Lessons from the Mat: How to Do a Downward Facing DogArticle posted in: Fitness
By Eliza Darling
Lately I’ve found myself scrambling to find enough minutes in each day to do all that needs to be done, desperately chasing the time but unable to catch it. Far too often time for self-care is sacrificed for work or chores or schedules or other obligations. I frequently ask myself, is it possible to step off the speed train of life and to leisurely linger for a moment longer at the station of self-appreciation?
Sure it’s possible, but it requires a conscious effort to prioritize time for the self. This morning I was running around trying to make coffee and breakfast, feed my little one and get him dressed, feed and clean our dog (who stepped in mud and decided to run into the house), drink coffee and brush my teeth before jamming out the door to teach my 9 a.m. yoga class. Although I’m aware that practicing yoga positively affects every aspect of my life—emotionally, socially, professionally, finding the time to get on my mat since becoming a mother has become increasingly more difficult.
But today it wasn’t that I just wanted to practice yoga, I absolutely needed it! So amidst the chaos of scattered toys, floors strewn with pancakes and blueberries, a muddy-pawed dog, and a runny-nosed tot, I fetched my mat and rolled it out. I put aside the “to-do” list so that I could care for my own needs and trusted that, although the lists were long and overwhelming, the world would still go on if I tended to those to-dos later. I allowed the messiness of my surroundings to be incorporated into my practice; I welcomed squeals and toddler-talk to accompany the sounds of my breath; and I gave myself permission to appreciate that, though, my “zen” space has changed much over the years, it is still a place that has the power to heal and transform. Instead of judging myself and my lack of focus for noticing hairballs under the couch while in downward facing dog, or for taking a mental reminder to later get a pedicure while in a forward fold, or for accepting a snuggle huddle in garland pose, I let myself feel gratitude for what my practice has become. The messiness means that I have a home and food and comforts that can litter my house, and the interruptions from my husband and child means that I have people around me to love and to be loved by.
No, my practice is not neat and tidy and it doesn’t have a designated space or time, but it is the anchor that I can rely on to hold the entire ship from drifting on the open sea. A person doesn’t need to set aside 60 minutes, have designer yoga clothes, or even have a yoga mat to have a fulfilling yoga practice; benefits of this ancient practice can be felt by just sitting in silent stillness for five minutes, or feeling the hips unfurl in a long held hip opener, or scattering Sun Salutations throughout the day. The power of a yoga practice is that it’s ever-changing and can shift and morph into something that is accessible all the time, even when it looks or feels worlds away from how it once was. The chase to find time is illusive; we can run after it forever and never have enough of it. Take a breath and realize that right now—this moment—is the only time we truly have. Seize the moment and take back time. Self-care and self-love are indeed essential and deserve to be nurtured as much, if not more, than any thing else. Practice yoga, and good things are coming.
POSE OF THE WEEK: ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA (DOWNWARD FACING DOG)
For many, downward facing dog is the quintessential yoga pose, and often the first that people learn. When I ask my son to do yoga, he puts his hands on the ground and lifts his bum in the air. The upside-down V shape is the corner stone in the traditional sun salutation sequence, and has numerous healing and strengthening benefits. Considered an active resting pose that strengthens the arms and shoulders, lengthens the spine, and activates the legs, this pose is also a great way to get inverted (heart above the head) without having to move the feet from the ground. Note: You should avoid this pose if you are late in a pregnancy and don’t yet have an established yoga practice.
- Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
- Helps energizes the body
- Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands
- Strengthens arms and legs
- Helps relieves symptoms of menopause and menstrual discomfort
- Helps prevent osteoporosis
- Helps improve digestion
- Helps relieve headache, insomnia, back pain and fatigue
- Therapeutic for high blood pressure, asthma, flat feet, sciatica and sinusitis
HOW TO DO IT:
- Start on all fours, shoulders over the wrists and hips over the knees.
- Inhale and lengthen the spine, extending from the crown of the head to the tailbone. Tuck the toes under.
- Exhale and lift the knees off the mat and the hips up toward the ceiling. Start with the knees bent and the heels lifted off the floor.
- Press the hands onto the mat with the fingers spread wide and equally apart, and lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling.
- Exhale and press the top of the thighs back and lower the heels down onto the floor (it’s ok if they don’t touch).
- Straighten the knees but avoid locking them by activating the quadriceps (muscles on the front of the thighs) to lift the kneecaps.
- Firm the outer thighs by spiraling the upper thighs inward slightly.
- Maintain resistance in the hands (especially in the index fingers and thumbs) and hug the triceps in as you draw the shoulder blades down and apart, broadening the space between them.
- Knit the frontal ribs in towards each other to engage through the abdominals.
- Keep the ears in line with the biceps and avoid letting the head hang.
- Stay active in the pose for 1 to 3 minutes or as long as feels comfortable.
TIPS & MODIFICATIONS:
- To add movement to the pose and to loosen the hips, pedal the feet, bending one knee and then the next.
- To get a feel for the work of the outer arms, loop and secure a strap around the upper arms just above the elbows. Imagine the strap tightening inward, pressing the outer arms against the bones. Against the resistance, push the inner shoulder blades outward.
- To add more intensity to the stretch in the back of the legs, come onto the ball mounds of the feet by lifting the heels away from the floor. Draw the inner groins deep into the pelvis, lifting actively from the inner heels. From the height of the groins, lengthen the heels back onto the floor, moving the outer heals faster than the inner.
- Use a block or bolster (or rolled up towel or blanket) under your head if you suffer from headaches or high blood pressure.
- Avoid arching the spine and letting the frontal ribs dump down toward the mat. Also avoid lifting your head.