Worshop Adho Mukha Part II: Transitions in and out of Downward Dog
In Part I we established that downdog is a core pose in asana practice, providing a starting and ending position for most vinyasa sequences. It is an opportunity to check-in to your bhava – your state-of-being. For the more advanced practitioner, the pose can become somewhat restful; but if you cannot rest in the pose, it is a good position to assess where you’re at: are you breathing evenly? Are you tight in your shoulders, or hamstrings? Are your wrists or calves straining today?
Like all of these workshops, we began with participants introducing themselves and briefly discussing their intentions or aspirations for the workshop. There’s no need to run through all of them again (see Part I for the full list), but it’s worth briefly revisiting the ones most concerned with transitions:
- I’m especially interested in transitions. I have trouble moving into low-plank.
- I enjoy the movement from up-dog to down-dog. I find it fluid and graceful. What’s the problem?
- I’m struggling with jump-throughs – is it because I’ve got short arms?
- I very much like tuck-toed upward facing dog.
Physically, we discussed the importance of gripping the floor with your hands, like bird claws. We discussed engaging hri bandha, which engages jalandhara and uddiyana bandha, which serves to move the load from the shoulders into the core. We also discussed the advantages of micro-bending the knees on those days when you’re feeling particularly tight in your hamstrings or calves or are overriding your sensitivity of the centre. All of these are important to bear in mind as we begin to move in and out of downward dog.
As mentioned in Part I, we didn’t actually get around to exploring the full range of transitions. For example, moving from downdog into warrior or lunge is something we’ll have to deal with another time. We really only had time to deal with the move into high-plank, chaturanga, and upward dog; and then to briefly touch on the mechanics and energetics of jump-throughs.
Often one of the hardest things for beginners to learn is to keep the transitions slow and steady – to refrain from “banging it on”. This is especially challenging for those people with a background in power-sports, whether weight-lifting or track-and-field, football or martial arts. In all of those activities the breath is harnessed for an explosive burst of power. Those power-bursts can be used to compensate for various weaknesses or inadequacies, among other things. In the beginning of our yoga practice, when we find ourselves straining to hold a plank, or to step from downdog into a long lunge, for example, we often employ the same power-burst to overcome the inertia or lack of stamina that we are struggling against. In these efforts, we are working purely mechanically or physically – we have not yet learned to harness prana (energy).
We discussed this at the beginning of the workshop, as Nina discussed our relationship with gravity in high plank, for example. We often approach plank as a struggle to stay off the ground, fighting against the gravitational pull. As we learn to engage the bandhas and work with the pranic energy, though, we find ourselves sucking up from the floor, lifting away from it, rather than fighting against it. In the end, we derive energy from our engagement with the ground. But finding this pranic engagement is a challenge, one which is made almost impossible if our struggle with gravity becomes a battle for the ego. When the ego kicks in, everything else tends to give way to brute strength and will power. Bandhas and prana require a much more subtle approach, but also offer a much stronger and more powerful reward.
In this regard, the breath is both the most important gauge and the most useful tool. The power-burst approach is most effective with short, sharp exhalations; epitomised by the martial artists’ “Kiai!” – a total exhalation as quickly as possible through a sharp contraction of the diaphragm, totally focusing the energy in a single point. Weight lifters get maximum lift through a similar exhalation. Many new yoga practitioners resort to similar techniques to burst out of downdog into a lunge; or begin a semi-controlled hyper-ventilation as the plank becomes too challenging.
This semi-controlled power-breathing is not controlled breathing. Rather than breathing harder and stronger, the yogi becomes energised by maintaining a slow and steady breath – long, deep, rhythmic breathing. With this in mind, the movement from plank into downdog is similarly a slow steady movement, not a weight-lifter’s burst.
But if the power burst is the only thing that will keep you from collapsing in your plank, then get into downdog and check-in. Steady the breath. Hold the pose until the breathing is deep and rhythmic. If necessary, lower gently into child’s pose until the breathing is steady and even. Then lift gently into downdog, and check-in again. Now you’re ready to move.
Banging it on with shear will-power and brute physical strength is a waste. It misses the point of the asana practice. It is much better to back off, and do less, with control, with even breath, without forcing anything.
This is why at the beginning of a practice the transition from high-plank is often to lower knees-chest-chin to the floor, rather than going straight into a chaturanga. A few vinyasas using the knees-chest-chin variation can be a good warm-up, charging the core and preparing the arms and shoulders.
Similarly, from knees-chest-chin, we often move into a half-cobra and then a full-cobra pose, rather than a full upward facing dog. This gives us a chance to begin to extend the spine, to stretch the front of the body, and to start loading the arms and shoulders. Again, a few of these is a good warm-up for gradually moving into a full upward facing dog.
One of the most common errors made in upward facing dog is to throw the head back, looking straight up at the ceiling, creating a continuous arc along the entire length of the spine. Rather than doing that, extend the crown of the head to the ceiling, spread the chest and keep jalandara bandha engaged. If you now also gently press down through the tops of your feet, you are containing the energy at two points and the pose become much more energising and juicy. Throwing the head back in a giant sweeping diva-like back bend just dumps the energy. A vertical spine with jalandhara bandha and mula bandha engaged is a very empowering position.
