I’m a yoga teacher and an IAYT-certified yoga therapist. I’ve been teaching for over twenty-five years, and for over twenty years I’ve been doing down dog. So technically, I can do down dog. But a year ago, because of a pinched nerve in my elbow, I developed a medical issue akin to tennis elbow, and doing the pose began hurting like hell.
For years I’ve listened as one student after another complained about down dog. They’ve said it’s too hard, too boring, and that it sometimes causes too much pain for their hands and feet. They complain about teachers who ask them to hold the pose for too long a time. I remind them about honoring their bodies’ limitations, relaxing, and letting go. “Breathe,” I say. “Modify the pose to suit you. Drop to your knees and do puppy pose. Modification, after all, is one of the keys to a healthy yoga practice.”
I love down dog. It requires discipline to find your way into the pose, and a sense of surrender to maintain it. I remind my students that as is down dog, so is life. It takes both discipline to hold to your goals, and surrender to maintain the momentum to allow them to happen.
What I love about down dog is that it is an all-in-one pose—meaning that it requires the integration of the whole body, and provides benefits to the whole body. It stretches the muscles of the shoulders, the belly, the back, and the backs of the legs. It strengthens the arms, relieves neck tension, and, like traditional inversions, can have a calming effect on the nervous system (and as a result, supports digestion). And down dog can be either a warm-up or a cooldown.
That said, the sage Patanjali, who organized the knowledge of yoga into the Yoga Sutra, barely mentioned asana. But we might still find that the wisdom and deep knowledge in the sutras is very much relevant to our physical practice. The second sutra, if fully understood, is said to be sufficient to understand all of yoga. The other 195 sutras serve to explain, just in case you didn’t get it. Basically, the second sutra is about “keeping still the modifications of the mind” (citta vrtti). Later, in sutra 1:12, we are told that this is achieved through the balance found by way of abhyasa and vairagya—“discipline” and “surrender” (practice and non-attachment).
Discipline and surrender form the foundation of yoga. And down dog is the perfect example of this. It is precisely the physical discipline of moving into down dog, and then holding it by letting go—surrendering to the pose—that I love so much. And that is why I was so disappointed when my body would no longer allow me to embrace this asana.
Not one to give up, I went to my doctor, who sent me to a physical therapist. And for the next six weeks, I worked to relieve the pain in my elbow. It took discipline to make time to see the physical therapist three times a week. It took surrender to remain unattached to the outcome of my therapy. Just as in my asana practice, my focus was to establish that sense of balance between abhyasa and vairagya.
It took a sense of surrender to remain unattached to the outcome of my therapy.
Going through therapy necessitated transcending my ego. I have always prided myself on being able to slip easily in and out of down dog. My body has always been strong, flexible, and resilient. Now my body was tired and worn. I had to let go of the belief that I was limitless and admit that I, too, had my limitations. My body was injured, and it needed time to heal.
As with all things in life, everything changes. This too would pass. With time and a little rest, my elbow improved. And before I knew it, I was back on the mat doing down dog with my students.
Then, a year later, I injured my rotator cuff and developed a pinched nerve in my neck—due to a combination of teaching yoga, Spin, and dance, and carrying heavy gym bags (not to mention slight arthritis). I returned to physical therapy. Alas, it seemed that aging, along with years of extreme activity, had changed the way my body works. As with a vehicle, parts begin to wear and tear over time. Unlike a vehicle, whose parts can simply be replaced, the body can heal only if you give it time to rest and the right conditions to regenerate.
I did a “fact check” and discovered that I was doing down dog correctly. Bad alignment was not the cause of my injury. But the structure of the pose had drawn the focus of pain to my shoulder, causing it to ache. Triangle, with its reaching lift, also caused my injured shoulder to throb with pain. Accepting is another discipline of yoga. To accept things as they are and make the best of them is to find that sweet spot of happiness. I am an aging yogi with slight arthritis. It’s time to accept and adjust. So I stopped doing down dog. I now do puppy, which is less weight-bearing than down dog, and an excellent stretch for the rotator cuff (and is used for that in physical therapy). It’s a better alternative for me.
What I’ve learned is that while most yoga poses can be good for most people when done correctly, an injury or physical limitation can make any pose harmful or painful. Fundamental to all of yoga is to do no harm. Basic to yoga therapy is an understanding of how to modify and adjust in order to accommodate limitations.
Many of my students and private clients come to me with myriad health issues. My goal as a therapist is to help them reap the benefits of yoga without incurring further injury. That’s where modifications come in. Modifications can be a source of anguish, depending on how you approach them. The ego may fight to compete, but if you apply the discipline needed to be at peace with your limitations, you can then surrender into a state of non-anguish. Simply modify your approach. So now I teach my students puppy pose, always giving them the option to practice it as an alternative to down dog—and my class loves it. The modification is also good for those with wrist and ankle issues, and students appreciate the additional information about alignment and range of motion.
In letting go, we always gain something new.
What I know is that the body changes over time. It is important to be cognizant of the changes, and to develop ways to adjust your alignment accordingly. This brings me back to abhyasa and vairagya. It takes discipline to accept your limitations without anguish, and it takes surrender to maintain this state of being. In letting go, we always gain something new.
I no longer assume that my body will respond the way I expect it to. Sometimes we need to pull back and surrender to the flow of life, even if that flow is one that challenges our egos. As I like to remind my students: let it be, and just flow with it.
We need to accept. In that way, we will discover the true nature of discipline and surrender. If discipline and surrender are fully understood, they are enough to understand yoga. By modifying my practice while I am injured, I can embody the discipline and surrender that help me to master the second sutra. And that will ultimately allow me to master yoga.