Like I said, there seems to be a wide variety of concerns related to downward facing dog, which is understandable because physically, there's a lot going on in this pose. At its heart, though, I like to think of down dog being about extending the energy body. Energy is radiating forward through the hands, up and back through the sit bones (the bottom of the pelvis), and down through the heels -- and that is true regardless of any modifications a yogi might make to support hir physical body.
Adho Mukha Svanasana / Downward Facing Dog
Check out a basic how-to and a more detailed troubleshooting article. Areas of pinchy or stabbity concern tend to be in the wrists and/or shoulders. If you feel pain there, that's often a sign to modify your dog.
- Start on your hands and knees. Your knees will be basically under your hips and about hip-distance apart. Your wrists will be approximately shoulder-distance apart and just forward of your shoulders.
- Spread your fingers and ground through your whole palm, not just the heel of your hand, in order to protect your wrists. Another way to think of it is to ground especially through the L-shapes of your index fingers and thumbs; this will also help protect your wrists.
- Curl your toes under and lift your knees, keeping them bent. With your knees still bent, bring your torso toward your thighs, lengthen your spine, and raise your sit bones up toward the ceiling and back behind you, as you did in puppy pose.
- Press your thighs back and your heels toward the ground as much as you can while still keeping your spine long and your sit bones raised high. I know all the "cool yogis" have their legs straight and their heels on the floor. But from both an energy perspective and a pelvic perspective, it is not worth sacrificing spinal length to get there.
- Engage through your whole arms, keeping them basically straight without locking your elbows. Continue to press forward through your hands as you draw your shoulders away from your ears. You may also feel your shoulder blades draw together on your back. Relax your neck so it's in line with your spine.
- How long you'll want to stay in down dog will depend on how you're using it, as well as on how strenuous or restorative it is for you. If you're trying to build strength, staying for 5-10 breaths, then repeating as you have stamina, is a reasonably guideline. When you're ready to exit the pose, you can either step forward to uttanasana or lower and press back into balasana.
You may also be interested in seeing it in action, along with some common issues and modifications:
In terms of the pelvis, the goal here is basically the same as in puppy: lift your sit bones toward the ceiling -- you know, letting your "butt energy" shine -- while keeping your spine long and relaxed. Only, since the hamstrings are engaged, this can be more challenging in a traditional adho mukha svanasana. If that's the case for you, you may want to experiment with bending your knees and/or using blocks (shown above) or performing down dog using a wall:
As The Pragmatic Yogi notes, down dog at the wall is often suitable for people who have contraindications, which might include having high blood pressure or being late into their third trimester of pregnancy, for a traditional downward facing dog.
For more core work (and more heart opening), you can lift one leg at a time for a three legged dog. You can also do this on the floor and/or as a hip opener:
I like to think of the hip opening version as Fire Hydrant Dog. ;)
Other fun shit with downward facing dog:
- A restorative version, using a bolster to support the head. I will admit that honestly, this does not do a lot for me. So much of the rest of my body is actively engaged in down dog that resting my head doesn't really make it "supported" for me. Then again, everyone else =/= me, which is why I wanted to list it as a possibility.
- A partner assisted version using a partner (duh!) and a yoga strap. Also a way you can modify it to do without a partner, using a door. I should note that while I have tried the partner version, and it is awesome for me, I have not tried it with the door. I have visions of pulling the door off its hinges with the power of my butt -- and that is not something I care to explain to my landlord.
- My favorite down dog flow. Warning: When learning this, I have gotten myself "stuck" in wheel and not been able to flip myself back out. Incorporate into your practice at your own risk.
Starting next time, we'll move to a couple-ish of poses that still lengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor but that start to strengthen surrounding muscle groups.