Yoga Foundations: Down Dog & Up Dog
By: Anna Hummer, RYT 200, Teacher at The Yoga Movement
The practice of yoga is a challenging one. It requires strength and flexibility in both body and mind. The body will refuse to do something if the mind believes it can’t. It truly is an exercise in mind over matter. Many of the postures ask the body to do things it was not designed to do. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, aka Upward Facing Dog, and Adho Mukha Svanasana, aka Downward Facing Dog, are just two examples.
Anatomically, the foot is designed to bear weight. The tarsals, dense weight bearing bones of the heel, and the metatarsals, the bones on top of your foot, comprise 4/5ths of the foot’s total length. While the phalangeal structures, or toes, make up the other 1/5th. Contrast this ratio with that of the hand. The highly mobile phalanges, or fingers, make up half the length of the hand. Combined with the metacarpals, the comparatively more flexible bones on top, they span 4/5ths of the hand’s total length. The relatively immobile carpals, or wrist bones, contribute only 1/5th to the total length.
Discomfort in these two poses is commonly felt in the wrists and low back. Proper alignment can mitigate pain by redistributing the weight more evenly.
Common Misalignments in Upward Facing Dog
- Hips too far back: Hips behind the wrists creates a more dramatic curve in the lumbar spine which can lead to low back pain. It also requires more work from the arms and shoulders since they are at an angle rather than benefiting from the structural integrity of stacking the bones. Whether approaching Upward Facing Dog from Chaturanga or the floor, focus on pulling your hands back to slide the hips forward to the wrists, stacking the arm bones, and bringing the wrists directly beneath the shoulders.
- Shoulder shrugged up to ears: this creates unnecessary tension and takes away from the arms and shoulders receiving the full benefit of the pose. Press firmly through your hands, especially the fingers, to lift your head and neck out of the shoulders. Squeeze the shoulder blades together, giving your spine a hug, and roll them down your back.
- Squeezing the gluteus: The glutes are not required in this pose and squeezing them can cause discomfort in the low back. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body and will likely jump in and join all the other active leg muscles. Press all ten toenails into the mat so strongly that the knees lift off the floor. Notice your glutes and release them. Focus on rolling and pressing the pinky toe into the ground to internally rotate the legs and spread the low back.
Common Misalignments in Downward Facing Dog
- Hand/Foot Placement: Hands and feet too far apart/close together can make it difficult to find balance in this resting arm support pose. To measure your dog come into a plank position with wrists directly under shoulders, a straight line from head to heels. Pressing into the hands, bring hips high and descend heels down and out. This is a good standard measurement for Downward Facing Dog. Hands are shoulder width distance apart and feet are hip width.
- Rounding the back: This causes weight to dump into the arms and wrists. Starting from the hands, press each finger firmly into the floor. Moving to the arms, without moving your hands, roll your biceps forward and triceps back to roll the shoulder blades together. Now, push the mat forward to slide your shoulders away from your ears, while reaching the crown of your head towards your hands.
- Heels too high or forced to the floor: When the heels are high, the energy is reaching up the legs rather than down towards the floor. When the heels are forced to the floor the natural curve of the low back is compromised. Instead, come up on tip toes, reach your hips high and push firmly through the hands to create a straight line from hips to hands. Leaving your hips where they are, descend your heels down and out, towards the back corners of your mat. Remember to focus on the direction and not the destination. Reaching the heels but not forcing them.
When the hands are asked to do something not in their nature, like bear weight, it is of the utmost importance that structural integrity is maintained to protect the delicate joints.
How To Turn Hands Into Feet: Come to all fours, wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Concentrating on your fingers, press the base of your knuckle into the floor, one at a time. Next, press each middle knuckle into the floor. Then each top knuckle. Press every finger so firmly into the floor that the skin changes color from lack of blood. Now, lift your palm off the floor so a piece of paper could slide underneath. This amount of activation in the hand mimics the muscular arch of the foot. Instead of dumping their weight into the wrist, the arm bones are pushed back into the shoulder sockets. This requires a lot of work from the forearms and is very difficult at first. Focusing on building strength here will reduce wrist pain and risk of more serious injury. Eventually, Downward Facing Dog becomes a resting pose and Upward Facing Dog is a place to open your heart.
Everybody is different. Yoga is accessible to everyone because the direction of energy in the body is more important than the final destination of individual body parts. Please keep this in mind when applying these adjustments to your own practice.
Anna Hummer (RYT 200)
Teaches Hatha, Tuesdays at 12
The Yoga Movement
4931 Airline Rd
Dallas, TX 75205