I often wish I could magically summon a puppy to my lap—accio puppy! But on a deeper level, I’ve found that this wish for a cute furry friend (for me, at least) is actually a need for reassurance, a longing for innocence, and most importantly, a desire to feel safe.
However satisfying it is to watch videos of fuzzy, big-eyed animals, this "cute-factor" is a mental and emotional quick-fix that exemplifies an important aspect of the human mind: an instinct toward external gratification. Honestly, how much easier is it to look for something external to hold, rather than working to embrace ourselves?
So, what does this have to do with actually practicing puppy pose?
This pose points its practitioner in the direction of this ever-safe, ever-unstruck place within.
Well firstly, the posture often called “puppy pose” is more formally known as anahatasana (heart melting pose). The name of this posture refers to the heart chakra, anahata chakra. “Anahata” roughly translates to “unstruck” or “unhurt.” As one of my teachers describes, “It is the place within you that is untouchable, the part of you that can never be violated, it is the bell that can never be rung.” Basically, this pose points its practitioner in the direction of this ever-safe, ever-unstruck place within.
Secondly, from a physical standpoint, puppy pose is primarily a heart-opening posture—hence the translation of anhatasana, "heart-melting." Heart-opening (or "heart-melting") means that the main function of the pose is to reverse the thoracic curve of the spine, located between the shoulder blades. The thoracic spine is also where the sympathetic nervous system (aka the “fight or flight” system) resides. When the thoracic spine extends, like when doing a backbend, the rib cage lifts and the rib heads (where rib bones attach to the spine) move up and forward, pushing into sympathetic nerve receptors. This triggers the "fight or flight" response in our body, which is really just the brain preparing the body to deal with a stressful situation, resulting in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, perspiration, and mental focus.
When you come out of a heart-opening posture, a down-regulation of the sympathetic nervous system occurs, which basically means that all of the systems and organs of the body that experienced an increase of activity (blood flow to the heart, brain, and major muscle groups) during the backbend, now experience a short lull of calm as the body readjusts to its normal functions. This down-regulation often results in a rush of delicious relief—or comfort—throughout the body. Yes! The post-backbend bliss! It's as though some of the anxiety and confusion we accumulate on a day-to-day basis is released through this quick expenditure of sympathetic fight-or-flight juice.
Getting into Puppy Pose
Note: Although this pose may look relatively easy, it’s actually a pretty intense heart-opener! It’s important to properly warm up, especially in the shoulders and hips. I’d recommend doing at least a couple rounds of sun salute A or B before coming into this pose.
Start on hands and knees with your shoulders stacked over your wrists, your hips stacked over your knees, and your toes tucked under. Your knees should be hips-width apart. Engage the muscles of your inner thighs and internally rotate them toward the back of your mat. Keep that, and lightly engage your pelvic floor muscles (think Kegel exercises, but gently sustaining the squeeze rather than squeezing and releasing).
Once this foundation feels stable, mindfully walk your palms forward to fully extend your arms toward the top of your mat. Spread your fingers wide. Powerfully engage your arms, pressing your palms forward while reaching your hips toward the back of your mat. Rest your forehead on the ground between your arms. If you experience discomfort in your neck and/or tight shoulders, try resting your forehead on a block or rolled up blanket. (In fact, I highly recommend trying the pose with this modification even if you are able to rest the forehead on the floor. It just feels really good!)
Draw the bottom tips of your shoulder blades in toward each other, and breathe into the back of the ribs and kidney area. Externally rotate your upper inner arms, and melt your heart toward the floor—and maybe try to smile!