Yoga class is going well. You’ve nailed tree pose (with only minor wobbles), you’ve endured chair pose (with few grimaces), and you haven’t caught yourself holding your breath yet. Then why that hesitant reaction when the teacher begins to lead you into sun salutations?
For many, this hesitance comes from anxiety concerning the awkward place in sun salute B or C where you step forward into a lunge from downward facing dog. Perhaps you look at the yogi next to you and wonder how in Zenation his leg can seamlessly float under his belly, and how he can softly land his foot like a butterfly between his hands, while you yank your leg and foot through like it’s a sandbag dropped on a bed of daisies and maybe even still end up with your foot far away from the top of your mat, your front heel lifted off of the floor, and your front knee forward of your toes. Not only do you feel a bit like a beginner still (though you’ve got no judgment about beginners and no attachment to success), you know that a knee not quite in the right position (such as bending past the crease of your ankle) can wreak havoc on the joint. But how do you get that front foot where it’s supposed to be?
Like many transitions in yoga, the ability to step forward from downward dog into a lunge isn’t only about strength and flexibility, it’s also about technique. Here are three quick and easy techniques you can follow to eliminate that hesitant response the next time you are in downdog and the teacher cues for you to step your foot forward. These three techniques involve mind, breath, and body.
Like many transitions in yoga, the ability to step forward from downward dog into a lunge isn’t only about strength and flexibility, it’s also about technique.
Remember that it is helpful to warm up (especially your hips and hamstrings) prior to attempting this movement. Before working with your downdog-to-lunge transition, do some simple preparatory movements like cat/cow, stepping back from forward bend to lunge, and your favorite three-legged dog variations.
First, let’s prepare the mind. As with any challenge, for the best possible results, it helps to visualize where you are headed.
Remember when you were a kid, and the activity for gym class involved each student hanging on to a segment of a big silk parachute while the whole class sat in a circle? Part of the game was to take turns sneaking under the parachute to go from one side to the other. But the only way to do that was to create the room to move—to balloon the parachute as high up into an arch as it would go without letting it fly to the sky, so that you’d have the space to make it to the other side. Try visualizing creating space like this with your body in the downdog-lunge transition so that you have plenty of room to move with more fluidity.
Picture your transition (don’t try it yet, just picture it): From downdog, you’ll extend your right leg up into a three-legged dog, then bend your right knee into your chest, rounding your spine like a cat stretch as you push the floor away from you. Imagine your spine “parachuting” upward here, not unlike the movement of the gym class parachute, creating the space to lightly step through.
Imagining the space that you’ll create when moving through this transition is the first step to stepping through with ease.
As with every asana and transition in yoga, the breath is a critical component to stepping through to lunge from downdog. Remember the golden rule of yoga (besides do unto others…): When you contract, you exhale. When you expand, you inhale. This means that you’ll inhale as you lift your leg into three-legged dog, and you’ll exhale as you draw your knee into your chest to step through.
Before you actually try to step through, try this simple exercise incorporating the breath.
From downward facing dog, inhale your right leg up into three-legged dog; exhale, and bend your knee to your chest, shifting forward a little, almost like you would for plank pose, lifting your left heel off of the floor (if it wasn’t already), and coming onto the ball of your left foot. Stay here for a few breaths, keeping your hips lifted and level, your spine rounding up like a cat stretch, and your head relaxed. To create even more space, with every exhale, push the floor away and contract your abdominals a little more, thereby rounding up a little more. Then re-extend your right leg back to three-legged dog on an inhale. Exhale, return to downdog, and repeat on the second side.
We’ve covered the mind and the breath, which now leads us to the body (this is where you actually get to practice stepping though!). From downward facing dog, inhale your right leg up to a three-legged dog. Bring your focus to your abdomen, contracting it as you exhale and bend your knee into your chest, rounding your spine into a curve, pushing the floor away from you with your hands, and pressing the ball of your left foot into the floor as well, an action that will help you draw your right knee even closer toward your torso, creating even more space for you to step through. Then flick your right foot forward (like you’re kicking a soccer ball out of the way), aim your foot toward its goal (the space between your hands), and gracefully, yes gracefully, place your foot flat on the earth, ending up in your lunge.
Practice this transition a few times on each side to get the hang of it.
Finally, it’s important to remember that every body is different. Some yogis have lanky arms, relatively shorter legs, and longer torsos, which may make this swing-through easier for them than it is for others. That’s because longer arms and torsos combined with shorter legs mean more space between your body and the floor to swing the leg through. So, if you still have trouble after trying the above tips, consider placing your hands on blocks on their lowest height (one block under each hand) and experiencing what a more effortless swing-through feels like when there is even more space between your body and the floor.
Finally, it’s important to remember that every body is different.
Another way to begin working toward this transition is to warm up and practice from all fours. Extend your left leg back behind you, lifting your left heel to hip-height (but not higher), and then on an exhale, draw your left knee into your chest, rounding your spine like a cat stretch and pushing the floor away. Inhale, re-extend your leg. Repeat this several times before returning to all fours and repeating on the opposite side.
In no time at all, by warming up, visualizing, breathing, and practicing, your hesitant “knee-jerk reaction” to stepping through will transform into a flowing knee-swing-through-to-lunge that will keep your thoughts and breath in balance as you enjoy your practice. And if this transition still seems a bit out of reach? Perhaps your yoga lesson for now is to let go of the attachment to attain (the perfect pose) and appreciate the growth within the practice. Responding instead of reacting, and breathing into each moment with gratitude, on the mat, and off.