The vagus nerve plays a central role in your emotional and physical health. The vagus nerve travels from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Therefore, any yoga practices that stimulate these areas of the body can improve the tone of the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve has a regulating effect on your body and mind, helping you regain balance if you are either ramped-up with anxiety or shut down with pain or fatigue.
You can learn how to regulate the functioning of your vagus nerve with these yoga techniques:
2. Body scan with progressive muscle relaxation – doing a scan of your body to identify where you are holding tension and then consciously releasing those areas of tension. (When short of time, focusing on releasing the tension around the eyes, face, jaw, and tops of the shoulder is especially helpful in to improve vagal tone). Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation – YouTube
3. Practicing yoga postures that open across your chest and throat – Examples: cow pose, shoulder extension stretch, sphynx pose, fish pose (active or supported)
4. Poses that release or stimulate the belly – Examples: cobra pose, prone lying over cushion, child’s pose with folded blanket connect to abdomen, back extension over bolster
5. Loving kindness meditation – this meditation helps to establish feelings of positive emotion and connection with others, as part of the social engagement properties of the vagus Loving Kindness Mediation – YouTube
This iconic yoga pose is not as easy as the yogi’s make it look. There are plenty of reasons why your beginner yoga body may not adopt this pose so quickly. When I first started yoga, I recall the feeling of effort and struggle in downward dog (DD), and I dreaded it each class. For me, it was the tightness in my shoulders and posterior leg muscles, and lack of awareness on how to properly engage my muscles and modify in this pose, which caused the strain. It took me a few years before I found comfort in DD, and looking back, it was a combination of experiences, awareness, and practices which helped me. So for those of you struggling with DD, here are five tips which might help you progress in this pose:
Tip 1 – Know how you look in the pose
I realize part of the challenge is that some of us aren’t aware of what we are doing in DD, and we have no idea that our alignment is creating an inefficiency. The picture below (left) shows the most typical alignment I see in beginners, or in students who get stuck due to the lack of range of motion (ROM) in their shoulders, hips, and legs. Typically, the back is rounded, the shoulders have not reached full flexion, and the head is in front of the shoulder line. The picture on the right utilizes alignment arrows to highlight how the upper body is shifted forward from the triangular frame.
Now I am the first to preach that we don’t want to get too caught up in “perfect alignment” since it can make us lose sight of our body’s safety and comfort for the sake of outward appearances. However, in the case of DD, learning what you look like in the pose can tell you a lot about how to direct your efforts for more comfort. It is well worth your while to take a look in the mirror, or even better, take a picture of yourself in the pose, and if your DD looks anything like the picture above, please keep reading the next few tips to establish greater ease and comfort in this pose.
Tip 2 – Check your shoulder ROM
In order to create the straight line of the upper body in DD, it requires full ROM in the shoulder flexion. It’s good to first know if you are restricted in shoulder flexion, and you can assess this by simply reaching your arms overhead (without letting your back arch) and noting if you can get your upper arm in line with your ears. It makes sense that if you can’t do it standing then you won’t be too successful in DD. Below, the picture on the left shows standing flexion with restricted ROM and picture on right shows full ROM.
If you find your shoulders are tight, you may need a little extra practice stretching into this motion, and a convenient way to do this is to do puppy pose (picture below), where you can deepen your shoulder flexion. This pose serves as a great warm up for DD as well.
Also, for tight shoulders, the spacing position of our hands in DD should be noted. When kneeling on all fours (table top pose), before entering DD, ensure that you position your hands forward from the shoulder line. You can also play around with the distance between the hands; try placing them slightly wider than shoulder width if that provides you with more comfort and ROM.
Tip 3 – Let go of perfectly straight legs and heels down
If you have tight hamstrings and calves, it is going to be very difficult for you to get straight legs and heels down. If you fight against this tightness, it means something else will need to give in the alignment, and often the back gets rounded and the body’s alignment shifts forward to compensate. I strongly suggest letting go of the goal to have straight legs and flat feet. Instead, bend the knees and keep the heels lifted. Put your focus more on tilting the sit bones of the bottom up and lengthening through the spine. In fact, I advise always mastering the bent-knee down dog first, and then progressing towards straightening the legs and later to the heels. Some people need to stay with the bent-knee DD their whole lives, and that’s okay!
