Red faced and mangled, half upside down, only shreds of breath, my wrists were sore, my hands were slipping, my knees and my elbows were stressed. From somewhere in the room I heard the sound of someone saying that Downward Facing Dog was a resting posture. I laughed out loud.
Yoga felt good enough that I was curious and wanted to do more, but awkward enough that I just didn't feel like things were working in the way that they were being described to me. I was experiencing a good bit of strain and the occasional injury. It was time to look deeper.
On my first 200 hour Yoga teacher training in New York, Beth Beigler, a dedicated student of Body Mind Centering and an Iyengar trained Ayurvedic practioner, was our anatomy teacher. Through a series of one to one sessions with Beth, who introduced props to illuminate elements of the postures that weren't evident to me at the outset, things began to make more sense in my body. I was able to feel what was right in the posture instead of what was wrong. Once the physical struggle was resolved, the connection with the breath arrived and with that, the Yoga. Finally.
15 years later, I look around the room and I see people struggling to find the posture and I clearly remember my own experience. Much of the work that I did with Beth, and a few other things I have learned along the way, became a workshop called Foundations at Yoga Dublin. Downward Facing Dog and it's many facets feature heavily.
Why do we do Downward Facing Dog? The question came up in the last workshop. There is a long list of potential benefits and this is only a few. The posture builds strength and flexibility in the legs and arms, elongates the spine, opens the chest and can relieve upper back strain. Memory and concentration can improve. Circulation increases and the nervous system quietens. BKS Iyengar said it's a great posture to "bring back lost energy", noting its restorative potential. It's there, even if it doesn't feel that way today.
"Adho mukha does give some of the benefits of an inversion even though it's not a complete inversion.," Beth wrote in a recent email. "And the dynamics of the pose prepare the student for doing full inversions, provided that asana is taught with integrity...I say integrity as a substitute for "correctly", since correctly can mean very different things to different people."
Influenced by the Body Mind Centering view on Yoga, Beth does not regard the spine as an "organ of action". The arms and hands, feet and legs are the organs of action. In her words," …downward facing dog is probably the best asana in which to learn how to use the periphery to support the center: how to fully activate the limbs so that the spine can remain relaxed and lengthen, the nervous system can release and the heart can remain calm. Most people coming to yoga underuse and/or misuse the limbs in many poses and overuse and/or misuse the spine. Especially since we're bipedal...if your feet, legs and pelvis are not in the proper relationship to gravity and integrated in the proper alignment the spine is not supported and has to work in ways it was not really designed (read back pain).
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Sara Calbro describes how Downward Facing Dog also activates the bladder channel in Chinese Medicine, enabling energy flow and strengthening the body's immunity and primary defense mechanism. Well worth a read. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sara-calabro/acupuncture-points_b_1531601.html Importantly, your yoga teacher gets a lot of information from looking at you in this posture and can make helpful suggestions or anticipate modifications in other postures by reading you here. As Leslie Kaminoff puts it in Yoga Anatomy, "…it's a great opportunity to observe the effects of the arms and legs on the spine." And practically, It's a good posture to transition to and from in a Vinyasa class. So, I like you here.
When you find yourself struggling with a posture, ask your teacher for some ideas or drop into a workshop where we have the time to break things down. One set of directions doesn't work for every body. Minor modifications can help a lot. If you ask me now, why do I do downward facing dog? I do it because it feels good. Everywhere.