by Shelley Piser, Yoga Tune Up Teacher
Teaching yoga for 35 years, I am always excited to discover new clarity in conveying movement (sometimes very abstract movement) to my students so they get it!
Teachers can get stuck in how they express poses and students can get stuck in how they translate directions into their own postures. For a beginning student, yoga is a new language that is translated from mind to body. It may take only a moment or it may take years for them to translate this language through the body and into Yoga asanas.
For a teacher it is a poetic journey to look deeper into what we say, and see, while refining clarity of understanding in order to convey our experience to our students. Many poses get lost in translation and it is up to teachers to see how their students are interpreting the words and expression of the posture that they are teaching.
Downward Facing Dog is one of those misunderstood poses that is practiced and taught possibly more than any other asana in studios all around the world.
In my trainings I learned a number of wonderful tools for preparing my students to understand how to isolate in order to integrate. In Adho Mukha Svanasana, these building blocks are the specifics of externally rotating the upper arms in relationship to the shoulder joints while pronating the wrists to root the hands solidly on the ground. It all starts with stabilizing the shoulders. But it doesn’t end there.
Establishing the root system of the pose leads one to explore this relationship with the rooting also of the legs and feet to the earth. The quadriceps are some of the body’s most powerful muscles. The hamstrings, in Dog Pose, experience dramatic extension as the quadriceps contract, thus lifting the knees upward and moving the head of the femur back – inspiring and completing the rooting of feet and heels to the earth. Once the heels can ground, the lower back, sacrum, and gluteus muscles extend and open.
But how do we get there and why do so many students misunderstand Adho Mukha Svanasana? A common direction is “Move back to your heels,” or “Move your legs back,” so the immediate translation is hands to feet. This misperception leads to jamming the shoulder joint and internal rotation, resulting in shoulder compression and more.
Lost in translation the student perceives nothing else because any further direction just leads them to fall more into the ditch of the shoulder joint causing overextension and possible injury. Students can no longer sense how to move up through the pose. The spine stays dull, the lower back ends up in kyphosis and no energy moves through the legs. The lightness and freedom of this fruitful pose cannot be fully realized without strong roots from the legs into the feet. As the student struggles to bring their heels towards the floor, while pressing straight back from hands to feet, more strain attacks the achilles, shoulders and back.
On the other hand, when the arms stabilize in external rotation the stage is set for the back to begin to move towards extension. The Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, and Erector Spinae elevate upward towards the hips through the side seams of the body, awakening Intercostals (muscles in between your ribs) and hoisting up to the tailbone reaching the apex of the pose to the sky continuing the movement of the hamstrings’ massive extension to finally begin releasing calves, Achilles, and eventually the heels ground into the earth. This in turn gives even greater lightness and an easeful lift to the shoulders, elbows and wrist joints.
We are then receiving the product of a wonderful pose that brings strength, flexibility, and awareness to the entire body internal and external with almost an effortless lightness. By the way, I have short Achilles. I squat every morning and have been for 30 years as a morning routine. My heels are never to the ground, but I am able, with this emphasis, to always get my heels down to the ground.
So folks, another day another dog. My puppy would be proud.
P.S. – For a great relevant video that explains more about shoulder compression in down dog see below.
Shelley Piser has been teaching yoga since 1972. Her teaching and studies have taken her to Australia, Europe, and India. Living, studying and teaching at a Zen Buddhist monastery for a year in Upstate New York, she practiced intensive meditation while teaching yoga to visitors and students. She has completed 3 teacher’s courses, and holds advanced certificates from The Ohashi School of Shiatsu and Jin Shin Jyutsu acupressure. Shelley’s teaching style is inspired by 30 years of extensive study of Hatha yoga in the Iyengar tradition, Zen Buddhism and meditation as well as her deep understanding in the art of Japanese healing.
Thanks for writing instructions most competent teachers already use and slapping a trademark on it. How much is your cut for selling yoga out?
That is so not yogic of you. I mean, the tone of your comment. We know how to communicate better, don’t we?
Dude (or Dudette), what the heck is your problem? That is such a vicious, sniping comment, and is really beneath a well-trained yogi. You might want to re-read the yamas and niyamas and actually apply them to your life. There is enough meanness and backstabbing out in the world, we sure don’t need it in the yoga community.
