Not that we ever judge people in class… BUT if we WERE to do such a thing (perhaps in the same way all the other type-A competitive students in NYC vinyasa classes are judging you all the time), Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) is one of the easiest poses to criticize. Even in a mirrored class, being upside down can really throw off our proprioception. We may THINK that our bodies are doing something that they, in fact, are not even close to doing (ever see someone in a really crooked headstand? Chances are, they think they are completely straight). That being said, it is REALLY REALLY difficult to have a perfectly flat back, straight legs and heels touching the floor, which are generally the cues you are given in downward-facing dog. From a functional movement perspective, this begs question: WHY is it important to have a flat back, straight legs and heels to the floor all at once? The answer is simple: Unless you are being paid to perform this pose in this way, it’s not important at all. AT ALL. Now that we are clear on that, let’s move on. Let us assume that the goal of this pose in this post is to have a “flat back,” as opposed to prioritizing hamstring length.
You generally (we are being really general here, we know that it isn’t this simple) see two types of really effed up looking downward dogs in class. Below we will explain why these things happen and what you can do about them.
1) Your back is not as flat as you think it is.
Most people lack the hamstring or gastroc (those are your calves) flexibility to completely straighten their legs in this pose without rounding the back. There is NOTHING WRONG with doing it this way (aside from looking like the picture below), as long as you are AWARE that you are doing this. Most people think that their back is flat, because they feel the sensation of the hamstring stretch so intensely, that it throws off proprioception since the brain may only focus on “ow, my hamstrings”. Why would this be bad? A) If someone is trying to use this pose for spinal alignment purposes (or is looking for “better” posture, which a “long spine” or axial extension does not guarantee), this puts the spine in flexion. Again, nothing wrong with it as long as you realize this. B) If you are working on this to gain shoulder flexibility in flexion (more specifically, upward rotation of the shoulder blade) OR to work towards handstands, doing it this way defeats the purpose and you will never get that handstand you want so badly (or you’ll just figure out a way to muscle into a really effed up looking handstand).
Solution? BEND YOUR KNEES. This way, there is actually a chance of sensing what your spine is doing. I promise, you will still get a hamstring stretch, if that’s what you want.
2) Your back is STILL not as flat as you think it is.
This one goes out to all my hypermobile peeps who can sink so deeply into downward facing dog that either their backs will curve into extension, or their arms will reach beyond the line of the spine (like in the picture below). This is no good, especially if the humerus is internally rotated, which is generally the case (sorry, Kim didn’t want to break herself for the sake of the photo and show that). This is a very vulnerable place to bear weight in that joint and for some people can lead to impingement, or worst case scenarios dislocations. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. Also, see how I have to counter-balance with my head when I do this? Ever wonder where all that stress in your neck comes from? Solution: If you are hypermobile, use a dowel rod against your back in this pose and make sure it touches 3 points: your head, your sacrum AND your upper back. Or just… bend your knees and don’t go as deep and try to actually sense what your spine is doing. Yes, it will back you out of the pose. No, it won’t kill you, it will actually make you stronger.
3) Because you are not BENDING YOUR KNEES!!!
Oh wow, look at that, I bent my knees and now I can actually sense my spine in space and flatten it out. Try it at home. 😉