A side note about the legs in DD, sometimes it’s nice to use this posture as a purposeful way to stretch the calves, and when this is our intention, give yourself permission to focus on that area and let worries about alignment go.
Tip 4 – Learn the shift
Ultimately, in order to create the most energy efficient DD, we want the weight between the hands and feet to be even. However, for many of us, all the weight is through the arms and shoulders because our upper body alignment is positioned too far forward. What we need to balance this out is to learn to engage the upper body—press through the hands, lengthen through the arms and spine, and create a shift of our upper body back (aiming to move the rib cage more towards the upper thighs). Have a look at this shift demonstrated with a chair version of DD below (the chair version is a nice way to first learn the shift; however, just make sure you anchor your chair so that it doesn’t slide). Also, note, this shift back with the torso does require a decent amount of shoulder strength, and this may need to develop overtime.
Note, some people are hyper mobile in shoulders, and if this is you, it’s important to be conservative in the shift back and more important to engage the muscles about the shoulder girdle and core to prevent excessive shoulder flexion and spinal extension. Again, this is where having a picture of yourself helps to draw awareness of what your body is doing.
Tip 5 – Note head alignment
Don’t forget the neck is part of the spine. Our goal is to keep length and neutrality through the entire length of the spine, and some people leave the head hanging down (see poor head alignment below in picture on the left, and good head alignment in picture on the right). It helps to come back to the shoulder flexion of the upper arms being in line with the ears, and our gaze should be towards the feet.
Hopefully some of these tips are useful in helping you create more comfort and ease in DD. It’s certainly worth your while if you plan to do yoga regularly—this classic pose is sure to keep showing up in your classes!
Many of you who practice yoga regularly will be familiar with Boat Pose (Navasana) and have probably come to think of it as a core strengthening posture. This is definitely true, but it’s strengthening benefits are more than just the front abdominal muscles. Boat Pose is also an excellent choice for the deep stabilizers of the back and the hip flexors.
When practiced with attention to posture, boat pose demands activation of the deep stability muscles – specifically the erector spinae muscles of the back. The erector spinae muscles are a group of paired muscles and tendons which run the length of the spine alongside the vertebral column, and when working together they extend the spine and help to maintain erect posture and stability to the spine. When these muscle get more active and strengthened in your poses, it assists maintaining better posture in everyday activities, and is often under valued.
In order to get the benefit of strengthening the back stabilizers from boat pose, start with the intention of good posture and move gradually into the pose without losing this intention. It can be very easy to get rounded in the back in boat pose, so as you first sit, generate an upward lift coming from the breast bone (the sternum) and feel a lengthening through your spine. Then feel the core engage around this posture and slowly lean into the various versions of this pose (below).
Option one: lean back with the spine straightened keeping the feet on the ground.
Option two: progress to lifting the feet off the floor, while maintain the straight back posture. If you find yourself starting to slouch, go back to the first option.
Boat Pose is also a very effective pose to strengthen the hip flexor muscles. Many of us could benefit from hip flexor strengthening but don’t even realize it. The hip flexors (psoas, ilacus, rectus femoris) are nortorius for being over tight and contracted in many people and consequently can cause posture issues (e.g. hyper lordosis) and back pain due to its attachment to lumbar spine. However, for some of us, it can be the opposite—over lengthened and/or weak hip flexors, which is often paralleled by tight hamstring muscles. When this is the case, boat pose is an excellent strengthening choice. Moreover, a lot of people don’t realized that a tight muscle can also be a weak muscle. So if you’ve been told you have tight hip flexors, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are strong.
To test for hip flexion weakness: sit and bend one knee, other leg extended out. Hold your knee and lean back with good posture. Then try to lift the straight leg off the ground. If this is challenging this could be showing you that your hip flexors are weak or that your hamstrings are very tight, limiting your hip flexion. Either way, boat pose could be a good choice for you.
