I don’t teach headstand or shoulderstand – the first because I can’t do it, and the second because I don’t like it, so I’m a bit stuck when it comes to inversions (although I do count as an inversion, any posture that takes the head below the heart, if it is held for several breaths). I have been looking at ways of working towards Downward Facing Dog, by using modifications and alternative versions. I don’t like the classic posture much because the obsession with placing the feet flat on the floor (which most beginners cant do), takes all the fun out of it and risks rounding the upper back and only reinforcing bad postural habits. Equally, if you are very flexible and you can do it, then there is always the temptation to overstretch in the shoulders. However, there are aspects of working in Downward Facing Dog that are very appealing – the chance to work with the breath in this posture (by extending the out-breath for example), can feel wonderful – especially if you are doing a version where your hamstrings aren’t screaming at you.
I have found two books extremely useful while I’ve been researching this. The first is my rediscovered ‘Moving into Stillness’ by Erich Schiffmann, which I’ve had on my bookshelf for years and years and forgotten all about (1). The second is Michaelle Edwards’ YogAlign(2). (I really like Michaelle’s approach to yoga so I often have my nose in this book). Erich Schiffman offers us Quarter Dog and Half Dog, done from a kneeling position, and Michaelle offers us Downward Facing Dog working on tiptoes.
In my initial warm up, I’m including supine leg stretches based on Supta Padangustasana . (If you want a book reference, my favourite is Moving into Stillness p. 239 onwards, and including Urdhva Mukha Upavista Konasana – or the lying down version of the wide legged forward bend (1)). Erich makes all of these look easy, but I’ll be passing round the straps and urging people not to overdo it.
I’ll progress to a series of shoulder limbers from a sitting/kneeling position. (Erich Schiffmann again, see page 182 following ). I am reading a book about facilitated stretching which is very interesting (3) and from that, I’m including a couple of exercises for the shoulder and wrists.
Next I’m moving on to variations of the Cat pose: including the moving version because this is a good preparation for the arms and wrists and I might add a twist in the all fours position.
Moving up to standing via Plank and a lunge (good for the Psoas muscle group). Somebody told me recently that if you work on placing the undersides of the knuckles of your index fingers on the floor in these wrist-challenging postures like Plank, it can take some of the pressure off. See what you think.
I like to work carefully on placing the feet for Tadasana because it makes such a difference to the arches and then to the ankles and onwards and upwards …. before adopting a standing balance. Tree pose probably. If you have a tendency to wobble – (and at the end of a hard day, many people do, including me), Erich Schiffmann has a tip for using the wall. Instead of steadying yourself with a hand, he suggests aligning yourself with the wall so that the bent knee touches the wall. This seems to work because as well as helping to balance, it also maintains the rotation in the hip joint.
Returning to Tadasana, I’m envisaging a side bend followed by Ardha Uttanasana (half forward bend) – again using the wall but this time placing the hands on the wall and lengthening the spine. Knees are soft – in my opinion everything works better with soft knees. We could take this into the full Uttanasana by turning around and leaning against the wall. If you take your feet away from the wall just the right distance and then fold foward keeping the sit bones against the wall, it’s an excellent way to experience the posture.
Then finally, we can return to all fours and begin to work on Downward Facing Dog modifications, beginning with Erich Schiffmann’s Quarter Dog (see page 122). Starting in neutral Cat pose, rest on the forearms. Bring the right hand behind the left elbow. Root down through the right elbow and stretch the left arm away, stretching into the fingers of the left hand and placing as much of the left palm as possible on the floor. You are aiming to keep your outstretched arm and torso in a straight line, so you may need to press the hips backwards. Rest your forehead on your right forearm. Once you are fully in this stretch, you may lift your head and look forward (very carefully) or not.
Half Dog begins the same way, in neutral cat but resting on the forearms, but this time stretching both arms away. Rest your forehead on the floor and press the hips back. Erich offers raising the head and curving the chest towards the floor, but this is a very intense stretch and I would avoid it with beginners.
Both these postures offer all the benefits of Adho Mukha Svanasana without involving the legs. I like them very much.
Michaelle Edwards’s version of Downward Dog is lovely. (See page 268). She advocates staying on tiptoes in ‘High Dog’. This then becomes a traction pose that keeps the spine in alignment, stabilises the core and preserves the integrity of the joints. You don’t need to press your chest towards the floor – what you are aiming at is to keep a definite V shape. Michaelle warns all seasoned yogis that if they do Downward Dog on auto-pilot (even with her variation), they will miss the point, especially if they lock the knees, push the shoulders towards the floor and hang off the ligaments. This will only result in compression of the spine.
I would finish in Child pose, then knees-to-chest lying on our backs.
Breathing and relaxation. Namaste.
(1) Yoga – The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann, Pocket Books, 1996
(2) YogAlign – Pain-Free Yoga from your Inner Core, by Michaelle Edwards, Hihimanu Press, 2011
(3) Facilitated Stretching by Robert E. McAfee & Jeff Charland, Human Kinetics 2014