Here is a checklist to get your downward dog into a good dog:
1) Engage your hands fully – even the tip of your little finger!
If your hands aren’t fully engaged then the rest of your form is off. It’s like how wearing the wrong shoes can lead to problems in your knees and hips and, ultimately, your whole body. The same principle – if you are only pushing with palms and not your fingertips, your muscles in your arms won’t be fully engaged. Focus on pushing equally through each of your fingertips and palms. You should feel like your whole arms are engaged instead of just collapsing your weight into the bones.
2) Create space around the shoulders
Now that your arms are activated we need to think about the shoulders and neck. Draw the shoulders away from the ears and imagine the shoulder blades moving away from each other. In this position, you should be able to freely move your neck in gentle circles and relax it.
3) Pedal the feet
Especially as you are warming up there is no need to be as stiff as a board trying to make the perfect shape! Bend one knee at a time, as if you are pedalling on a bike and enjoy the gentle stretch alternating through the calves and hamstrings. Once your legs feel warmed up you can stop pedalling and settle into a stillness. Equally – feel free to keep moving!
4) Bend your knees
It is perfectly fine to have bent knees and heels off the ground in Downward Dog. As long as you can feel the stretch in your legs you are fine. It took me years to get my heels on the ground. I would walk my hands closer towards my feet to make it easier to lower my heels, but this defeats the purpose of the pose. Don’t move your hands or feet closer towards each other – they should be in the same position as in a plank pose. Remember it’s all about how it feels and NOT about how it looks!
5) Stick your bum in the air
I also recommend giving your knees a deep bend and really feeling the stretch through your shoulders and upper back by bringing your face closer to the ground and your bum as high in the air as you can. You can even move it slightly from side to side to feel the stretch through each side of the body.
6) Stretch your heels towards the ground
Once you feel this stretch in the shoulders, start to bring your heels down until you feel the stretch through your legs too. Downward Dog is all about this balance – the stretch in your shoulders and your legs. So many people are so focused on their legs that they feel no stretch in their shoulders.
7) Gaze towards your belly button or close your eyes
In this position gaze towards your belly button or simply close your eyes to stay focused on the sensations. Try not to look around the room at others in the class! Yoga is a personal practice and comparing yourself to others is not helpful. Your body isn’t the same as the person next to you. You can’t tell how experienced a yogi is by their body.
Yoga is just as much about breathing as it is about moving. Your breath should be in and out through your nose. If you are gasping for breath then lower your knees and forehead and rest in child’s pose. To gain more from your breathing you can also try Ujjayi breath. Ujjayi is also called Ocean breath or as I fondly call it ‘snoring breath’. You constrict your throat just a tiny bit so you can hear a gentle snoring sound. It should be comfortable and soothing. You can use each exhale to deepen the stretch a bit further.
9) Stay curious
Once you have done all the steps above it doesn’t mean that you need to stay in exactly this position. Be curious! How do you feel? Do you want to move or stay still? Is your breathing smooth? Do you feel calm or distracted? Are you thinking about dinner or are you tuned into your body and breath? Be kind to yourself. If you become distracted, acknowledge it, let it go, and move on.
Finally, you’re doing yoga to enjoy yourself (I hope)! No posture should be painful – you should be able to find some enjoyment in each stretch. Even if you’re struggling a little or feeling agitated, it can lighten the mood if you smile to yourself. Often we take ourselves far too seriously!