How one yoga pose says it all as you get down with downward dog
By Michelle Castillo
Most yoga practitioners that come into class have the expectation of at least one downward facing dog during the hour. If you’re in my vinyasa flow class, you’ll perform this within the first five minutes of class. Why? Aside from being one of the most familiar postures to experienced practitioners and newbies alike, it’s one of the best ways for yoga teachers to assess a student. What downward dog pose tells us about you may shock you.
As an inversion (a post that places your head below your heart) posture, downward facing dog can be both a calming and invigorating pose at the same time. For me, it’s good to see students in this posture at the beginning of a class, as it’s simultaneously disarming and empowering on both a physical and mental level. Here’s where the pose helps us teachers to see where you’re at – your strengths and limitations - in your practice.
How you hold yourself
On both a mental and physical level, the way you approach downward dog tells us teachers about how you hold yourself. Do you cup your fingers on the mat? Do you round your upper or lower spine? Do you move into your dog with ease? Or, after a breath or two? This pose not only tells us about your range of motion, your muscle flexibility, and your strength, it also gives us insight on your mental state. If it’s a challenge to move into downward dog, or if you’re struggling to get into what you “think” is perfect alignment, it gives us insight on how you’re going to approach future poses in the class.
If your shoulders are tight, downward facing dog can be a huge challenge. This can mean a few things: your core is weak, you spend a lot of time at a desk hunched over a computer, it scares you to be upside down, your legs are stronger than your upper body (also meaning this could be an emotional discrepancy between the upper and lower halves of your physical self), you have an old injury…the list can go on. Whatever the case, you’d totally benefit from opening your heart, so we teachers take this into account and will add in a series of slow shoulder and heart openers into our class sequence.
Your hamstrings and calves
If you have tight hamstrings (I’m talking about a lot of you men and spin class devotees!), it’s going to show in downward dog. Your lower back will be rounded, and your heels won’t be able to touch the mat. So, if I’m guiding you in class, I’m probably not going to put you into full hanuman asana (monkey pose, AKA “the splits”) anytime soon. But what I will do is ask you to bend your knees in this pose so that I can see if it’s your hamstrings, shoulders or something else that is preventing you from the full expression of this posture. When your hamstrings are tight, it will also affect any inversion you will do. It will affect the curvature of your spine. It will affect the way your nervous system operates. A teacher will then know to take caution when you’re in those lunges and forward bends, and will usually adjust you in these postures so that you can benefit from a little extra attention and confidence that we have your back, literally.
If your hips are tight, downward dog will probably be excruciating. Your hips are the largest joint in your body, and also said to retain a lot of emotional tension. Keeping the hips relatively flexible will also help if you sit in a chair for a fair amount of the day like most of you that work in offices. Our adjustments in this initial downward dog will help us to see your physical capabilities for the Warrior series, and it will also help us to determine if you’re mentally prepared to take on more challenging postures further on in the class.
I have mild scoliosis. In fact, it’s why I practice so much yoga. So if you’re in my class and I see that your spine is crooked, I know not only from a professional level, but from a personal level, that your postures in class won’t be symmetrical. You’ll tend to overcompensate on one side just to feel “balanced”. Downward dog is going to show me how you position your pelvis (and sacrum/tailbone), and how you hold your neck (cervical spine), because it sets the entire spine in a nice traction for me to come over and take a look to see how best to help you through your practice.
Your blood pressure
Fact: any inversion is going to change your blood pressure. This is important to us teachers because if your blood pressure is too high (and you don’t know it yourself), we will offer suitable variations. Likewise, if you have difficulty interpreting us when you come up from downward dog, it tells us that your blood pressure is low and we will probably not put you into many inversions during the class.
Your arm and core strength
If your arms and core are strong, you’re going to be better prepared for planks and arm balances. In downward dog, we can see how your triceps respond to bearing weight, how your thighs act when the hamstrings lengthen, and how you use your uddyana bandha (core lock) to help you relieve tension from your shoulder joints and arms. If you’re in proper alignment, we know that our entire class themed around core work and arm balances is going to be ok for you. If you’re struggling in the first downward dog, we know that we are going to have to be quick witted with variations for you so that you empower yourself physically and mentally through the class.
I mentioned above how downward dog pose is both a strengthening and resting pose – YAS! I’ll usually have you in the first downward dog for five breaths. This gives you enough time to acquaint yourself, to meditate, to adjust yourself, all while listening to conscious and subconscious cues to help you. When you’re upside-down, directions are confusing. If you follow suggestions to help move into alignment and a breathing pattern, it tells us that you’re suggestible to soaking in subtle nuances of your practice. For example, you’re in ardha chandrasana (“half moon”), and your foot isn’t flexed, your gaze isn’t focused, or hip isn’t opening, and in the initial downward dog you didn’t accept our cues, we know that we will want to physically adjust you more than other students who accept verbal adjustments easier.
That downward dog that always makes it way into your vinyasa practice? Now you see some of the method to our madness!