If you are a seasoned Yogi, Down Dog is something you’ve done quite often. If you are new to Yoga, or even if you’ve done a million Dog Poses, you might be asking, “What does a Downward Dog do anyway?”. “What am I supposed to feel, and do to get it “right”?”. Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward Facing Dog Pose is technically a forward bend (but a very active and slightly upside down one) and is meant to create head to tail lengthening (called “axial extension” in the anatomy world). As my teacher put it, “the softer your joints, the lighter you’ll feel”, and in this pose it is especially true that slightly bending the knees and elbows can free you up to relax more into the pose. This is a hard pose! A great way to enter into this doggy experience is not on the mat but while you are in the kitchen (believe it or not). Try reaching your arms out in front of you first and draw the arm bones into your shoulder sockets and feel the “armpit” muscles” engage. Then place hands on the counter and lengthen back into a table top position with your spine; with feet under hips and soft knees; inner thighs toned up. It is a challenge to let go of the shoulder muscles – even at the best of times. Try releasing your neck and shoulders when all your weight is balanced between arms and hips. When you do Down Dog on the mat, you bend over, place your hands and feet about 4 feet away from each other, and lift your hips up and back (as in “wag the tail”). It feels really good to let the head snake out of the shoulders like a turtle out of it’s shell. Your shoulder blades draw up onto your ribs when your engage your “serape” muscles; the muscles that wrap around you from your sides and “tie” into your belly. Try keeping the elbows (and knees) soft, slightly bent as I mentioned; it makes it easier to play with the shoulder blades and get them to lift off the neck. There’s a tendency in this pose to lock out and try too hard. Put your effort into pressing the front arch of the hands and all 5 fingers firmly into the mat and deepen the breath into the ribs. When you exhale, imagine a gurney around your center pulling you up and let your belly be the force that “suspends” your weight. As you inhale, expand the ribs (and low belly) and open the waist. Your exhale can “squeeze” the ribs and engage your core from all sides. Yes, this will tone you up! Yes, this pose stretches the hamstrings. Yes, it is a good pose for energizing and waking up your energy. It is also a great detox pose. But use caution if you have any shoulder, wrist, neck, heart, eye, sinus or headache conditions as this is an inverted pose. Check in with a trained teacher. Check in with your inner teacher. You have one! Always keep checking in with your breath; is it getting too rapid or restrained? Slow the breath down and exhale through your mouth to cool off and “chill out” a bit. Feel free to to come down and rest with hips over heels and chest over thighs or on “all fours” as you need to re-group occasionally in this pose. What if your “Dog” did yoga? What Would Your Dog Do? Doggies naturally shake! Shake out tension and swivel side to side. Keeping your Down Dog Pose fluid will not only release joint, muscle and nerve tension, it will also maximize detoxification, lymphatic return, fascial release, and enjoyment! This will enable you to find that “happy place” in your pose. The sweet spot in your Adho Mukha Svanasana is when you can take an easy breath (or a few) and lengthen from head to tail, even while you stay playful. How “should” you Do Yoga? Sniff….Breathe…Streeeetch…..then Rest A LOT.
Today I gave a presentation on Yoga mindfulness relaxation techniques for test taking and general stress reduction to a group of elementary teachers in my home town. I mentioned the research studies that link Yoga practices in the classroom with better focus and more positive attitude in children and called myself a “Yoga Geek”; funny – but true! It was humbling to know that these incredible teachers already implement many wonderful techniques to help the students focus, prepare for tests and feel relaxed in each school day. These teachers don’t necessarily want or need another curriculum idea! However, I was excited to share some very simple, easy to “slip in” Yoga mindfulness tools that can be used during exams, transitions, or even given to students to use anytime needed during a regular day. One of the teachers mentioned that she is already seeing her students regularly using the exercises at their desks ( I had previously taught some of the Yoga tools to Relax the test to her class). This was great to hear! A fabulous and easy technique I showed the teachers today is called the “Chi Ball”. Students gently clap and/or rub their hands together, then separate the hands a few inches, feel the sensation between their hands while breathing easily and fully, and firmly plant both feet on the ground. Kids can make a “ball” with their “energy” between the hands; to stretch, shape and compress the “Energy Ball”. This exercise quickly focuses and calms children and they love it! One of my favorite stories about the “Chi Ball” was from a high school age Yoga student of mine who loved the technique so much she started teaching it to her friends. “It helps them calm down and get centered”, she said. While I realize that teachers have less and less time for any extra curriculum in grade school (or any) classes, and that they are doing an amazing job at preparing the students for the benchmark tests, this kind of Yoga mindfulness tool is short and unobtrusive, and can help kids during the long exam process (or during a regular day). Hearing inspirational stories about Yoga in the classroom keeps me energized as a teacher of all ages. Getting to share some Yoga tools with the best of the best teachers at Zilker elementary in Austin, Texas was such an honor. I am reminded that gratitude is the finest form of mindfulness. Kids are our best teachers.