How about non-stealing and non-greediness? Glad YD took down the Yoga Tune Up TM. Tacky as @#$!
he he… nowadays everybody is illuminated… guess the natural thing to do is fight for the truth, like we’ve done all through the ages…
Awesome info!! Thanks!!
Nice. well stated.. Down dog is NOT easy. I see more injuries (myself included) from a bad down dog.
I forgot about the knees up. excellent reminder. Thanxs!
Rotating the radius seems a bit of an elementary means of externally rotating the shoulders. One have the inability to completely rotate the forearm down does not necessarily mean that they can not externally rotate the shoulder.
Just curious – did this post’s author pay for placement? It reads that way what with the (TM) sprinkled through the random guest post. I like the article overall but am squiggled out by the payola vibe.
No biggie if YD accepts pay for posts as long as the financial relationship is clearly stated. Conversely if YD posts paid articles without disclosure it’s hard to know what words to trust – which is especially relevant given that YD often weighs in on yoga ethics issues. I’d like to read YD’s take on events as a well-informed person’s opinion, not as a marketer’s reprinted words.
Thanks for your respectful inquiry. There is absolutely no paid content here and there never will be (the concept makes me a little barfy). Yoga Tune Up is indeed a sponsor of YD though (you’ll see on the upper right in with other ads) but there is no payment for content placement. The articles are shared for informational and educational purposes the same as the other articles on YogaDork Ed and other contributions, and is not intended to appear as a marketing opportunity. Hope that clears it up and that you find the info useful!
side note: admittedly trademarking can seem icky but in full disclosure yogadork is also trademarked because a little while back someone wanted to use it for a title of a book and we were advised to go that route. so it goes.
I think it’s a great post, sponsored or non-sponsored it provides good information.
If I’m reading this correctly, there seems to be this assumption that if the arms/shoulders and back are right, then this will automatically lead to the right pelvic position while also getting full, “massive” extension of the hamstring (straight legs), leading eventually to the heels grounding.
In my teaching experience, teachers who focus on the straight legs/heels down approach early on end up with students whose arms/shoulders might be right (upper back too), but straightening the legs before the body is ready leads to the wrong pelvic tilt (tailbone pulled under with rounding of the lower back) which yanks on the lower back and eventually causes pain, as it does not allow for the appropriate opening in the muscles surrounding the pelvis or support in the lower back.
Likewise, many people’s hamstrings, as well as hips and lower back are incredibly tight, so working from pelvic tilt as a part of this equation can help facilitate this opening in a consistent, easy-to-feel way.
As such, I have discovered that by teaching students to do this posture with knees bent until the pelvis and lower back open properly (which has a lot of sister-poses to facilitate this process such as really working cat stretches to understand the full range of motion through those muscle groups around the pelvis and how they work together), that over time the hamstrings also release and then you end up with straight legs, and then eventually heels down — without ever compromising the pelvis and lower back.
Admittedly, I don’t know what is taught in most teacher trainings these days. All of this was taught in my training, and all of my new students are taught how to safely and effectively do this posture from day one (well, it might be day two if they come to gentle class first!). And, I also teach it to the teachers whom I have trained.
But, I do see a lot of experienced (1-3 years of practice) students coming to the studio who have really misaligned downward dogs. So, I do question what their teachers were taught in their teacher trainings.
More often than not, though, I think that the teachers know intellectually, but may not know how to identify it in another body (not enough time spent observing before teaching, likely), nor how it feels in their body per se (teaching methodology skills — translating feeling in the body to verbal descriptions), nor how to modify effectively for diverse students, nor how to assist the posture so that students get a better feel for the alignment of the posture (which may or may not include hands on assisting).
Also, I think it has to do with what people value in their teaching. For me, just about everything seems to come out of the pelvis, so I teach from aligning the pelvis first, and then moving outwards from there with properly aligned modifications based on the mobility of the client. I also blend modern movement science with traditional yoga forms (using krishnamacharya lineage). Perhaps that’s “non-yogic” or something, but I do it anyway because it creates good results for the students.
I think it’s entirely possible for someone to choose another area to value (so straight legs here wouldn’t inherently be off the table), so long as it provides the desired, healthy results for the clients.
