Ado mukha svanasana or downward dog – one of the first asanas you’ll meet, and one you’ll never see the last of. It’s a foundation pose from which many sequences start and end. At times it feels like a sigh of relief; other times it feels like you just can’t get comfortable in it.
For this article, we’ll illustrate the basic muscular efforts you need to make your downward dog feel a lot longer and stronger in your legs and back.
In downward dog, you must’ve heard your teachers say:
“reach your sitting bones up”
“lift your hips and heels”
“bend your knees first”
So why are we always cued to bend our knees in our first few downward dogs? Well, the hamstrings can be quite stubborn, and forcing our heels to reach down and our legs to straighten before they’re ready won’t help our hamstrings open up. Our hamstrings, because they’re connected to our sitting bones, tip our pelvis backwards when they’re under more tension than they can handle. When our pelvis tips too far back, we lose the natural concave curves in our lower spine, compressing the discs between vertebra.
How do we fix that? First, get some height: push into the floor to lift up your hips and heels. Think of your sitting bones as the top of the tent, and imagine touching the ceiling with them. Keep that imagery and effort going all throughout.
Next, bend your knees so that your hamstrings are not pulling so hard on your pelvis. In fact, by bending your knees (which is where your hamstrings end), you can lift your sitting bones higher (which is where your hamstrings start). At the same time, flex deeper at the hips by bringing your chest closer to your thighs. You have many hip flexors, but for the purpose of simplicity, I drew only the psoas. It connects from your spine to your femur, so when it contracts, it brings the torso closer to the legs.
All the while, keep trying to lift your sitting bones up by contracting your back muscles. You have a series of long muscles that run all the way down your spine to the tailbone, collectively called the erector spinae group. These muscles are responsible for, as the name suggests, keeping your spine erect. In simple forward bends, these muscles are lengthened and relieved of their duty. But in downward dog, and all active forward bends, these muscles still have to contract to help maintain the natural inward curve of the lower back.
Once you’ve got all those muscular efforts in, you can try to straighten your legs and lower your heels, but never at the expense of your spine.
When she isn’t drawing body parts, you can find Tami Ledesma teaching Vinyasa, FNR, Gentle Flow, and Pre-Natal yoga at Urban Ashram, or pulsing among her students at Barre3. Follow her asana adventures on Instagram at @movewithtami.