This article looks at some key aspects of the pose, making sure you’re practicing it correctly and that you’re getting the most out of the pose. Focusing on all the right things will also make the pose more enjoyable, which is what you should strive for.
The usefulness of Downdog comes from its numerous benefits. You can’t really avoid it in a modern yoga class, and you should’t avoid it, as you’d be missing out on those benefits. It’s commonly used as the fundamental pose in yoga flows, and it is a strengthening pose, a transition pose, and even for some, a resting pose. If you’re finding down dog extremely hard to do, you might prefer to use child’s pose as a resting pose (and do make sure to try out our yoga for rocks programs, which will slowly but surely improve your general mobility and flexibility), but do try to incorporate at least a few downdogs into your practice. Let’s look at the reasons why you should do that.
Down Dog could be considered a whole body stretch, as it works on your upper and lower body by elongating and strengthening it. Benefits from downward facing dog include the following:
It strenghtens your shoulder girdle
Elongates your spine and releases tension in your lower back
Stretches your hamstrings, calves, hands, arms, shoulders and ankles
It is a gentle inversion, reversing the pull of gravity on your head and organs
It is a versatile pose that is commonly used to transition into many different kind of yoga poses, both active and restorative.
Its numerous benefits and feel-good’s are probably the reason why Downdog is one of the most popular poses in yoga. It’s also one of the poses where without some knowledge of the pose, you might be approaching it from a wrong angle, making yourself liable for unnecessary injuries.
With the purpose of Yoga for BJJ being to prevent injuries and make you able to train for as long as possible, you can’t afford such injuries, when they can easily be avoided. So if you’re struggling with your down dog and finding that you dread it the more you do it, continue reading through this article as its goal is to fix this and improve your Downdog form.
You probably noticed the way your spine feels after a day of intense training. Avoiding and ignoring this feeling by just going to bed and not doing anything to fix it might work for you currently, but it’s not optimal if your goal is to continue training for the foreseeable future.
It’s important that you try and remedy those misalignments in your spine, as it will make you feel better and trust me, you’ll be doing your spine and yourself a huge favour. Downdog is a great way to relieve pressure in your spine and re-align everything so that you get rid of that tension caused by…well, what goes on in your BJJ academy stays in your BJJ academy.
The way to make sure that your down dog is providing you with all the right stretches and helping you relieve that pressure is by following a few important steps.
Getting into the down dog position
Start in high plank, spine in a neutral position. Spread the weight of your upper body over your hands, and spread your fingers to almost full extension. Then press into the mat and lift your hips up and back, and move your chest closer to your knees. If you are feeling very restricted in your shoulders (which is likely), take the following modification: Move your hands a bit wider, and angle your fingers out sideways. This gives you more space between the clavicle bones and armbone.
Another mistake that is bound to happen is that you push with your trapezius muscles. Solve this by relaxing your inner shoulders, and visualize your shoulder blades moving away from each other. Now, simultaneously press your index finger knuckle down, while rotating your elbows back towards your toes. This gives you a firm and solid foundation for your upper body. Don’t look forward, but rather shift you gaze towards your feet. This helps your neck relax.
OK, let’s cover the lower part of your body. Over the years I’ve received loads of questions regarding the role of your heels in down dog – Should you be striving to reach the ground with your heels? There seems to exist an unfortunate but common perception that only if your heels are touching the ground, the Down Dog pose is legit. Down Dog has many benefits, but getting your heels down to the ground is not considered a benefit. Rather, if the case is that your hamstrings and calves are currently stiff/tight, there might some day be the chance of your heels touching the ground in this pose.
What I am here to tell you is that if you shift your focus from getting your heels to the ground, to finding a solid foundation for your hands and feet, lenghtening your spine, relaxing your shoulders, and breathing deeply through your nose, then you are doing very well. If the heels come down or not is a minor detail that is not worthy of any attention.
So tip #1, start with you knees bent. Bent knees doesn’t mean your down dog is worse than someone else’s, but it is a wise modification of the pose. If you don’t feel like you’re getting a deep enough stretch in your hamstrings and calves by keeping your knees bent (and if you’re not feeling any pain in your achilles tendon), then you can start to straighten your knees.
Do start slowly though – start by bicycling your legs. You do this by first bending one knee and stretching the other one, and then switching the legs, as many times and as slowly as you like. When you’ve done this a few times, straighten both knees, push into your mat with your hands, elongate your spine, keep lifting your hips and sitting bone up and just breathe. Try to relax, soften you gaze and stay here for a few breaths. You can come to child’s pose after that and rest.
Childs pose can be a nice break from downdogs when doing a full yoga class.
A modification you can do is walking your feet closer to the hands. This is makes your heels come to the ground, but did you notice what also happened? You turned the Down Dog into more of a Forward Fold. This can be nice if you have a slippery mat, or if you plan to hang out here for a while, but if you are doing a yoga flow with transitions, this should be avoided in the beginning. Try to keep the same distance between your hands and feet in Downward facing dog as you do in Plank pose.
A list of Dope Down Dog Dos and Don’ts
- Spread your fingers and angle them out 45 degrees, and press evenly into the mat
- Elongate your spine and extend your armpits
- Press your knuckles down, and point your elbows back to firm your arms
- Push your chest to your legs, and your legs to the wall behind you
- Extend the backs of your legs as much as possible, but don’t over commit to this! If you find it too hard, bend the knees, but still work on elongating your spine and extending your arms. Bending you knees just takes a bit of ‘effort’ off your hamstring. There’s no need to force your heels towards the ground as this won’t help you elongate the hamstrings, but a soft push is ok, as long as you don’t feel any pain in your achilles tendon.
- Don’t tuck your tailbone or round your back
- Don’t look forward as this will cause unnecessary strain in your neck
- Don’t try to force your heels to touch the ground
If your hamstrings and calves feel tight, bend your knees. Depending on the anatomy of your ankle joint and the lenght of your achilles tendon, you might get your heels down later in your yoga journey. Or not.
Are you just stiff, or are you permanently immobile? Well, that is impossible to tell right away, but if you have practiced a pose for several years without any ‘improvements’, then you might have reached your anatomical potential.
What I mean by that is that the range of motion in your ankle joint might be what is restricting you, not the muscles in your legs.
Do you feel pain inside your feet when trying to straighten your legs?
This is a good sign that there is a skeletal restriction, rather than a muscular one. Do not try to modify your skeleton with yoga. There will be perfectly capable AI-robots to do that in the future.
The reason why many new yogis are worried about this detail of ‘heels down or not’ is purely visual and comparative. So in the words of many teachers I will repeat:
“Yoga is not about how things look, or comparing yourself with others. Yoga is about settling the fluctuations of the mind and create more peace.“
The most important thing you need to keep in mind here is that you shouldn’t feel pressured in your Down Dog. You get enough pressure from your BJJ partners (literal pressure), yoga should be your pressure relieving activity. Also, don’t get frustrated if your progress is slow, better to go slow than to make silly mistakes which might cause you unnecessary injuries or makes you give up completely.
By trying to force your heels to touch the ground you’re basically just trying to take a shortcut for something that takes some time and work. And you know what they say about shortcuts… ”You want to get better, you want to improve? Then stop looking for a shortcut” (Jocko Willink). So do your work, stay motivated and don’t get frustrated about your progress. You’re progressing as long as you keep practicing.