by Shelley Piser
Teaching yoga for 35 years, I am always excited to discover new clarity in conveying movement (sometimes very abstract movement) to my students so they get it!
Teachers can get stuck in how they express poses and students can get stuck in how they translate directions into their own postures. For a beginning student, yoga is a new language that is translated from mind to body. It may take only a moment or it may take years for them to translate this language through the body and into Yoga asanas.
For a teacher it is a poetic journey to look deeper into what we say, and see, while refining clarity of understanding in order to convey our experience to our students. Downward Facing Dog is one of those misunderstood poses that is practiced and taught possibly more then any other asana in studios all around the world.
Many poses are lost in translation and it is up to teachers to watch how their students are interpreting their words and expression of the posture that they are teaching.
There are wonderful tools for preparing students to understand how to isolate movement in order to integrate the asana. In Adho Mukha Svanasana, these building blocks are the specifics of externally rotating the upper arms in relationship to the shoulder joints while pronating the wrists to root the hands solidly on the ground. It begins with stabilizing the shoulders. But it doesn’t end there. Establishing the root system of the pose leads one to explore this relationship with the rooting also of the legs and feet to the earth. The quadriceps are some the body’s most powerful muscles. The hamstrings in Dog Pose experience dramatic extension as the quadriceps contract, lifting the knees upward and moving the head of the femur back, inspiring and completing the grounding of the heels to the earth. Once the heels can grounded, the lower back, sacrum, and gluteus muscles are integrated and the entire body is engaged to open.
But how do we get there and why do so many students misunderstand Adho Mukha Svanasana?
A common instruction is, “Move back to your heels,” or “Move your Legs back,” so the immediate translation is ‘Hands to Feet.’ This mis-perception results in jamming the shoulder joint through over-extention leading to internal rotation, resulting in shoulder compression and more.
Lost in Translation, the student perceives nothing else because any further direction just leads them to fall more into the ditch of the shoulder joint causing over-extension and possible injury. Students can no longer sense how to move up through the pose. The spine remains dull. The lower back ends up in kyphosis and no energy moves through the legs. The lightness and freedom of this fruitful pose can not be fully realized without strong roots from the legs into the feet.
As the student struggles to bring their heels towards the floor, while pressing straight back from hands to feet more strain attacks the shoulders, back and achilles.
On the other hand, When the arms stabilize in external rotation the stage is set for the back to begin to move towards extension. The Latissimus Dorsi, Trapezius, and Erector Spinae through the side seams of the body elevate upward towards the hips, awaking Intercostals. Hoisting upward towards the tailbone and reaching the apex of the pose to the sky. The journey continues as a lovely extension of the hamstrings gives way to begin releasing calves, Achilles, and eventually the heels ground into the earth. The gift of even greater lightness and an easeful lift off the shoulders, elbows, and wrist joints.
We are then receiving the product of a wonderful pose that brings strength, flexibility, and awareness to the entire body internal and external with almost an effortless lightness.
By The Way, I have short Achilles. I squat every morning and have been for 30 years as a morning routine. My heels are never to the ground, but I am able with this emphasis to always get my heels down to the ground .
So folks, another day another dog. My puppy would be proud.