Downward Facing Dog ( Adho Mukha Svanasana ) - Issues and solutions
List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:
· Head below heart
· Thoracic Spine
· Lumbar Spine
· Tight Hamstrings
· Tight Calf Muscles
Head below heart
Although taking the head below the heart is beneficial for most people, this is potentially unhelpful or dangerous for
a few people – those for whom there is already a risk of stroke or too much pressure in the head. For this reason, taking the head below the
heart is usually considered unwise for people with conditions such as: high blood pressure; previous history of stroke; tendency to headaches or migraines; recent (in the last 3 months ) eye operation; and, possibly, for certain eye conditions like glaucoma. In addition, if one currently has a cold or a headache, taking the head below the heart may well feel uncomfortable. As with so many precautions, issues of whether they apply to you can found by observation of how one feels – if taking the head below the heart in this pose causes the following sensations then avoid doing so (if not, then it is unlikely you will come to harm doing so – unless you have been told by a doctor that you should not take your head below your heart as would be the case if you have had a recent eye operation): feeling flushed or hot in the head or face; increased feeling of pressure in head or feelings of pressure pulses; face looking red; feelings of discomfort in the head or face. Where you need to avoid taking the head below the heart, a useful modification in to practise the pose with the hands placed on a wall (instead of on the floor) – as this give the muscular
system similar stretching / working but avoids taking the head below the heart.
In this pose a lot of weight transfers down through the wrists which are in a somewhat extended position – in healthy wrists
this is fine and can help to maintain the health and strength of the wrists. But in wrists that have become stiff (or weak), for
example from arthritis, this can feel uncomfortable or painful. It can help to press down consciously through the hands (heel
of hand, pad of forefinger joint, pad of little finger joint) as this seems to “create more space” in the wrist joint. Also
recommended is making sure that the fingers are spread wide with middle fingers parallel. However, often this is not
enough – in which case one can practise a modified down facing dog – either with elbows resting on floor (as well as wrists –
this is much harder work elsewhere and, in particular, requires freedom of movement in both shoulders and upper back) or with
placing hands on wall (as this leads to less force being transferred across the wrist joints). In the long term, working with
various wrist exercises (e.g. see section on all fours) may help to bring sufficient strength and mobility back to the wrist joints.
Restrictions in shoulder mobility are a common limiting factor in downward facing dog. Compared to what is needed to bring the
arms fully in line with trunk (& shoulder-width apart), most people (including those who have practised yoga for many years and are
otherwise flexible) are somewhat restricted, either by the latissimus dorsi or by the pectoralis major or both. This can be easily
tested for by lying on one’s back, swinging the arms to the floor by one’s head and then allowing the arms to relax while they
rest on the floor in this position – most people will find their arms bend at least a little. If the elbow is pointing more
upwards then that suggests that the pectoralis major muscle is a little tight. If the elbow is pointing sideways, the
latissimus dorsi muscle is probably a little tight. And, if the elbow points somewhere between up and sideways (most common),
that suggests that both muscles are a little tight. Obviously, for long term practice, one can work on stretching these muscles –
but, in the short term, it is helpful to modify one’s practice of the pose.
One reason why I prefer to modify down facing dog rather than use it to stretch these muscles is that, if you work with arms parallel
and shoulder-width apart, not only does one find it difficult to bring the trunk into alignment with the arms, one also restricts the
free movement of the thoracic spine – making it much more likely that one is unable to extend and straighten the thoracic spine. This
leads to an all round feeling of difficulty and tension and will inhibit free movement with the breath.
For many, just a slight modification is needed to allow for shoulder muscle restrictions. Placing the hands wide of the shoulders
and having the arms slightly bent usually does much to make one feel freer in both the shoulders and upper back – but it does involve
harder work for muscles (esp. of the arms).
Sometimes either or both shoulder joints are more than just moderately restricted – perhaps by extremely tight muscles, rotator
cuff problems or “frozen shoulder” types issues. It is then, I think, better to practise modified versions of downward facing
dog with hands on a wall (instead of on the floor). This helps in part by reducing the level of force the shoulders joints have
to cope with acting across them – this makes it easier to place the hands very wide and avoids muscles tightening to help support
the forces acting across the shoulder joint. Also, the direction of gravity helps one more with relaxing the shoulder joints
A few people have hyper-mobile shoulder (and / or elbow) joints – where this is the case, taking care over the alignment of the
joints is particularly important. Pressing the shoulders down may make the pose one achieves look superficially impressive – but,
in fact, one might be doing long term damage to one’s joints. [One of the problems people with hyper-mobile joints have is that
their joints are not protected from moving outside their healthy range of movement – with the result that joint damage and joint
pain is very common for these people.] So, instead of thinking in terms of sinking the shoulders, it is far better to work with
pressing the hands downwards (or into the wall if working with hands on wall) and using the leg muscles to help draw the hips
away from the hands – this is actually good advice for everyone, but unless one is fairly flexible it is hard to do, experience
and thus feel the merits of this approach (which encourages a mild traction for the spine creating space for free movement and
avoiding joint compression.)
