“It’s a new day, new way!” That’s the motto we can all have in our spring exercise program. It’s refreshing, freeing and empowering to approach our yoga and exercise by letting go of dysfunction and embracing that which promises to promote good health.
The conventional downward-facing dog pose and numerous other positions made up a large part of my practice throughout my career. I was always willing, especially when younger, to give the old college try to anything that the masses were drawn to and that seemed beneficial. We are all ultimately responsible for separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. We all need to use common sense and intuition to find what truly works for us. Also, we should be mindful that the kernels of truth that we embrace in our 20s might not sprout so well in our 50s. My approach to the common downward dog is very different today than it was decades ago.
We need to keep in mind that we are not dogs; we walk on two legs, not four. Is mimicking a dog’s positioning worth doing?
The human body rarely, if ever, has the need to get down on hands and knees with butt up in the air and knees locked straight while heels are pressing down toward the floor. No body participates in any normal every day activity or sports exercise that requires this “down dog” position. It’s certainly not an instinctive draw for a body to stay in this pose for 30 seconds to several minutes. When canines stretch in the “down dog” position, they hold it for a few seconds, and they’re done. The only reason my body has ever hung out in the “down dog” is because someone told me I should do it, said it was good for me, even suggested that it was a "resting pose," and I believed them. These people all had credentials that gave credence to their commands and beliefs. But what does my body tell me?
When many people practice the down dog position, their body provides negative feedback. When we really pay attention to what is being felt while holding the down dog, we notice wrists, ankles, shoulders, knees and hips are all likely being taxed in contraindicated ways.
Many people in my classes have complained about how their wrists feel too much pressure, even hurt when they hold the down dog. The wrist is quite a small and vulnerable joint to be bearing so much weight. Is that what the wrists were intended for? Is that how we ever use our wrists in daily life? No, not if we’re among the “real people” population. For those whose wrists don’t bother them, in time, repetition of the “yoga flow” (down dog to push up to up dog) has been shown to eventually cause problems, especially if other poses that put undue pressure on the wrists are practiced regularly.
To do or not to do
For now, rather than elaborate on how the joints are being overstretched in the down dog, or list more risks that are inherent, what’s important is that we all realize our bodies know more than any teacher or book.
If it’s not natural, if the body doesn’t do this position except in a yoga practice, what is it good for? Why do it? If those two questions cannot be answered with assurance that the position is safe, then there is no sensible reason to do the pose. And if you still want to do the pose because you like it for whatever reasons, then why stay in it for more than 15 to 25 seconds, and why remain stagnant while holding it? And why not find modifications that eliminate the risks of destabilizing joints or tensing muscles that are already knotted?
Questions concerning the down dog pose that should be asked include:
1. Should I do it or not?
2. Should I do it in a modified version?
3. How should I modify it, and why?
It’s reasonable to ask these questions about every position in yoga. More importantly, the answers to these questions lie within each and every one of us. Our bodies know best. Every body needs to find its own answers.
Michaelle Edwards, the author of YogAlign, advises us all to ask these questions. And YogAlign asks us to be absolutely certain that any position we put our bodies into is biomechanically solid. We can all learn how to make just about any position we want to do be safe and functional (biomechanically sound) by attending Edwards' workshops. We may learn that some positions we want to do just aren’t safe, nor are they in our best interest. Alternatives to accomplish our goals can always be found.
Bring your questions, concerns and resistances to the upcoming workshop. Come with an open mind and a desire to learn. Consider this time spent with Edwards as an opportunity to transform and evolve. At the very least, know this workshop will entail interesting evaluations of the status quo yoga poses and will definitely stimulate introspection and lively discussion. Everyone will walk away understanding certain concepts: functional flexibility trumps hyper-flexibility, posture (with spinal curvatures intact) trumps positioning (accomplishing a hard pose) and stability with mobility is superior to hyper-mobility.
My golden retriever, Bodhi, understands these concepts well. He’ll do a downward dog briefly when he wakes up after a nap, but he brings much more enthusiasm to his dynamic joy rolls and dances. Wiggling, shaking and moving all of the joints through the full range of motion, he demonstrates natural and functional “doga.” That’s the canine clue we bipeds should be copying.
Check out the Gazette website and www.yogawithelizabeth.com for this and other previous yoga tips. Elizabeth Klarich is a certified yoga instructor who has been teaching classes in Billings since 1980.