This single leg version of boat pose increases the challenge of the hip flexors (including rectus femoris), and it help build the strength and flexibility for the double leg version.
When finally attempting the full version of boat pose, being well warmed up and doing some hamstring stretching in advance can help with overcoming any tension in the hamstrings. Remember, to keep the spine elongated and, in this way, you will benefit through the back, hips, and the core.
As we near spring some of my friends and yoga clients who love bike riding look forward to another season of getting outdoors. Cycling is excellent fitness; it can significantly improve cardiovascular health and develop leg strength. For those of you who ride often and enjoy longer distances, there is the concern, however, of developing tension in the back, hip, and leg muscles from the static forward leaning and hip-flexed posture. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful in bringing the body’s balance back. A routine that focuses on opening the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, can ease this tension.
YOGA SEQUENCE TO EASE THE TENSION FROM RIDING
As a starting base to warm up the spine, complete a few rounds of Cat (top left) and Cow (top right) Pose. As you alternate between flexing and extending the spine, take note of the balance between these two motions and throughout the various segments of the spine. As you come across any area that feels restricted in the movement feel free to pause and hold the shape to deepen the experience into those areas.
2. Thigh Stretch
Next move to lying on your front (prone lying) and see if you are able to bend one knee and grab your foot to gently draw the heel towards your bum. If it is difficult to reach back and get a hold of your foot, you can use a yoga strap around your ankle to assist. It is important that when you come into the knee bend, the front of the hips don’t lift off the floor—you want to feel grounded through the front of the pelvis, especially on the side you are stretching. If you feel your front hip bones lifting off the floor, back out of the stretch a little and try engaging your abdominal muscles before bending your knee in. If this still doesn’t work, or if you feel any discomfort in your low back, you can do this thigh stretch lying on your side instead. Stay with the stretch for four slow breaths, and depending on the degree of tension you feel, consider doing each leg a second time.
3. Locust Pose
Next give Locust Pose a try. It is a great counteractive pose for riders as it strengthens the back extensor muscles (which may be over lengthened and/or weak from the forward leaning posture), and it opens the front body. In this pose you want to engage the back muscles to get a lift of both the upper and lower body, keeping in mind that the height of the lift is totally up to you based on comfort in the back. Also, as you lift the head and chest, let the arms come off the floor as well and draw the shoulder blades together (without shrugging the tops of the shoulders). The legs are lifting at the same time, aiming to get the knees just off the floor and creating a sense of lengthening in the body by stretching the legs back and reaching forward through the crown of the head. Try holding this pose for 3 – 4 slow breaths. As you develop your endurance for this posture, challenge yourself by staying a little longer and doing more repetitions. (Other back extensions such as cobra pose would be suitable here too).
For a progression from locust pose, you could build up to doing Bow Pose (right), which really opens all aspects of the front body. Keep in mind, this pose may be too aggressive for the individual with restricted range of motion in the hip flexors or anyone with a back condition compromising their spinal extension, e.g. stenosis. You should be able to do the thigh stretch and locust pose easefully before attempting this pose.
4. Puppy Pose
After the locust pose and Bow Pose, it tends to feel balancing to come back to kneeling and briefly stretch the back into the reverse motion. Often in class I’ll suggest doing another cat stretch or child’s pose.
For Puppy Pose (above), start on all four’s and walk the hands out in front for a long reach under the arms (hands shoulder with apart). You want to keep your hips stacked above the knees. Then let the head and chest relax downwards between the arms to feel the stretching under the arms, along the sides of the torso, and across the chest. Stay here for 3 – 4 slow breaths.
5. Kneeling Lunges
Onto the kneeling lunges—probably the most important aspect of this program in order to stretch the hip flexors. The kneeling lunges can be awkward and challenging when you first learn them, but well work the effort for cyclists! Keep in mind it is good to set yourself up for success by adding a little comfort and support in these poses. For instance, you can add padding under the knee on the floor and/or you could do these lunges beside a chair or bench to steady your balance.
