Imagine a tired dog at the end of a long walk. The dog will probably stretch, Pushing his back legs towards the sky, the dog slowly stretches every muscle in his back and front legs. The movements are usually slow and deliberate; the dog is voluptuously enjoying the movements and the expanse of muscle tissue. Properly executed, the Downward Facing Dog pose allows the yogi or yogini to reap the same relaxation.
Yoga uses the Sanskrit names of poses to honor those who have practiced before and those who so generously took the time to develop the practice. In Sanskrit, “asana” means “pose.” There are two poses that invoke a dog’s movement, both of which are called “Svanasana”. In a more challenging pose, the body faces upwards; in this, a more basic posture, the body faces in the other direction; thus, “Adho Mukha Svanasana” directly translates into ‘downward facing dog pose.’
As this posture is an integral part of Sun Salutations, which are used repeatedly in vinyasas (a linked series of poses), it is important to take the time to learn the different movements and to work towards better alignment while in the pose. One usually starts on one’s hands and knees. The hands should be placed under the shoulders, with the middle finger pointed towards the front of the mat. The knees should be directly under the hips. (Ladies, take note: one’s hips are not as wide as one usually thinks they are!) Curling the toes, the yogi or yogini bends the legs and raises the hips and buttocks high into the air.
At first, the legs should remain bent at the knee; this allows the back to stretch out. Body weight is centered between the hands and feet, with the palms gripping the sticky mat. The shoulders should be plugged into the shoulder sockets, allowing the back to stretch without too much bend. The legs are then slowly straightened, and the heels reach down towards the mat.
An advanced, flexible yogi might demonstrate feet flat on the floor, straight legs, and high hips. For most practitioners, this is a destination, with daily practice being somewhat less lofty. It often helps to pedal the feet, bending and straightening each leg in turn. This allows the legs to begin to straighten without forcing the stretch.
Once in the pose, the practitioner should focus on even breathing, with the inhale and exhale of the same length. This will both cue the muscles and body to relax, and also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will add to the relaxation. Within an A series Sun Salutation, the pose is held for five breaths. Practiced on its own, the pose can be held for a longer amount of time. To move out of the pose, one either steps forward into Uttanasana, or Forward Bend, or bends the knees to move into Balasana, or Child’s Pose.
A variation of this pose, nicknamed “Puppy Dog”, can be done anywhere there is a wall or flat surface at hip length or lower. Place the hands on the wall or flat surface, bend the knees, and push the body back into a less athletic version of the pose, keeping the shoulders pulled into their sockets.