Updated: Oct 16, 2020
A student of mine asked me after a particularly challenging class why we do Downward Facing Dog often; “We seem to go back to it quite a lot. Why?” I gave her a broad smile and thanked her for the question before I went forward with my explanation.
Now, I’ll start by telling you what I told her: Downward Facing Dog is an all-around pose, and if you only had a few moments in your day to do yoga, do Downward Facing Dog. It can be very challenging, especially when you have wrist injuries or very tight hamstrings, but there are modifications that make the pose accessible for practically any structural or physiological issue.
Downward Facing Dog is an all-around pose, and if you only had a few moments in your day to do yoga, do Downward Facing Dog.
Let’s break down some of the benefits
Lengthening: The muscles of the back body will necessarily lengthen out in response to the shape, and not just the big muscles; the soles of the feet lengthen as well. On the underside of the body, the pectoral muscles lengthen in response to the position of the arms and activation on the back muscles.
Strengthening: The underside of the body contracts to bring us into the shape of the pose. It’s also very strengthening for the shoulders due to the downward force from the apex of the pose. On the top-side of the body, the trapezius and rhomboids strengthen and contract to prevent the upper chest from collapsing down and hold the shoulders in place.
Cardiopulmonary organs: The heart and lungs get some “weight training” from the semi-inversion. It also deepens awareness of our breath because we’re encouraged to breath deeper and more fully.
Abdominal organs: The organs of the abdominal cavity get a compressive massaging action from the contraction of the abdominal muscles to flex the torso.
Circulatory, Lymphatic and Nervous Systems: The semi-inversion (and occasionally, ¾ full inversion when we lift one leg into three-legged dog) helps improve blood, lymphatic and neural flow throughout their respective systems. Along with the breath, we help improve the efficiency in which the body processes the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. Drainage of toxins through the lymphatic system is also supported by the aid of the semi-inversion. The brain and nervous system gets a challenging workout as we balance the body in an inverted state.
Psycho-emotional benefits: Doing inversions, even a half one, can be confronting because being in an inverted state isn’t a natural, day-to-day postures. This confronting nature of the pose can trigger our stress response, hence the sometimes-intense feeling that we want to come out of it ASAP! But coupled with the breath, we can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and consciously bring ourselves into a relaxed state. This ability to recognise and head-off stress becomes a very useful tool off the mat.
Downward Facing Dog can be challenging for the wrists due to the downward pressure and, sometimes, the flexion. If this instability is present, you can experiment with these:
Come into fists – so that the wrists are stronger and straighter. But this option also has its own stability and alignment issues, so proceed with caution.
Pad your palms and wrists – to elevate them slightly and cushion the wrists.
On the other end of the body, the ankles and hamstrings can also feel unpleasantness if they’re tight and unstable. There is one tried and tested modification for this – BEND THE KNEES & LIFT THE HEELS! The bend doesn’t have to be too deep, just enough to release pressure. Incidentally, bending the knees can also help release pressure from the wrist because of the lower angle of the body. A small bend of the knees to all the way to the floor aka - high Extended Child's Pose are all OK.
So, next time you find yourself in Adho Mukha Svanasana, take advantage of what it offers – a challenge the body and mind by looking at things from a different perspective, figuratively and literally.