For me, downward dog is a foundational posture and a staple in my physical practice. I enjoy the challenges (and rewards) of continuously refining this posture even after 12 years of practice. In my yoga trainings, I teach around 15 different actions to refine the pose. Here are 3 ways you can begin to improve your downward facing dog pose, adho mukha svanasana, immediately.
Don't get me wrong, this is one of the most difficult basic postures in hatha yoga. Most bodies can not do this posture correctly in the beginning and it could take hundreds of hours of practice to get to the fullest expression. To get the deepest, most full expression of this posture, one must have stamina. Most people fatigue in the early stages of learning this posture. Therefore the first thing one should learn to do is continuous ujjayi or victorious breathing in downdog. One should keep their lips sealed and breath through the nose with attention on the throat. Breathe with sound. With the ability to continually supply the muscles and brain with fresh oxygen and prana, you will be able to remain in the posture longer. The longer you can remain in the posture, the more you can refine your actions. With persistent actions, the body will begin to hit various milestones in expression, such as palms flat, arms straight, shoulders away from ears, head free to touch the ground, straight line from from hands to hips, legs straight, feet parallel, heels touching floor and toenails relaxed.
The second thing you can do to improve your down dog is modify it so that you can hold the posture longer. For beginners with tight legs, bend the knees and think about lengthening your spine by lifting your hips higher with bent knees. Disregard bringing your heels to the ground and stretching your legs. It's better that your hands are flat, wrists are parallel to the top of the mat or turned slightly out, index fingers parallel to each other or slightly pointing away from one another, and there is no pain. The upper arms roll outward and the shoulders move gently away from the ears, neck relaxed, top of head towards floor. Get long in the side body as you breathe. Notice how the inhalation and exhalation affect the body differently. Notice which breath on which you can lengthen more. Notice which breath makes you feel lighter and heavier. Use the heavy breath to sink and the light breath to energize.
The third thing you can do to improve your downward dog is to relax where don't need to exert. For example, don't clench your jaw. Relax your face. Conserve energy wherever you can. The back of the neck should be relaxed, gazing past the legs or upward towards the navel. The back of your legs need to be relaxed while the front of your legs lift towards the hip crease. The upper shoulders relax away from the ears as chest moves towards the thighs.
While each of these suggestions can be practiced individually, the goal is to be abel to multitask while you're in the posture. Keep the breath going. It has been said by great yoga teachers that the moment you want to come out of the posture is when your yoga practice begins. Connect with the ground with your hands and feet, like a lizard. Relax where you can so you can explore the posture longer. The longer you can stay in the posture, the more you can refine your pose. Remember, as one of my favorite teachers David Swenson says, "measure your progress in decades."
Your yoga journey is one of a thousand miles, and a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Each time you roll out your mat to practice is equivalent to taking one step. There are 5,280,000 feet in a thousand miles. It's a long journey and I encourage you to focus on the process more than the destination. The joy is in the journey and not the destination.
I offer open classes, private lessons, yoga retreats and yoga student and teacher trainings each year. Come train with me and your practice will shine!