I’m with you Jennifer. The pelvic tilt=flat back with bent knees gets to the essence of the pose more than wrap the shoulders and straighten the legs. The latter almost always leads to compressed low backs, locked upper traps, and hyper extended elbows. “Isolate in order to integrate” is largely a myth. All this isolating is rarely leading to integration and the pose just becomes a juggle of details. However, the biggest problem with this post is that there is no mention of how breath informs the alignment of the pose. You can learn to execute classical downdog alignment just like Mr. Iyengar does in his book and still be straining and hurting yourself. Alignment alone does not a pose make.
True. There’s a hint of it in this description (quoted below for MikeG) in the mention of the intercostals . . . but no mention of the breathing in it per se, which I think really opens a lot of understanding in the posture.
When instructing in detail (perhaps isolating? 😉 ), I tend to focus on inhaling and exhaling movments as we slowly build into downward dog as an aspect of being able to find the right physical/anatomical cures (mental-anatomical connections) with the breath.
If that makes any sense. 🙂
The article says “when the arms stabilize in external rotation the stage is set for the back to begin to move towards extension”.
There is nothing in the article which claims shoulder rotation “will automatically lead to the right pelvic position” as you incorrectly claim it does.
Says it here: “On the other hand, when the arms stabilize in external rotation the stage is set for the back to begin to move towards extension. The Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, and Erector Spinae elevate upward towards the hips through the side seams of the body, awakening Intercostals (muscles in between your ribs) and hoisting up to the tailbone reaching the apex of the pose to the sky continuing the movement of the hamstrings’ massive extension to finally begin releasing calves, Achilles, and eventually the heels ground into the earth. ”
You just stopped reading at the wrong point. 😉
You have missed the essence of this article. It is called “Lost in Translation” for a reason. The point is that most students jam the shoulders with the perception of having to move “back” to the legs which will only stop any POTENTIAl elongation up into the spine, and the tilt of the hips and then moving into the legs.
All postures are works in progress. Lighten up on micro-managing a message that is meant to assist a shift in perception of where direction of movement is often mis-misunderstood.
I suggest you reread your response to me again, Shelley.
In it, you question my ability to understand your writings and assert that I am victimizing you (micromanaging).
Both accusations are false.
I was simply responding to an aspect of the description of the posture that I observe to be potentially detrimental to students.
This has two goals:
1. to open dialogue about the posture since the article appears to be designed to pen the door to looking at downward dog from a different POVs; and
2. to provide the same “essence” of shifting our perceptions and understandings of what is valuable in this posture in terms of reaching diverse clients and the underlying structural needs to get the results that downward dog creates.
Is that not the desired intention of writing a blog on an interesting topic providing a ‘new-to-some’ POV where the comments are open?
Of Course Jenifer, My point is that if one does as the article suggests the response to the whole body will give the potential of movement and freedom (alignment and lightness). Setting up the foundation and perceiving the direction of movement and energy upward, backward and downward. Yes, students have obvious limitations, that will not allow the maximum response, but at least they will be moving in the direction that will take them there rather than continue to move in a way that brings the opposite response and greater limitation and possible injury. Clarity is important. This is not an article on anatomy as much as it is on intention and perception of movement.
I read your posting and was jeoauls
I found this extremely helpful! Thanks!
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Ugh. Little bothers me more in the yoga community than teachers who learn a few tidbits of anatomical principle, take them wildly out of context, then stand in front of a skeleton and decide they’ve suddenly become a kinesiologist.
First off, it’s not actually Shelley’s article I’m reacting to, which I thought was fine for the most part–though like other commenters here, I see her advice as a reflection of her preferences and priorities as a teacher, not as any indication of anatomical “fact.”
But Jill’s video is just flat out wrong. As the arm moves from neutral, to reaching forward, to reaching overhead, its functional range for external rotation changes dramatically. Using the arm reaching forward as any kind of “test” for what the shoulder can do in downward dog, when it is reaching overhead, is just junk.
Look at the way she has her guinea pigs position their arms: reaching forward, elbows “locked” pointing DOWN. Then she has them pronate the forearm, and says, basically, if you can’t fully pronate to a flat hand, down dog is not safe for your shoulders. But if someone tried to hold that degree of external rotation as they extended arms overheard for down dog, their elbows would be pointing BACK in the pose, which is, for the vast majority of bodies, not only impossible, but likely to create exactly the kind of shoulder compression she claims to be avoiding.