First come into a high kneeling posture with one foot forward (image top left), and before you shift your hips forward into lunge, lengthen the low back by tilting the tail bone under (posterior pelvic tilt) and maintain this tilt as you lunge the hips forward (image top right). Make sure the front foot is far enough ahead that the knee lines up with the ankle below.
The second two lunges, from the images above, demonstrate additions to the basic lunge by reaching the outside arm overhead (image bottom left) and then revolving the body with one hand on the hip (image bottom right) to create greater lengthening down the lateral chain of muscles. On the revolved lunge, I rotate my trunk towards the front knee side and place my outside hand on a block. Instead of a block, you could reach your hand to the ground if this is comfortable for you, or for more height under the hand, you can rest your hand on the chair/bench. Stay in these lunge postures again for 3 – 4 slow breaths each.
6. Revolved Kneeling Lunge with Thigh Stretch
This posture is for those of you who are ready for a deeper release into the thigh and hip flexor. It is important that you can competently do the previous lunges before adding this one into your routine. With the revolved kneeling lunge, you reach back with the opposite hand to foot to add the knee bend while holding the lunge. In the image above, I am demonstrating with a block under my hand for some support and to lift in my posture.
7. Supine Hamstring Stretch
Finish on your back to stretch the hamstrings. In this pose I am demonstrating how you can use a yoga strap to assist the drawing in of the leg and use of the strap to dorsiflex the ankle (toes towards shin) for greater stretch into the lower leg (calf) muscles. Stay in the stretch for 3-4 slow breaths and do each leg once or twice depending on the level of tension you notice.
After completing the hamstring stretch, gently draw both knees towards the chest for a little hug, and then extend both legs out, arms at your sides to finish in Savasana, resting on the ground for however long feels good.
I hope this routine brings balance back into your body after those long rides and keeps your cycling pain free!
This pose embodies the spirit of a warrior and conveys readiness, stability, and courage. Warrior II pose (Virabhadrasana II) is aptly named after a fierce warrior named Virabhadra originating from Hindu mythology. The physical expression of Warrior II pose represents the focused attention and warrior strength required to prepare for battle. When we practice yoga, our mat becomes our battlefield, and our “enemy” becomes our mind. Over time, as we strengthen our bodies and our minds, we learn how to face and defeat all our challenges with focus and calm.
In Warrior II, the front hand reaches forward and represents the future; the back hand reaches behind, and represents the past. The head and body stay situated in the middle, and while our hands are reaching for both what was and what will be, our minds and bodies remain centered in the present moment. It is called “warrior”, but the pose is one of peace. When balanced and centered, in body and mind, we are not at war with ourselves… or anyone else.
Here is an infographic highlighting the benefits and alignment details of this beneficial pose.
Those of you coming to my classes know I love blending and fusing movements and postures to create a desired effect. I’m not much of a traditionalist when it comes to yoga. My quest is to make yoga more accessible, relatable, and effective for all, and if that mean tweaking an old posture for something safer or just approaching something different for new outcome, I will.
Sometimes when I get experimenting I come across fun fusions. Here’s one of my latest favourites blending supported bridge pose (the restorative version) with legs ups the wall pose. It combines the benefit of improved upper back posture that you get from supported bridge pose with the relaxation/calming effects of legs up the wall pose.
The restorative version of supported bridge pose uses the bolster to help extend the mid/upper back, which helps combat the “hunching” posture in the upper back and shoulders, and opens the chest to aid in more expansive breathing. It is also an inversion, with the upper body resting lower than the legs and hips. Inversions are known to help regulate blood pressure and heart rate, and they active the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system bringing about a relaxation/calming effect on the mind and body.
Legs up the wall pose is also a very relaxing and effective inversion pose, so combining the two poses deepens the inversion, and potentially the benefits (boosting immune functioning, reduction of stress chemicals in blood, calming of stress & anxiety symptoms, improved sleep, etc.). In addition, legs up the wall is known for reducing edema in the lower legs/feet and can relieve lower back tension.
