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.