Look at any teacher you admire in down dog. Look at the model at the top of the page. Heck, look at JILL in down dog. The elbows don’t point backward. Because with arms reaching overhead in down dog, they can’t. But by anchoring the hand at its foundation on the mat, then externally rotating the upper arm bone to the extent that the shoulder is able, the tissues have the potential wrap and stabilize the joint. Is it possible that an inability to pronate the forearm could impede the ability of the shoulder to externally rotate? Sure, but Jill’s “test” doesn’t measure that in any useful way. Do the shoulders need to externally rotate to the degree that Jill encourages in her test to provide a stable down dog? Absolutely not. In fact, if someone had a glenohumeral joint with that much mobility in overhead extension, I would argue that the joint could be so inherently unstable as to make down dog a very risky and cautious space, rather than a total green light.
Using a bogus test to tell that guy that down dog is “illegal” for his body is crap. I’m not saying it’s a healthy space for his body, but nothing she showed in her video tells me it should be off-limits for him or anyone like him.
Also, her made-up solution of “Dolphin Supinate” is equally ridiculous. With the elbows flexed on the ground, supinating the forearm has no relationship to the degree of external rotation at the shoulder. None. It’s just nonsense.
I’ll be upfront: I’ve never met Jill, and it’s nothing personal. But I just read her bio and someone who claims that she and “her media” are reaching 500,000 people should hold herself to a higher standard if she’s endeavoring to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies.
–An Actual Kinesiologist
I didn’t bother to watch the video, assuming i’d see some errors.
I was really blessed that the teacher who apprenticed me was not only 25 years experienced in teaching yoga, but also a kinesiologist. I don’t have the depth of knowledge that she does (or an actual kinesiologist of any kind), but it certainly is helpful in keeping people safe to know the basics. 🙂
Thanks for pointing this out and giving good description to it.
Dear Actual Kinesiologist,
with your incredible level of understanding of human kinesiology,it is impossible to ”miss” that you refer to overhead arm reach as ”extension.”
I am not sure which kinesiology school you have been to,but shoulder extension refers to arm movement when the joint is opening,such as in Setu Bandha.
When you reach your arm over your headthe joint is closing and it is referred to as FLEXION.Please remember next time you try to educate others.
Happy to oblige. Simply trying keep the language I use as simple and pedestrian as possible for this site and the general public. Go into a yoga class and tell a bunch of people to “flex their arms overhead.” I’ll bet vast majority of them will not do the gesture you describe. However, when I tell them to “extend their arms overhead,” they nail it every time. Do you have anything to add about the points I actually made, or just a pedantic jab at the terminology used?
Just curious as to what this variation would do to someone with hyper mobile joints?
I’m not clear about your question:
-Which variations are you asking about? The down dog in the original post? The “dolphin supinate”?
-In which joints are you concerned about hypermobility? Elbows, because they are basically hinge joints, tend to exhibit hypermobility in a rather uniform way. Shoulder joints, because they are ball and socket joints, and because they are naturally the most mobile joints in the body, can have much more complicated patterns of hypermobility.
Hypermobility is also sometimes simply referred to as shoulder instability, but that is misleading and incorrect. Hypermobility and instability are separate issues that only sometimes coexist. Hypermobility describes range of motion beyond what is considered “normal.” Instability describes a relationship between joint tissues which causes excess friction and stress, usually resulting in chronic pain or injury. A shoulder can be hypermobile and stable throughout its range, or it can be hypermobile and unstable in certain ranges, or it can have normal mobility but still be unstable.
In my experience, yoga teachers love to pick on the appearance of hypermobility, which they can see from the outside. But the real risk is instability, which is on the inside, not the outside. And it is true that joint hypermobility does often come with an increased risk of instability, but this is not always the case–many students may be hypermobile while maintaining great congruency and stability in the joints, and enjoying a pain-free range of motion.
I would encourage anyone in down dog or any overhead reaching actions (and especially people with hypermobile shoulders, because of the increased risk) to listen to their body carefully for pain, soreness, decreased range, and especially any sensation of clicking or “locking” within the joint, all of which are symptoms of possible instability. But if you know you have hypermobility and your practice has been consistently pain-free and enjoyable, I would not necessarily encourage any changes in your behavior just because your joint looks “different” from the outside.
Great post, adho mukha svanasana like each asana should be looked at with fresh eyes each iMessage we step on the mat, thank you for reminding me. Loves.