Downward facing dog is a mild backbend for the thoracic spine as its natural curve is straightened – ideally to virtually completely
straight. There are lots of reasons why this might be difficult, even for those who can comfortably put their thoracic spine into
extension in other poses (such as cobra). One potential problem is restrictions in the shoulder joint – see above. Another cause of
difficulty can be that in an inverted pose one’s sense of one’s body shape and what one wants to ask it to do is often not as good
as in other poses – in this case, working with hands on the wall (instead of the floor) can be great for learning the internal body
signals that one is looking for. Another is that extension (backbend) of the thoracic spine is not being encouraged by back-bending
in the lumbar spine – so restrictions in thoracic spine extension become more apparent. And sometimes the thoracic spine is stiff or
has developed an excessive degree of kyphosis (rounded back) – in which case one just has to accept (at least until greater thoracic
mobility has been developed) that the thoracic spine is not going to become straight.
I find that working with hands on the wall (compared with hands on floor), is more effective at freeing up the upper back for extension –
partly I think because gravity acts in a more helpful direction and partly because there are smaller forces acting across the spinal joints,
allowing the muscles to be more relaxed. Also lifting the back of the neck a little (while keeping chin drawn into front of neck) can be
helpful in encouraging the thoracic spine into extension. Taking care over hand positioning (hands wide, fingers spread wide, middle
fingers parallel) and “rooting” hands (in particular pressing pad of forefinger joint into the surface, maintaining the pressing down
and then also pressing pad of little finger joint into the surface) can be surprisingly helpful. I also (when wanting to focus on freeing
up the thoracic spine) like to bring awareness to the spine between the shoulder blades and imagine this area sinking when exhaling and
being lifted (by a imagining a ball expanding under the spine) when inhaling – but many find this makes the pose feel “too strong” or
The other thing to bear in mind is that if you are having difficulty getting that “long back feeling” – it may be that your feet are a
bit too close to (or too far from) your hands – so it is worth experimenting with hand and feet position to find the distance that feels
most natural to you – especially as the limb length vs. back length is key here and varies greatly from person to person.
The lumbar spine is in mild flexion (forward bend) compared to its neutral shape as it’s natural curve is straightened –
ideally to essentially completely straight. In practice, most people will tend to over flex the lumbar spine so that it
is rounded – usually this is helped by bending the knees and so taking tension out of the hamstrings (see below). Being
aware of the tilt of the pelvic girdle is also likely to help if one can tilt the top of the pelvis downwards and the
bottom of the pelvis upwards – “moving the tail bone upwards”. Having a sense of drawing the hips backwards (away from
the hands), seems to “create more space” for the lumbar spine to flatten – and also for the thoracic spine to flatten.
And again working with hands on the wall (instead of the floor) can make achieving a long flat back easier and helps
with learning the internal body signals that one is looking for.
Some people find they are able to go into downward facing dog maintaining to some degree the lumbar spine’s natural curve
(visually looking as if the lumbar spine is in a backbend) – especially if the pose is practised with the knees bent.
This is more of an opportunity than a problem – if one goes into the pose maintaining the lumbar spine backbend, one can
then cause the lumbar spine to straighten, either by drawing the tail-bone downwards or by sinking one’s heels. This
has the effect of moving the sacrum away from the shoulders/hands and puts the spine into mild traction, which is good
for both the lumbar and thoracic spine creating space for freer movement.
Unless one is very flexible with regard to hamstrings, they are likely to preventt one from achieving a full downward facing dog
pose. If one tries to practice this pose with the legs straight, without having sufficient length in the hamstrings, one finds
the shape of the lumbar spine (and probably also that of the thoracic spine) is compromised. Rather than allow the spinal shape
and experience to be compromised, it is better to practise with bent knees – this allows one to experience the “long back with
mild traction” which, in my experience, is a key component of what the pose is about. There are other poses that are much
better for stretching the hamstrings (e.g. lying on one’s back with both knees close to chest, clasping hands behind one leg
and straightening the leg in the air) if that is what one wants to do.
If one can comfortably achieve a long straight back in the pose with knees bent, then one can explore taking the lumbar spine
into extension and then imagining the heels sinking downwards until the lumbar spine is flat again – this approach increases the
sense of spinal traction in the pose and avoids over-straightening of the legs (given the length of one’s hamstrings).
Tight Calf Muscles
The full version of the pose requires very long and flexible calf muscles – the more so if one practises the pose with one’s knees bent.
For most purposes, it is best to modify the pose to allow the heels to be off the floor – this could be unsupported, or heels resting
on something like a rolled up towel or a wall. Again, practising with one’s hands on a wall (rather then the floor) greatly eases
matter with regard to this issue – so, if one’s calf muscles or feet are sore, this is the better option. With practice, most people
find their calf muscles lengthen to allow their heels to be closer to the floor.
Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have
heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated
by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to
give a better explanation.
In the later stages of pregnancy one of the issues that needs to be borne in mind is that the womb starts to press against the
inferior vena cava (main vein in the trunk) and the aorta (main artery). This has implications for blood circulation to and from the
legs. It is thus unwise to hold legs active in static positions for more than a very short period - with risks of discomfort,
tiredness (in legs) and an increased likelihood, over the long term, of getting varicose veins or tissue fluid issues (oedema)
in the legs. With regard to this pose, this means that one wants to use variants that are gentle enough to practise safely in a
smooth flowing way with little or no static holding of the pose and including as much leg movement as is feasible and pleasant.
Most yoga books and yoga teachers seem to advise using the modified versions where the hands are resting on the wall (instead of
the floor) – I imagine this is because the “hands on wall” versions are typically less strenuous and thus less stressful for one’s body.