In the transition from chaturanga into upward facing dog, it is common for the hands to collapse outward, lifting the forefinger / thumb point and rolling all of the load into the outer wrist. Resist this, keeping focus on the point between thumb and forefinger, and maintaining the grip with finger tips and knuckles – all of them.
Getting the correct spinal alignment and maintaining the grip of the hands can be aided immensely if the transition from chaturanga to upward facing dog is treated as a forward motion, rather than an upward motion. Pushing forward from chaturanga ensures the foundations of hands and feet are all engaged. The same principles apply in moving from upward dog back to downdog or chaturanga – move back, rather than up or down.
In order to familiarise ourselves with this movement, we each grabbed a block, and located it on its second edge, across the mat, roughly under our forehead in downdog. In fact, if you have quite open shoulders, you may be able to touch the block with your forehead. From here moving through high-plank, to chaturanga lowers the hips onto the block. Now moving forward into upward facing dog knocks the block over as we slide the hips forward. If the block didn’t fall over, then you were probably lifting up, rather than pulling forward.
Chaturanga is a very strong and advanced pose, which is helped by advanced bandha engagement. It makes great physical demands on the pectoral and deltoid muscles, as well as the core and triceps. Many beginners try to take shortcuts, gliding past the deeper engagement required; just banging it on, and often injuring themselves. Until the muscles and bandhas are adequately developed, it’s generally best to stick with the knees-chest-chin transition. (Don’t let the ego get in the way of a good and safe practice.)
Nina made us do a horrible exercise to illustrate all the different aspects of ourselves that we need to work for a proper chaturanga. Those who suffered alongside with me will remember – and those lucky enough to only read this report will be happy to not know it until she gets the chance to make you do it.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of the spinal extension in upward facing dog. Now let’s talk a bit more about the foundations. I discussed the tendency for the hands to roll out, and how to counter this by keeping pressure on the point between thumb and forefinger. This ensures that the inner wrist stays active.
Engaging hri bandha expands and opens the chest while simultaneously broadening and strengthening the upper back, providing maximum power and strength (see Part I on engaging hri bandha). Press the hands down while pulling them back. This has the effect of pulling the torso forward and up. Keep the arms straight if possible (if you can’t, back off into a cobra or bend your elbows and consciously engage thumb and index finger into the ground. If you let them lift, you have most likely taken the brunt into your lower back and shoulders).
The knees should be straight, and the pelvis rolled forward, so that the tail bone is pointing towards the floor, even as the pelvis is lifting away from it. Engage the tops of your feet into the ground and spread them. Keep the buttocks (glutes) soft and suck the knees up towards the belly. Finally, engage mula bandha or lift the lower abdomen toward the spine to further lift the chest.
All of these adjustments must be made fully conscious of bhava: where are you at right now? Don’t try to repeat yesterday’s practice, or insist on improving on it. Work to your capacity right here right now. Today. The intention of the practice should not be to be the best that you ever have been, or to have the best practice that you’ve ever had, but to nurture and nourish your physical and energetic being as it is in the moment.
After all of that we only had a few moments left to begin to work on jump-throughs. Nina emphasised that intention is everything in this transition. In fact, like knees-chest-chin instead of chaturanga, and cobra rather than upward facing dog, sometimes intention is the only thing we should be working on here. It is not necessarily about moving the feet – although that is ultimately the “ideal” movement. Initially, though, getting the feet from the back of the mat (from downdog) to between the hands at the front of the mat requires focused intention and visualisation more than any physical action. This transition will not be achieved by trying to move the feet along the shortest path from A to B. Rather, the physical action must lift the butt as high in the air as it can go – effectively into a letter-L hand stand; from which you can then simply fold at the hips and plant the feet directly between the hands.
In the beginning, it typically helps to shorten the stance in downdog by a foot length or more. Then bend the knees deeply, exhale all the way, engage mula bandha and uddiyana bandha, and spring into the letter-L handstand. Then slowly jack-knife and lower the feet to the floor.
Once the movement from the back to the front of the mat is achieved, you can begin to work on the jump through. And no, the success of this has nothing to do with the length of your arms. It has everything to do with core-strength, core-engagement, and bandha-engagement.
Follow the instructions above to get into letter-L, then suck in your belly and curve your lower back, folding your knees into your chest, crossing your ankles and flexing your feet. The flexed feet cannot be emphasized enough. This movement takes all of the bandhas. As the knees come to the chest and the feet cross and flex, keeping the arms fully extended, allow the upper body to pivot around the shoulder joints. As the buttocks approach the floor, the knees-feet must be tucked in and the spine curled in enough to keep the heels higher than the buttocks in order to clear the floor as they swing between the arms.
Typically, working on getting the buttocks on the floor without the feet touching is a necessary precursor to the full jump through.
And that’s as far as we got before savasana and clearing out!
The next workshop is One-Sided Balances, 7 November at 1.15pm. Hope to see you all there!