As a pretty new yoga student, this article was incredibly helpful in explaining what this external rotation thing is. My teacher has given me adjustment (often!) but I wan’t really able to understand what she was trying to have me do. I guess this is the Lost in Translation aspect of describing yoga poses with words.
Thanks for making sense of it. Now I have to translate it to my body!
Does anybody know how to unsubscribe from these comments? It’s too much.
Thank you for sharing your insights about Downward Facing Dog Pose. Just a few things:
First, the picture depicts a student nearly in Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Fold Pose), not Down Dog; note how her legs are nearly vertical. Her feet should be at least 6 inches farther back, or farther; with that positioning she will more easily elongate her spine.
Second, it’s important to build asanas from their foundation, in the case the hands and feet. Yes, one wants a pronating energetic action in the forearms (not the wrists) to bring balanced pressure into the hands from which the wrists will have more balanced pressure. Then pressing firmly and equally into the hands, one will automatically stimulate length through the arms and shoulders, causing the shoulders to creep in around the neck; indeed, externally rotate the shoulders!
Third, one should cultivate pada bandha in the feet to bring balanced awakening to the feet, awaken the arches and help internally rotate the femurs, all the while firming the quadriceps so that the hamstrings more easily release (they are not “extending”) in keeping with the kinesiological theory of reciprocal innervation (it’s not just a theory – it works that way!).
Fourth, rather than collapsing into the shoulders in an attempt to press the chest toward the thighs, it’s ideal to stabilize the shoulders in moving toward 180-degrees of shoulder flexion while creating a relatively straight line from the wrists through the elbows and shoulders to the hips.
Fifth, one should press the tops of the thighs strongly back to draw more length through the spine, all the while keeping the breath steady, the eyes soft, and the gaze focused.
I simply teach the shoulder rotation while supported in a yoga swing. That allows the student some time to realize the external rotation of the humerus and internal rotation of the radius. It also allows the dynamic of anchoring the hands and then extending back through the heart center then up through the pelvis without exhausting the student and watching them collapse into the shoulder and risk injury. But that’s just what I do. If I am wrong, I am certainly open to augmenting my knowledge.
I enjoyed this aspect of DD. In reading the comments, I’m struck by the fact that some missed the intention of your offering – i.e. specifically addressing a shoulder issue. There are a million and one things to do or be cognizant of in every asana and in most classes you don’t have opportunity to teach every little nuance, while that would be ideal. That is why yoga and yoga teaching are life long practices – everyone has a new insight to offer and we should all be receptive to the ideas and education of others. One of my TT instructors always said “beware of dogma” it is what kills your practice and passion plus leads to injury. There is no 100% right way to do something, every body is different – different genetic makeup, different body conditioning, different mental capability, etc. So we take the knowledge of others and apply it to the needs of the individual student – not blast someone for not doing it “your” way. This is what makes a good teacher – the ability to see the struggle in someone’s practice and give them the guidance they can understand in that moment. Every practice is different – that’s why yoga is always a beginner mind. So I thank you for this offering, it informs my teaching in a different way and gives me something to share with a student that may particularly struggle in this area of their body, you give a useful tool. Namaste.
Thank you! It is also a focus on the pose as a whole and how to get there and one’s perception along with the tools that can lead one in that direction.
I appreciate your “yoga mind”
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As a humble yoga student I am now truly lost (in translation). With all this flexing, rotating, extending und releasing I haven’t the faintest idea what you are on about. And when y’all start arguing the finer points of rotating this and building the base from that, you lose me completely.
It all sounds so (pseudo)scientific. Who even knows what is “correct”?
In dancing or gymnastics you go by what works and looks good. How a person gets there is ultimately unimportant. But you seem to be making the point that there really is only one way (and then you argue about which it is).
Do you really feel your students will understand what you are asking them to do?
“moving the head of the femur back”
Just an example: The head of the femur sits snugly in its socket. How can it move back?!
When you practice for years with great teachers who have practiced for years, it is an art form.
From your own practice You will experience these movements happening in your body, your pose. It is somewhat abstract to describe what is happening in the body/pose, and that is what we try to convey as teachers.
It may not be your way or your experience, it is mine, and I choose to express my findings to hopefully bring more common sense clarity to a very mis-understood posture.
If people want to pick it apart, so be it. I hope others were not lost in my translation.
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