To give this fusion pose a try, you will need a bolster (rectangular or round works), a folded blanket, and a chip foam yoga block. You could use a second blanket if you don’t have the foam block.
The next image shows the set up. The bolster is approximately a foot away from the wall, the chip foam block is laid length-wise at the head end of the block, and then you place a folded blanket over the block. The idea is to create a step off effect from the edge of the bolster that is going to create the extension into the upper/middle back.
To get into the pose sit at the end of your bolster closest to the wall and lie back with the aim to have the top of your shoulders cascading off the edge of the bolster so that the back of the shoulders rest on the blanket and your head is supported. When you lay back you should feel the edge of the bolster landing at the bottom of the shoulder blades, and you should feel a comfortable extension of the middle/upper back.
You can definitely increase or decrease the step off height at the edge of the bolster by adjusting the height of the block/blanket set up (you can remove the block underneath for a greater arch of the back, or add more blanket height for less of and arch). Remember that you should feel something interesting happening in the upper back that feels like a stretch and pressure from the bolster, but not painful. You should be able to breathe, relax and stay awhile.
Also, I am demonstrating bent legs and feet on the wall to make it more gentle, but you could go more traditional and do straight legs up the wall (in this case, you may wish to position the bolter closer to the wall). Feel free to test both and see which feels better for you.
We usually stay for 5 minutes in class, but this could be shorter or longer depending on preference and comfort. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
Traditional Pigeon Pose (below) is known for how it stretches into the posterior and lateral muscles of the hip (the buttock muscles). Many people source Pigeon Pose as a remedy for sciatic pain since it can specifically stretch the Piriformis muscle, which when tight, can compress on the sciatic nerve. As effective as pigeon pose is for this, ask any yoga teacher and you will learn that many people can’t do pigeon pose comfortably or safely for reasons such as knee or ankle compression. As a popular alternative, many teachers advise trying Supine (back lying) Pigeon, sometimes known as Eye of the Needle Pose in yoga, (which also goes by Figure 4 Stretch outside of the yoga world). This pose is a popular favourite among individuals who want to feel a therapeutic stretch into the buttocks without the compression that comes with full Pigeon Pose.
As with traditional Pigeon Pose, the supine version of Pigeon has options and modifications to choose from. Depending on where you hope to focus the stretch, and other factors such as your own personal anatomy, flexibility, or comfort can can influence the version you choose. I always like to remind my students that it’s not a matter of “right or wrong”, but, rather of asking yourself, “Is this pose meeting my intention?” Once you are knowledgeable in how to modify pigeon pose, you can choose the version best suited for you.
The most common way to teach Supine Pigeon Pose is it is with the hands threading the space between the legs, as shown in these next images. You can either hold onto the back of the thigh or over top of the knee depending on your flexibility and preference.
Holding the thigh with the hands serves a purpose of anchoring the pose in place with less effort in the hips, and you can easily deepen the sensation by drawing the leg in with the hands. However, there are some limitations with this threading version because it forces the top knee to be pressed more out to the side (external rotation of the hip⸻discussed more below), and for some of us, our arm length to hip mobility ratio may restrict our ability to comfortably reach the leg. When a person is unable to bring the legs in very far and/or their arm length is insufficient to comfortably reach through the legs without strain, then I suggest these next variations.
The above images show how Supine Pigeon can be done with the foot on the wall. Here, the closer your seat is to the wall, the shorter the angle and the deeper the stretch, so I recommend starting with a 90 degree angle in the supporting leg and moving your seat closer or further from the wall depending on comfort. In the wall version, it is also really easy to highlight how the angle of the hip creates a different effect on where you feel the stretch. When we push the knee more out to the side (top left) it focuses the stretch into the lateral hip muscles and groin more which are internal/medial rotators of the hip, e.g. tensor fasciae latae and the abductors. However, if you are aiming to get deeper into the Piriformis muscle, angling the knee in towards you more (top right) will give you a better stretch on the Piriformis muscle which is one of the external/lateral rotators of the hip.It’s important to remember there is no right or wrong here…Be playful with the angle, being careful with joint pain of the hip or knee⸻ a small shift in angle will simply highlight the stretch in different muscles of the buttocks and hips.
