Six Benefits of Downward Facing Dog

161017-029xDownward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures around. We do this pose so often because it has so many health benefits. Below I’ve listed 6 good reasons to keep working on your Downward Dog. Also, I’ve included a free Downward Facing Dog Handout describing alignment details, benefits, and modifications.

1. Downward dog opens the backs of the legs

Most of the activities we do during the day (especially sitting) brings tension to the backs of the legs. This is why so many of us walk around with chronically overly tight hamstrings and calf muscles. Downward Facing Dog is an awesome posture for opening the backs of the legs because the stretch crosses three joint lines, thereby promoting lengthening of the posterior facial connections, and making it a really effective stretch.

2. It elongates the spine

The traction you get from planting your feet and then pushing your hands strongly into your mat is one of the best spinal elongation tools the yoga asana practice has to offer. Opening the spaces between the vertebrate helps to relieve compression on the spine and promotes circulation to the discs.

3. It opens the chest and shoulders 

Most of us who sit in a chair all day have chest and shoulder muscles that are overly tight. This comes from the ‘hunched’ position most of us hang out in all day. Downward Facing Dog will help you to re-establish some opening in your chest and stretching of the side body and under arm muscles to increase your shoulder flexion. All of which helps improve your posture.

4. It strengthens the arms and shoulders

This pose is awesome for increasing your arm and shoulder strength. In downward dog we aim to balance the weight between the hands and the feet, and in order to do that, we need to press the hands into the mat and actively engage through the arms. This action shifts the upper body back and encourages a more direct overhead press. This action of pressing overhead strengthens many arm and shoulder muscles, which are often underdeveloped muscles in the body.

5. It wakes you up and boosts circulation

Downward Dog is one of the best poses you can do when you’re fatigued. It engages many muscle groups simultaneously and gets the oxygen and blood flowing to all parts of the body. Downward Facing Dog also offers all the benefits of an inversion without having to fully go upside-down. Inversions are great for returning blood flow to the upper body helping to regulate blood pressure, and in particular bring blood flow to the brain which help brings about clarity and focus.

6. It’s a good check in with your body

Lastly, once you get familiar with your body in Downward Dog, you appreciate how the sensations and effort it requires changes from day to day and moment to moment. Therefore, Downward Dog is a good way to “take inventory” about how you’re feeling. It stretches your arms, shoulders, legs and back all at once, and you can take notice of what you need to work on each day.

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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia

yoga poses for myofascial lines.png

I just love the concept of connectivity in the body. If anatomy is defined as breaking things apart, then reversing anatomy the process of putting the pieces back together, and fascia is the connective tissue responsible for this return to whole.

Fascia is a popular topic these days in the therapeutic sciences and yoga – there are numerous blogs and articles describing what it is. Many are based on the work of anatomist Tom Myers, in his books on Anatomy Trains, with his underlying premise that fascia, as a connective tissue, links individual muscles into functional complexes, sometimes referred as myofascial lines or anatomy trains.

Here is an infographic showing groups of muscles being connected through fascia and other connective tissue to form some of the more commonly discussed functional lines:

Myofascial lines of the body.png

For this article, it is not my intent to delve into the anatomy of fascia, rather to appreciate its role as a connector in the body, and to consider how yoga is perfectly designed to access its connectivity capabilities.

Consider this scenario: a person gets an injury where they experience swelling and acute pain immediately after. Their natural response is to immobilize the area of injury, and while swelling and pain remain high, the individual’s posture and gait will be altered, e.g leaning away from pain, avoidance of pressure, or limping. Most of the time, the  person will gradually restore motion as pain lessens and all is good, but when these splinting or pain avoidance postures get prolonged, the area of injury and the surrounding musculature are negatively impacted as the muscles and connective tissue tighten, loose fluid, and weaken – this has the potential to affect the whole functional system. Consequently, through the connectivity of myofascial lines, a simple ankle injury can work up the chain of tissues causing pain and dysfunction at the knee, hip, back, etc.

Reverse this and consider emotional disturbances in an individual. Imagine what postural changes happen when a person is depressed – their head is usually lowered, shoulders rounded forward, their chest caved in. As Myrthe Wieler writes in her article on Fascia and Yoga, “This postural pattern will start to affect their entire system, including their fascial grid. Think of what part of their fascia is becoming restricted. Their chest cavity is closing in affecting their breathing. It sends a message to the brain … something is happening that is causing the breath to change. Thus the brain chemistry changes. It can start to release stress inducing hormones which further affects mood and stress levels – increasing tension in the body and it’s form.”

So this connectivity through fascia works in both directions… our mind interpreting tension from our body and our body reacting to our mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we work with our bodies, releasing and realigning our fascia, it can have a direct effect on our mind, our behavior and our emotions. This is why I find yoga so effective in helping with system/functional disturbances. By design, yoga’s postures are perfectly arranged for global, multi-joint mobilizations, therefore, poses frequently stretch chronic lines of tension along myofascial lines (see picture above for a few examples). Additionally, because yoga encourages all aspects of the individual to be present moment to moment, it affords the opportunity for emotional change as the postures affect our chemistry from the inside out.

However, as a long time practitioner of yoga, what I appreciate most about yoga’s ability to change and affect the body is how we learn to move and stretch in ways that is directed from internal awareness. Having been through countless courses on anatomy and alignment discussing the do’s and don’t of the human body, what becomes more and more apparent is that rules change, and any good rule has exceptions. So when a student of yoga finally learns how they themselves can find safety in movement by listening to their own edges, or when they realize just the slightest movement to the left gives them that just perfect stretch, they are in essence learning how to connect to and heal their own bodies. And because fascia is like a web branching in any given direction; sometimes the line of stretch matches the above listed myofascial lines, or a specific pose alignment, but sometimes it is something quite different and unique to an individual’s body. So in yoga when we learn to explore our sensations from the inside out and to be creative in our postures this can be the most effective source of change.

I often reflect on a what an amazingly complex and intra-connected system the human body is. It is fascinating to study these connective platforms, like fascia, so we can be reminded how health issues in one part the the body don’t happen in a bubble – there is a whole person to consider. And as yogis, it’s nice to know, that as we develop our yoga practice over time, we shape and shift this scaffolding of tissue known as fascia, which inevitably changes our soft-tissue body, internal chemistry, and thoughts/emotions; and sometimes, in just one pose, we gain insight into our who we were, who we are, and who we are yet to become.

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