Do I start every post with the phrase "there are many ways to do the same pose"? Well, it might be boring but it is true.
Remember that I offer suggestions on a particular way to try poses because I believe they offer a way to bring freedom but they are not the only way to practice.
This week I want to offer a way to think about downward dog that I suggest you explore in my classes. Rather than go into fine details about the entire pose, I am going to focus on a specific part of the pose--what you are doing around the ribs, chest and armpit area.
I will also show you a variation that you can practice at the wall to create more freedom around the upper back and armpit area.
This variation will especially help those of you who feel your arms are 'too short' to come into pincha mayurasana or whose arms are too weak to help you into urdhva dhanurasana.
In my experience, it is not limb length or strength that makes those poses difficult but tightness around the outer armpits that prevents you from taking the arms overhead with a free spine; which is precisely what you want to practice in a pose like downward facing dog.
If you just want the technical stuff then skip this bit. You might have guessed that I am one of those people who LOVE reading the author's footnotes and endnotes, often more than the main text. So, I'd like to meander a bit here to share with you how the idea for this post emerged.
A few weeks ago an inquiring student asked me why she another yoga teacher came and pushed her chest to the ground in downward dog when I was suggesting in my class that she gently soften the ribs towards the spine. Obviously that was confusing since we seemed to be suggesting the opposite movements!
My first advice to her was to ask why the other teacher might be doing that, as teachers always have a reason and will be able to tell you their reasons.
My second words were that while I might be suggesting something else it does not mean one way is wrong or right, but that they are different and she needed to explore for herself what felt better at a particular point in time (bearing in mind our bodies are always changing).
These are really important messages. Ask why and then explore what feels right. Seeing this attitude in students always makes me happy. You don't come to yoga to make me happy, obviously, but I am altruistically happy in this regard because I know that with an inquiring, exploring attitude you will eventually find your own way to freedom.
While I was chatting to her about this it also reminded me of another student who, many years ago, asked me to teach the class exactly how to do downward dog because he had read somewhere that if you can master downward dog then you have mastered yoga. As a relatively novice teacher I mistakenly believed there was only one downward dog (of course it was the one I had learned!). I wouldn't say I am wiser but I now know better.
Having said that my downward dog is still pretty much the same as it was then, mainly because I had the same genius teacher back then that I have now (Paddy McGrath if you haven't googled her yet then please do).
You don't have to get all theoretical about yoga but it can help your practice if you have an idea about what you might be doing in a pose.
My purpose is always to look for freedom in the spine. I have invented a new adjective to describe this way of freeing your spine--'spongify'.
In all of my poses I try to feel like my spine is a sponge so that at any time I could squeeze it in any place and it would be soft and spongey. And if I came up to you while practicing and tried to 'grab' a piece of your spine (which my students will have experienced) it would feel spongey and not hard.
It is a beautiful experience to have this spongey spine and you will not get it if you stretch too much or tense too hard, so bear this in mind.
Physiologically, when you can let your spine be free you will enhance the flow of energy and information through it.
Aside from cultivating freedom in your free spine, you can also try to create length in your outer armpit muscles by practicing the way I suggest. This will help you take your arms overhead without projecting your ribs forward so that the spine stays long rather than compressing in poses like urdhva dhanurasana and pincha mayurasana (or any pose where you need to take your elbows near your ears).
What to do with the chest in downward facing dog?
Because a lot of people think yoga is about stretching, and perhaps because many yoga journals and articles tend to print pictures of very flexible people, you might think that pushing the chest through towards the ground is what you should do with it in downward facing dog.
It is not wrong to push the chest through, sometimes I do this briefly myself and it usually gets a crack or two out of the thoracic vertebrae. But, for me, if I hold myself in the pose like that it just feels like squashing the back of my spine and jamming up my shoulders.
What feels better is if I gently soften my ribs towards my spine--as though they are floating towards the ceiling.
The key is not to push the ribs back or you will go too far the other way--instead of shoving the chest through you end up shoving them back.
As in most things the middle way often bears the most delicious fruit.
What I suggest you look for is a place where you can wave the spine around. You will see me doing a lot of that in the video.
With a free and spongey spine see if you can think about pressing the armpits downwards and inwards as though they are trying to move towards your inner thighs.
This firms the armpits in a lengthened position and will help cultivate strength and flexibility that will help you in other postures where you need to take your arms overhead.
To get a free and spongey spine you might need to make a few adjustments to your downward facing dog. Some of the most common ones you can try are:
- bend the knees a little and worry less about getting the legs straight. This is especially if the back of your legs are really tight.
- take your arms a bit wider than shoulder width. Sometimes this can help if you are already really tight in the armpit or across the upper back.
Downward dog is a pose that gets repeated a lot in yoga classes. For me each downward dog is a great opportunity to to give my spine a good wiggle. Actually, I wiggle my spine in each and every pose but this is a semi-inverted pose that helps it wiggle in a different way.
To get your spine waving, see if you can find a way to soften your ribs towards your spine. Then, to help create strength and flexibility in the armpits to better backbends and inversions (by better I mean spine-freeing) practice pressing the armpits down.
Remember, if it doesn't feel good then it probably isn't. And don't be afraid to ask your teacher to give you a hand.
May your practice be peaceful, safe, and joyous!