Downward facing dog was not one of my favorites, right from the start. For over 15 years I believed that being able to bring my feet to the ground in this pose was just not possible for me. I got stuck in this pose and in not really liking it. But in 2020, I totally changed my approach – and now I am almost there!
A little update for 2022: I am working on my yoga teacher degree right now and I have learned so much about this pose. I’ve also put some yoga resources on my blog, if you’re interested, and I share my learnings on my Instagram page @undine.yoga
I have been doing yoga for a long time–but that doesn’t mean anything.
Yoga somehow always was part of my life and my general mindset. Other people like to hike every once in a while or go swimming. I considered myself to be a part-time yogi, because sure, I was doing yoga regularly–but not really intensively.
Most of the time, I did my yoga at home all by myself, with an app or a book. Sometimes I also joined a class, and felt terrible after. Like when I went to an Iyengar Yoga weekend once in Munich. In this kind of yoga you have to do all sorts of things with ropes tied to the walls, and you have got to jump into straddle positions and from one pose to another… It just wasn’t for me and I felt like I was hit by a train.
This happened to me in almost any class, and I can see that I am not alone with this issue. Because if you just go to a class once a week, it might feel good and be quite intense, but in the long run, your yoga practice will only be elevated by regular small bits of training.
However, I did not want to hear that. I was all about acceptance. And acceptance can really be the killer of motivation, my friends. I must say, I am not at all about body positivity anymore today. I am about body realness. For me, that means, I only have to accept things that I have really tried to change. Yes, I can make peace with those, I must. But all the other things, like missing flexibility, those are not up for acceptance for me anymore!
How I adapted my yoga practice to progress faster
So in 2020 I changed my idea of what yoga should look like in my everyday life – from sporadic sessions to daily effort. I started with 10 minutes/day, and felt sooo ambitious. After two months, when I saw that there was still no big change, I stepped it up to 20 minutes a day. That was, when my downward dog really started improving. Today, I am at 40 minutes per day and 1-2 sessions. Once a week, I also do a 60 minutes Vinyasa flow.
But I did not only change the length and frequency of my yoga sessions, I also intensified the stretching poses I was doing. That is, I did really lean and breath into the stretch, while before I was just waiting for gravity to do its magic… And that might work, yes, but for me it was going way too slow.
I also want to add, that I believe in yoga as a holistic practice. Just taking out Hatha Yoga and doing it like some sort of sports won’t do for me. I want the full experience, if you want to call it that, at a spiritual level. Or, let’s say, at a mindful one. I am convinced that the neurobiological changes that are triggered by constant yoga exercises, are most drastic and even more permanent if you do yoga that way. Including all the things, westerners are not used to, like meditation and Pranayama.
Another very important factor for me was the right execution of the asanas. I think that yoga is most beneficial when you do it as correct as possible and not “as feels right” like some western teachers instruct you to do it. I am keen to reach good alignment, and I try to be rather traditional about my yoga practise. My dream is to someday find a really strict old-school yoga teacher and learn from them about yoga, how it was before it came to Europe.
What changed when I changed my way of doing yoga?
So these were the four things I changed in my yoga practice, not only to get better at that downward dog, but also to progress in general:
- intensity of stretching
- mindful, holistic approach
- alignment and correctness of execution of asanas
But what were the results?
My progress in downward facing dog
Here you can see my downward dog before / after. Between those pictures there is a three months gap. However, I would only count the last month, as it was the time when I started doing yoga twice a day for more than 30 minutes.
So, I really think it is fair to say that you can reach this increase in flexibility in one month or less. For me, it was three weeks, I just took that picture later and I don’t want to lie to you guys about the dates.
I also want to mention that the pose is slightly different in both pictures, because I stepped forward a bit, but that is due to the fact that I took those pictures multiple times with a shutter set to 10 seconds. It looked just the same with the feet closer to my hands, I assure you. I simply wasn’t that flexible at first. But trust me, downward dog is one of the poses where you can see progress the fastest!
How can this pose be improved?
Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement here, as this is by far not perfect. And no, “perfect” does not mean that I am a perfectionist… I see this as an individually defined level of “what is the best I can reach”. And I am just not at that level yet.
Here is what I would change in this pose:
Tips for improving your downward dog
- Keep the spine straight and the back really flat. Like in forward fold. So rather flex your legs than your spine! This is why, in this picture, my heels are not on the ground. I can do that, but this was taken in the morning when I am still kind of stiff in my back. In the evening it is much easier 😉
- Middle fingers point forward, spread the fingers to support the wrists – do not put too much weight on the wrists. This I sometimes forget, but it is very important to keep in mind that you really have to take care of your wrists. If your wrists get sore, there are so many poses you can’t do. Don’t forget about them.
- Push the heels further into the ground while keeping a straight spine. However, you have to push and you have to lean your chest towards your upper thighs. Otherwise the progress will be very slow. Push yourself over the uncomfortable and stop when there is pain. But be aware of the quality of pain. Of course there is always some pain in stretching – but there is a difference when it comes to productive pain and warning pain. If the pain is not from the stretching and feels unnatural and sharp, adapt your pose!
- Rotate the arms slightly outwards, bring the shoulders away from the ears and let the head down like a heavy tomato.
- Firm your thighs and draw your kneecaps upwards. This also helps a lot with stabilizing the pose, however when you start out with downward dog, it will probably not be available to you. Concentrate on the flat back then and try to relax in the pose.
Preparation for downward facing dog
In the end, downward dog should not only be about stretching, but about mindful breating and relaxation. For me it is an absolute relaxing pose. If you want to increase that effect, you can do a few poses before getting into downward dog, which will make it feel much more relaxing in contrast. This principle you can by the way apply to any challenging pose. Just do a few harder ones before it and it will feel almost like a reward to get into the pose you wanted to get into initially. I prefer those as a warm-up for downward dog:
- Janu Sirsasana: head to knee pose
- Half Hanumanasana: half splits pose
- Uttanasana: standing forward fold
- Warrior I, II, III and reverse warrior
If you are a beginner, start with warrior I. It will be challenging enough for you. After that downward dog will feel like a blessing. Try to hold warrior I for at least 8 breaths.
So, this was my recipe to improve downward dog. I will provide more pictures when I am able to really touch the ground – like in the morning and not just the evening – and tell you more about how long it took me. However, I believe, with daily practice, this is a matter of weeks or few months.