For many people new to yoga, using a personal yoga trainer in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or joining a yoga class in the UAE is the best way to go as this will ensure you get the best advise and practical experience from your yoga sessions.
For people with some yoga experience this article written by Leila, a professional yoga personal trainer in Abu Dhabi will help you perfect your ‘downward facing dog’ yoga pose.
In the Westernised world, if someone mentions the word “yoga”, often the first thing that comes to mind is “Downward Facing Dog” (Sankskrit: adho mukha svanasana). Although it just looks like an upside down “v”, or the Arabic number for “8”, there is more to it.
When one first attempts this classic yoga pose, it can be confusing (perhaps a little intimidating) for a beginner. Don’t compromise on form to get the “look” – rather feel what is best for your body. The whole body is actually working hard. Below is a list of alignment cues, from the fingers to the toes. Pick one thing to focus on at a time.
Placement of hands and feet: To get a good idea of the distance between your hands and feet, first come into plank with your wrists under your shoulders. Without moving your hands or your feet, raise your hips up and back and press the heels down towards the ground.
Lower arms/Wrists/Fingers: Spread the fingers wide, like stars. Check that your fingers point ahead. Press down through the first knuckles of the thumb and index finger. This helps to distribute the weight through the hand and take some pressure off the carpal tunnel in the wrist – a narrow passage containing nerves – and reduce the risk of injury. Then gently rotate the forearms in towards each other. Think about gently drawing the thumbs in towards each other, without moving the hands. Hands should be shoulder-width apart, or slightly wider.
Note – if you have a wrist injury or still experience pain in this position, come down onto your forearms. Try to keep the elbows and wrists an equal distance apart so that the forearms are parallel, and the elbows are directly under the shoulders. This variation is called Dolphin.
Upper Arms/Shoulders: The shoulders are soft (engaged, but not tense like a military sergeant) and drawn away from the ears. Then think that you are hiding your armpits away, whilst also pressing the armpits away from the ground. Or, think about hugging the scapulae (shoulder-blades) in towards each other and drawing the ribcage away from the ground -notice how this feels on the outside edges of the upper back. Your lattissmus dorsi muscle is working hard here.
These actions rotate the upper arm outwards (so the soft, inner part of the elbow should face forwards a little). As everybody is different, the amount of rotation will differ from person to person. The upper body bears a lot of weight in this pose, so the shoulders need to work hard here. Strong, activated shoulders will help to prevent injuries in parts of the body not designed to bear weight (like the wrists and elbows).
Neck/Head: Gaze towards your knees and allow your head to be approximately in line with your upper arms. Lengthen through the upper spine by neither looking up towards your fingers, nor bringing your chin down towards your chest. Find the middle path.
Shoulders/Upper Back/Heart: Draw the scapulae (shoulder-blades) down the back, away from the ears. This creates space in the upper back and neck, releasing tension. Think that you are broadening the collarbones and lifting the heart. Think “soften”, rather than “relax”, asthe muscles are still working. These cues help to create length in the upper body. Having the shoulders engaged correctly will also help to reduce risk of injury in the elbows and wrists.
Upper Belly/Lower Ribs: Hug the upper belly inwards – think that you are drawing the ribcage backwards in space. Or, imagine someone is going to punch you in the belly and tense the entire belly!
Lower Belly/Core: Engage the pelvic floor muscles (the ones that stop urination midflow) by gently squeezing them inwards and upwards. Then hug the navel in towards the spine. A strong activated core helps to support the weight of the body and reduce the amount of pressure in the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Hips: Lift the hips up away from the heels, creating length in the hamstrings. At the same time, lift the hips up away from the hands to create length in the spine. Again, find the space that gives you a comfortable, sustainable stretch.
Thighs: Rotate the thighs in towards each other (think that the knee caps would begin to face each other if your feet weren’t plugging into the ground, toes forward). You can try placing a foam block between your thighs to reinforce the muscular action. Notice the space created in the hips. Are you able to safely move the hips a little further away from the heels and hands?
Knees: Lift the kneecaps up towards the hips to activate your quadriceps (front of the thigh) and prevent the knees from going too far back (hyperextension). If your hamstrings (back of the thigh) or lower back are tight and do not allow you to straighten the legs, go ahead and bend the knees as much as you need to. Notice how your backbody (including your spine) feel here – seek a comfortable stretch but don’t overdo it.
Heels: Draw the heels down towards the ground (they don’t have to touch the ground) to activate and lengthen through the back of the calves. Due to physiological reasons, some people may never be able to get the heels to the ground and that is absolutely OK.
Feet and Toes: Your feet should be hip width apart (or slightly less) with the toes pointing to the top of the mat (straight forward). Think that you are gently lifting from the arches of the feet all the way up to the groin, whilst gently pressing the feet into the ground.
Last but not lease – breathe! Try to breathe in and out through the nostrils, and keep the breath steady and even. If you find it difficult to maintain a steady breath, it may be an indicator that you are trying too hard and need to take a break, or tone it down a little. Take 5-10 breaths in downward facing dog – or stay longer if you are feeling good! If you feel a sharp, shooting pain, or a hot/tingling sensation anywhere in the body in any pose, it is a message from your body telling you to stop! Whether you need to just back off, or stop completely is up to you – listen to your body. Never try to force your body to go where it is not yet willing to go. It will open up in time, just be patient and enjoy the journey.
As you can see, there is a lot going on in downward facing dog. Try focusing on only one aspect of alignment each time you come into this shape, instead of attempting to feel (and remember!) everything at once. Notice how the inhalation and exhalation changes the sensations in that particular area.
Change the focus each time you practice to allow yourself to be fully aware of what that specific alignment/ muscular engagement feels like. Also remember that these are just guidelines. Feel free to explore and experiment – make subtle changes according to what your body feels it needs. Try shifting your weight back and forth, moving your hands or feet slightly to find a more comfortable position, or try forgetting everything you’ve learned and just listen to what your body needs!
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