By Kate Burne, a Semperviva Yoga Teacher Training student @kate_burne
A weekend workshop with Master Teacher Nicki Doane recently turned my Downward Facing Dog (Adho mukha śvānāsana) completely upside down. (Which is a strange concept in itself. Would that be right side up? But I digress.)
Any yogi will tell you that this seemingly innocent pose carries an epic amount of ‘stuff’. Once we’ve considered everything going on in our physical body; hand placement, foot alignment, dropping the shoulders, lengthening the spine, tucking the tailbone, feet together or apart, knees bent or straight, (and the list could go on) – after all of that, we’re told this is our relaxing pose. That we should be relaxing here and hearing the waves of the ocean through our Ujjayi breath. In reality, most of us are left wondering how much longer we’re going to hold this for, and whether we should have just taken the invitation of child’s pose when it was offered.
And just when you think you’ve got it, you’ve managed to find a (somewhat) comfortable pose and an (almost) natural breath, your world is turned upside down by a cue from the teacher that seems decisively like an either-or situation, if not physically impossible. But alignment and cueing aside, there are a few things that are always worth reminding yourself every time you hear the words, “push back to downward facing dog”:
Yep, I went there. It may sound like a very philosophical, “yogi” thing to say, but it bears repeating because it’s true. While there are some very general alignments that may work for most people, at the end of the day your body simply may not be designed that way. Short torso, long limbs, tight hamstrings, strong shoulders, all of this down to literally how your bones join together comes into play when attempting even the most seemingly “easy” poses.
Highly unlikely that you’re not breathing at all, but are you breathing enough? The significance of breath in yoga cannot be overstated. On a psychological level, concentrating on your breath gives your mind something to focus on while you’re asking your body to make some pretty weird shapes (let’s be frank!). So that rather than making grocery lists in your head you’re coming back to your body and are fully present with your current physical experience.
On that note, on a physical level, not only do your muscles literally need fresh oxygen to perform the tasks you’re asking them to do, but long, slow, even breaths send a direct message to your parasympathetic nervous system that you’re ok. That you’re not under threat and that your body can relax and soften. So the simple act of deep inhales and exhales will actually help you get deeper into any pose, not to mention improving the experience while you’re there.
At the end of the day, downward facing dog is intended to be a restful pose, and it’s always worth reminding yourself that there’s nothing restful or relaxing about your whole body shaking uncontrollably. Even if not offered up by the teacher, child’s pose is always right there if you simply have the courage to drop your knees to the ground and breath.
Downward facing dog is arguably one of the most common poses (asanas) in our physical yoga practice today. As a student you’re likely to confront it multiple times in just one class, so making friends with the pose and having a curious and experimental attitude towards it is essential. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks not because the dog is old, but because it is unwilling to try. It is never too late, and we are never too anything to learn. We are only too stubborn and unwilling to try something new.