Ask the Yogi: Downward Dog

Ask the Yogi: Downward Dog

Ask The Yogi

Q:  How do I get my heels down in downward dog?
A:  Adho Mukha Svanasana or downward facing dog is one of the most comon yoga postures practiced in class.  It can also be one of the most challenging…

Downward-Facing Dog is particularly challenging to new students because it works alomost every part of the body.  Rarely perceived as a “resting” posture for the novice, this asana functions as a great indicator of overall body tension and fatigue.  Usually someone who cannot place their heels flat in downward dog also experiences a general tightness throughout the body manifesting as a somewhat hunched thoracic spine and tight neck and shoulders. Generally, the physical challenge of raised heels in downward dog can be simplified into one of two causes:

1) Soft Tissue (musculo-fascial) tightness.
2) Skeletal limitations.

Mental/emotional contriburting factors to raised heals may include:
1) Rushing.
2) Feelings of instability, fear or stress.

Skeletal limitations, though somewhat rare, are certainly common enough.  The ankle may be structured in such a way that  the bones of the foot and ankle compress at a wider angle, preventing the top of the foot from moving closer to the shin.  You can test this somewhat by extending the leg and flexing the foot or making a low, adjustable support to sit on (pile of blankets, bolster) and moving the knees forward as much as possible while shifting weight forward to determine the angle of foot to shin.  Though even skeletal limitation can be alleviated somewhat by practicing the suggestions below to stretch soft tissue, a good deal of this angle may not be adjustable at all.  Having said this, most people can bend their foot to less than a 90 degree angle from their shin.  A much more common cause for raised heels, though, is a tightness in the hips, hamstrings and/or tightly bound fascia or connective tissue.

Tight hips are usually an indication of held patterns of stress and binding fascia especially at the heads of the femurs and around the sacrum.  An imbalance causing the hamstrings to rigidly counterstretch at a constant, low-grade level can be caused by a tight psoas muscle which connects from the inner trochanter of the femur (leg bone) all the way up to the thoracic spine, where it meshes with the diaphragm.  This is probably the most common reason for  the inability to lower the heels in this posture.  A tight psoas can cause all kinds of challenges including a “rounding” (kyohosis) of the lumbar spine, lower back pain and stiff hamstrings.  When the psoas is in constant low grade contraction from stress or injury, the lower back will try to counter by flexing to keep the torso upright .  This tug and pull ends up compressing the spine, especially the lower back, and puts increased strain in the hamstrings.

Ironically enough, raised heels may also be caused by overly rigid quadriceps and tight shins.  Since every muscle has an antagonist, if one muscle group is tight, the opposing or antagonistic muscles will also tighten to try and even out the imbalance.  In this instance there will be more of a sense of general immobility for the sensitive practitioner.  The overall result is compression.

Upper-body tightness can also be an indicator of raised heels (and psoas constriction).  Such individuals may find it a challenge to hold the pose utkatasana (squatting pose, mighty posture) or even stand intadasana with the arms raised straight towards the ceiling — instead the arms will be leaning forward closer to a 45 degree angle.  Though the thoracic spine may only be ronded forward a few degrees, the resulting shift can cause considerable difficulty in many yoga postures from warrior A to downward dog.  This is usually caused by constricted fascia at the intercostals, tight muscles and many years of experiencing the physical habit of “closing off the heart” with the shoulders and/or scapula.  (For more information, read about Forward Bends by clicking here.)  If you find yourself in this category, you can benefit greatly by simply hanging from a bar or tree branch “pull-up style” every day, gradually working yourself up to several efforts of a minute or so each day to re-lengthen the fascia.  Most indivuals who cannot raise their arms straight over their head are able to experience a lengthening of the torso with the help of gravity in this exercise.

Provided that your limitations are not skeletal in nature, the following additional suggestions can address some physical and mental causes of tightness and help you to begin to lower your heels in downward dog with regular practice:

  • Breathe Deeply and rhythmically.  Since the psoas is connected to the diaphragm, deep breaths will help to calm the entire body and create more mobility for the upper psoas.  The psoas will also begin to relax with a regular deep-breathing and yoga practice because it is directly related to the fight or flight response and tenses in preparation to run or face a difficult situation.
  • Engage the quadriceps. The hamstrings are a group of muscles that flex the leg, primarily in opposition to th equadriceps.  Through reciprocal innervation, if you strongly engage the quadriceps your hamstrings will have to release accordingly.
  • Practice Yin poses to stretch the psoas, hamstrings and hip flexors.  Yin postures like cobra or supported bridge stretch the spine, sacrum, and psoas.  Forward bensds with split legs or legs together help to stretch bound fascia at hamstring insertion points and throughout the muscle.
  • Practice Yin backbends to open the shoulders and heart.
  • Move your hands a bit closer to your feet and learn the strength of spirals.  This will especially help if you have skeletal limitations rather than muscular tightness or facial constriction.  Moving hands closer to feet increases the angle between the top of the foot and the shin, but also puts more stretch into the hamstrings.  Press the palms straight down into the floor through your mat, then press the root of the pointer down and “push” your mat forward.  Finally, imagine there is a jar lid beneath each hand and turn in or out lightly until you feel the maximum space in the shoulders and armpits while still pushing the rooted hands forward.
  • Bend your knees.  This will help you to subtly lengthen the psoas and diaphragm and “get out of your shoulders”.  After you are warm and stretched, start to straighten one leg and then the other, bringing your heels further and further to the floor.
  • Do asanas that stretch the metatarsals and feet.  Balancing postures such as toe stand, natarajasana, garland posture (malasana) and more help to stretch the toes and indirectly stretch the calves and achilles tendon area.  Work on spreading your toes in these postures.
  • Use a wall.  Ground your heels as much as possible against a baseboard while extending the hands forward away from the feet and lifting the tailbone.  Use your breath to relieve the tension in the spine and calves.
  • Meditate.  Stress has a very real physiological effect on the body.  All stress, problems and tension start in the mind.  Calm the mind and you will begin to eliminate the cause of your tension from the root, before it can effect the psoas or hamstrings.

Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.  All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.
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