Old Dog, New Tricks: Two Variations on Downward Facing Dog
Have you experienced that awkward moment when, during a conversation with someone who does not practice yoga but knows you do, the person randomly says something like, “Oh, downward dog,” or, “I can do the down dog,” often followed by a chuckle? “I like dogs, you know, down dog. Heh heh.” You’re not sure why downward dog came up (since you may have been talking about a recipe or your latest project at work). The attempt at humor always falls flat. In fact, it can be annoying. (If you know someone loves baseball, do you randomly insert the words “home run” into your conversation?) It’s just weird.
Downward dog has become a synonym for modern yoga, leading some to believe that if you practice yoga, you know how to expertly find comfort in this pose. On the contrary, adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog, is a complex asana. After breaking down and strengthening it, teach your old dog these new tricks.
Iyengar Rope Wall-Inspired Dog
For this variation of downward dog, you’ll need a yoga strap that’s at least eight feet long, a blanket or towel, and a door with a sturdy doorknob.
Turn your strap into a large loop. Place the loop around the doorknob on the outside of the door, hold on to the loop from the inside of the door, and close the door securely. (If there’s a deadbolt on your door, lock it to further secure the door.) It’s best to use your front door, as this is likely to be stronger than things like bedroom or bathroom doors. You’ve just created a DIY rope wall.
Keep in mind that you may need to adjust the length of your loop. Step inside the loop with your back to the door. Hold the loop at about hip height and place the folded blanket over the strap—this will be padding for your groins. Forward fold over the strap, letting the padded strap press into your hip creases and take your weight. Come toward downward facing dog by walking your hands forward and your feet back until your heels tap the wall and lift up—it will feel as though you’re wearing high heels. Allow your rib basket to hammock down toward the ground and back toward your thighs. This will help to traction your spine. Work with your knees straight or bent, depending on what feels best in your body.
The strap in the groins lifts and supports you so you can drop into the feel-good elements of down dog (traction along your spine and neck, space between your ribs, and length in your hamstrings!) while reducing the strain a traditional downward dog may place on your shoulders and upper back.
For this variation of downward dog, you’ll need a bolster (or a few pillows) and a blanket (or towel). Neatly roll the blanket like a log and place it horizontally toward the back of your mat. Place the bolster lengthwise in the center of your mat. Ignore the bolster for a moment, and come to your hands and knees with your toes tucked, so the balls of your feet press into the mat just in front of your blanket roll. From here, lift your knees and come into downward facing dog, allowing the blanket roll to support your heels and the arches of your feet. Lower either the crown of your head or your third eye center (the area between your eyebrows) onto the bolster. (Select the one that feels most comfortable.) If your head does not reach the bolster, come down and add height with extra pillows or blankets. Hold here for 8 to 20 ujjayi breaths, then lower into child’s pose to rest.
The padding beneath your feet provides a cushion but also allows you to focus on the direction of your heels—straight back rather than turned in or out—without sinking into your arches, overstretching your hamstrings, or straining the backs of your knees. The padding beneath your head offers a sense of grounding, allowing your head and your feet to remain level and supported.
Downward facing dog may be the quintessential pose that comes to mind when yoga comes up in general conversation. But this pose, no matter how foundational it may be or how many times you enter it, is filled with endless opportunities to learn and adapt. By getting creative with the way you set up your down dog, you may discover more length and levels of comfort that you can bring onto your mat every time you come into this pose.
Karen Shelley is a Brooklyn-based yoga instructor who leads group classes throughout New York City and creates epic, global yoga retreats. She weaves energy, fluidity, play, and tons of hands-on assists into her teaching. Prior to teaching yoga, she earned a master’s degree in English and worked in advertising, publishing, and nonprofit management. Today, with business in the background and yoga in the foreground, Karen delivers breath-centered instruction to her students, but she continues... Read more>>