In this next image I demonstrate a rotation slightly off to the side with the foot of the supporting leg on the wall rolled to the outer edge. This will angle the knee even more across the body, and for me, this stretch really deepens the sensation into the posterior gluteals (Piriformis).
Sometimes when you don’t have a wall and the threading version with your hands isn’t working, you could try this next version instead.
Here I am demonstrating you can hold the knee and foot of the side you are stretching. What I like about this is the opposite leg is assisting the hold lightly while the hands deepen the experience and can direct the angle based on your needs and preferences, and there is less reach required by the arms. I personally find this one very effective.
Hopefully this article on Supine Pigeon Pose gives you a better understanding of the range of options outside of traditional Pigeon Pose. I encourage you to step outside the thinking of doing a pose based on how it “should” look, and instead find a version and creative technique that works just right in your body while still supplying the stretch you need to the muscles you intend.
One of the things I love most about yoga is how it can meet our needs moment to moment. Sometimes we need energy and strength, while other times we need stretch or restoration. The fun thing is some postures can do all the above depending on how you approach them. I can think of no better pose to explore this than bridge pose. In bridge pose you can have a range of experiences depending on the variation you choose.
Generally speaking, bridge pose, in its active variation, is a strengthening and energizing posture. Just after my first baby was born, I chose bridge pose as my first strengthening pose to do. I recall how wobbly my legs felt as I attempted to lift my hips off the ground; I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, have I ever lost a lot of strength!” From this first attempt, I continued to practice bridge daily. By the second week I was back to my regular hip lifting height and I no longer felt weakness in my legs and hips as I held the pose longer and longer. As I began to engage the pose in more of a chest opening posture, I felt my posture improve and my breath deepen, bringing more energy into my body. This experience made me truly appreciate how this pose has great strength building potential and is fantastic for beginners as it allows for you to decide how high and how long you lift for.
Below is an info-graphic showing the technique and benefits of the active variation of bridge pose. It is important to note you can start with a lower lift of the hips off of the ground than shown. Also, you can completely leave out clasping the hands under the body (resting arms on the ground). The practice of tucking the shoulders underneath the body and squeezing the shoulder blades together facilitates a lift of the chest with the pose and engages many more back muscles, making the experience deeper and more complex. When first learning it helps to start with the hip lifting aspect of the pose, and later build on this piece.
People often ask me if they should activate their abdominal muscles in bridge, and I tell them “It depends…” You can do it both ways depending on your goal of the pose and any back conditions you may have. Generally speaking, when you tighten or activate the abdominal muscles it makes the pose feel more stable in the lumbar (low back) region. If you are one of those people who has tight hip flexors muscles you may be prone to over-extending the low back, and in this case it will likely help to engage the abdominals when lifting into bridge which can essentially help ‘lock’ the low back into position and will most likely feel better if you have this condition. However, for some people, it is possible that going into more extension in the back will feel helpful, especially if they tend to be in postures which flatten out the low back a lot. So by relaxing the abdomen and really emphasizing the contraction of the gluteal and back extensor muscles they can increase the back arch and this can feel therapeutic. Often I recommend trying both ways to sense what feels better in your body to know which way to go.
These next images (below) demonstrate variations of bridge pose which provide support with props, and with this support, comes a whole different experience to the posture. Supporting bridge pose makes it passive rather than active, and therefore it is no longer a strengthening posture; instead it becomes restorative. When placing the props underneath the sacrum (the lowest portion of the spine just above the tail bone), the props create a gentle stretch into the front of the hips and a light traction of the low back. From here you can work on relaxing the support muscles of the pose and in this way we can experience the shape and stretch of the pose without the effort, allowing our bodies to rest and release tension. In addition, when using the foam block you can also experience a light acupressure sensation against the sacrum region and that can sometimes help reduce back pain.
