That Dog Just Won't Lie Down
by Tracey Rich
Upon being asked about the goal of getting the heels down in Down Dog
Apparently there is an issue here. Apparently, there is a problem because as a yoga teacher I have been asked to write about it. But let's face it, people are tight, you feel it, I see it daily. Hamstrings are tight, Achilles are tight. People are frustrated. They just can't get their heels down.
Down dog is fast becoming the poster child of a yoga practice. As a pose unto itself it is challenging. It builds upper body strength, it takes wrist flexibility, it is a shoulder opener, a lower back and hamstring stretch. It shows overall balance (or lack of it) to the long muscles in the body. Down dog is also the key passage pose most often used in a flowing, Hatha Vinyasa practice. It's everywhere and people think it should be easy. But it's not! It is a fantastic pose, which can be (and should be) modified so that one can develop into the asana. One can choose how they want to approach the posture and should choose wisely. One should learn to work this wonderful pose and ones most balanced variation of it.
Down dog evolves from the hands on the floor thru the lines of the bones in the arms, extending into an elongated torso to the high points of the hip bones, sit bones and tailbone. The legs then carry the pose downward with the thighs facing forward into the weight activated in your parallel heels. The floor is not the goal of the pose. The pose ends with the heels sharing a strong percentage of the weight of the pose. Yes it's lovely to have the floor meet your heels, but strictly as a reminder to work this portion of your pose. This should be liberating news. When one realizes that the pose wants and needs to be worked with the heels energized and activated, floor or no floor, and that the base of the pose rests there, then the emphasis of the pose changes. The entire body shares the work of this pose. That said, how can one strengthen, lengthen and open the pose making a fully accomplished Down Dog possible?
First, one needs to strengthen the wrists and develop wrist flexibility. Down dog itself can help, but too much too soon is not good for any of the joints. Don't practice poses or sequences that require upper bodywork on soft, plush carpeting. This can overextend your wrists even when you are strong and flexible. The pose should be practiced with the ledge or heel of the hand pressing. The fingers will be spread so that the webbing of the fingers becomes engaged and the base of the fingers will be pressing as well. The hands and wrists will be facing forward with a shoulder's distance between them. When developing upper body strength take several breaths then rest in the embryo or child's pose. The head in this posture is also working with the crown gently extending towards the floor. The ears will be at the same latitude as the inside of the upper arms. Shoulders will be rolled back with the shoulder blades lengthening along the spine towards the waist. Shoulder openers can also be achieved by working the Dolphin or forearm stretches along the floor. One is not trying to round the spine in the pose, however you may have a rounded spine as a result of tight hamstrings and this is fine. Just try to avoid pushing upward or rolling the pose forward into the shoulders. You want a shoulder to hip elongated direction of movement. If you are excessively tight in the shoulders then a downward emphasis or feeling of the breastbone towards the floor makes sense. But, most often I see overly flexible people adding too much emphasis here; thus hanging out in the joints and never shifting awareness into the sacrum or enough concentrated weight into and thru the heels.
You may want to experiment from time to time within the pose. Try undulating the spine to see what freedom is available there. Try bringing awareness, sensation and movement to the area between the floating ribs and the top of the hipbones, pushing back thru the sit bones. Also, try shifting the hips from side-to-side to release tension. Soften the left knee while pressing back thru the right hip and vice-versa, just moving around to loosen up a bit. Bend both knees to release back and hamstring tension. Come up on the balls of your feet then lower the heels (incrementally and carefully) easing out the hamstrings, Achilles and shin muscles. Even swivel your heels from side to side returning to your most available version of parallel feet. Quadricep work such as lunges and Virasana will help your down dog relax and take shape over time. Forward bends, both standing and seated, will improve your pose as will squats for shins and Achilles. It goes on and on.
What is beautiful is to see how within one asana the holistic nature of yoga reveals itself. The down dog is a perfect example with an entire world to explore. No stupid pet tricks are actually necessary. I think that if you train your dog with love and attention, patience and care there will be no more struggles with good dogs and bad dogs. And one day when asked that dog will just lie down.