I have had some yoga clients in class tell me they felt so relaxed in this posture, but didn’t know why. The reason is likely because supported bridge pose is also a gentle inversion and inversions have a calming effect on the body. When the lower body is elevated from the upper body, gravity’s pull of blood towards our hearts and heads toggles our nervous systems to turn off the sympathetic “flight or fight” stress response while turning on the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. This happens in a complicated feedback loop that starts when blood pressure accumulates in the aortic arch above the heart and the carotid arteries in the neck. The final result is reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, a breakdown of the stress hormones in the body (cortisol and adrenaline), and a quieting of the “chatterbox” centers within the brain itself which is hugely beneficial when we are feeling stressed and anxious.
The next image below shows a fully inverted version of supported bridge pose which helps to heighten the inversion effects. It is also different in that it focuses on opening the front body more at the chest level, extending mid/upper back. For some this feels like a really big opening experience so using a height that is lower than the bolster shown in the image (e.g. a rolled blanked) might be a way to try in the beginning.
Bridge pose is full of experiences and what I have highlighted here just scratches the surface of the myriad of ways it can be altered for varying effects. Hopefully this provides you with enough information to get exploring how bridge pose can benefit you.
For a free printable of the info-graphic shown above link here: bridge pose.pdf
Downward 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 facia 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.
Injuries to the low back are common, and we want to make sure our yoga classes don’t become part of the problem. For this blog we will look particularly at seated forward bends and how to move the pelvis in a way that promotes healthy alignment.
Regardless of which seated forward bend your are doing in yoga, the common theme is that our seat is anchored on the ground so it becomes very easy to move our bodies forward without bringing the pelvis with us. (This is especially true for people with tight posterior leg and hip muscles). When the pelvis gets stuck in the posterior tilt and we lean forward, it can place strain on the ligamentous tissues around the sacroiliac joint (often referred to as the SI joint), and can cause excessive rounding through the spine, which is potentially dangerous to the discs of the low back.
So a very important skill to learn is how to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior rotation) with the spine in our bends. Here are some tips to learn how to do this:
First test yourself in Staff Pose (Dandasana)…
Are you able to sit in a tall spinal position with your legs outstretched (top left)? Or does your pelvis tip backwards and body lean as shown in the picture on the right? If the tightness through your leg muscles prevents you from sitting tall, then sitting directly on the ground with your legs straight will end up making your forward bends look like the image below. Below we see the pelvis fixed in posterior rotation and the spine having to compensate into a really rounded posture to make the bend happen.
To avoid this potentially straining posture, we utilize props to assist in the tilting of our pelvis in the anterior direction. Below, I am demonstrating Head-to-knee pose, or Janu Sirasana, (where one leg is outstretched and the other knee is bent). I modify by placing a folded blanket underneath my seat to reduce the pull on the hamstrings (note more than one blanket can be used depending on the level of tightness in the legs). Also, a rolled towel is placed underneath the knee to fill the space and reduce posterior knee strain. You can see how this has changed the posture of my low back.
In the next image, I am demonstrating a modification for Paschimottanasana (where both legs are outstretched) by using a bolster to support a good amount of knee bend. This bent-knee posture minimizes the pull from the hamstrings on the pelvis, allowing me to tilt my pelvis forward and lengthen my back. You can do this even without a bolster and just keep the knees bent without support.
In addition to the use of props, there is a specific technique to learn to help un-anchor the pelvis and this comes from freeing the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) from the ground. A small lift and wiggle of your seat from the ground and re-situating your hips back a little will help you orient the pelvis forward. You may also need to actively engage muscles to initiate the forward tilting of the pelvis – visualize your pelvis like a bowl as if to pour contents out forward. You will know you have it correct when you are feeling like you are situated on the front edge of your sitting bones.
Outside of the propping and intentional shift of the pelvis forward, the safety for our backs also lies in the depth we try to take forward bends. You’ll notice in the last two images my head is nowhere near my knees! Don’t get caught up in making the pose look a certain way. For the sake of safety, a good reminder is sometimes less is more. As you are progress in your seated forward bends, take your time and listen to your body.
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