Down dog is one of my favorite yoga poses. You get an incredible stretch along the back of your body, from your hands to your toes.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to be uncomfortable in this pose. This is almost always because of inattention to posture and alignment and an unwillingness to fiddle around with the pose. Don’t keep doing it exactly the way the teacher (or the book) told you if that doesn’t feel right. Give yourself permission to adjust the pose so it suits you. Let’s give it a try.
Start by getting on all fours: hands shoulder-width apart, knees under your hips. Since the finished pose is an inverted V shape you want your hands to be forward of your shoulders, not directly below them. How far ahead is going to depend on your body but a general rule is a couple of hand lengths.
Make sure that you spread your fingers wide and have your hands rooted in the floor. You can either press your full hand and fingers into the floor gently or you can grip the floor with your fingers, though you should be mindful of making sure that the palm of your hand is also bearing weight. Distributing weight evenly is the key.
Many students make the mistake of having “soft” hands and fingers that are not rooted in the mat. The result is that all of the weight of the upper body feels like it’s driving into the heel of your hand (because it is). This will become uncomfortable fast and bother your wrists so remember to spread the weight around and get grounded!
Take a deep breath, curl your toes under, and start to straighten your legs. Your heels probably will not touch the floor and that’s fine. Mine don’t.
Be mindful of your neck and head. I like to just alternate between letting my head drop and looking up at my hands. Do what feels best.
The traditional instruction is to have your feet together. To be honest, for the first several years I practiced, having my feet together felt totally lousy. It felt much better having them apart. So cut yourself a break and move them apart if the urge strikes you. I wouldn’t advise moving them wider apart than your hips because this will stretch an entirely different part of your hamstrings. It’s fine to do that, of course, but let’s first concentrate on down dog. You can fiddle with your feet when you’re finished!
Again, this pose should look like an inverted V with your tailbone being the highest point. You do not have to straighten your legs all the way if that feels like a strain. Spend several breaths here without exerting yourself. Imagine that you’re simply hanging out in an upside down V shape. Drop your head, breath deep and relax.
Now soften your knees so you that you don’t feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Imagine that you’re pushing the front of the mat away from you. Gently lengthen your arms and move your tailbone higher. You should feel a nice stretch under the arms and down your back. Lower your knees to the floor, sit back on your heels, fold in half and rest your head on the floor in front of you. This is called child’s pose. Stay here for several breaths. I recommend spacing your knees apart, making a pillow with your hands and resting your forehead on your hands. You could also make fists with your hands, stack them on top of each other and rest your forehead here.
When you feel ready to come back into down dog, try to do so as mindfully as you can. Extend one arm in front of you on an inhale and then the other one. Look at your hands. Wrist creases should face forward to protect your wrists. Spread your fingers wide. Get grounded. Without moving your hands, come up on your knees, curl your toes under and make your way into down dog.
Be still and see what comes to you. Be open to the possibility that you may want to step your feet apart or move them closer or farther away from your hands. Maybe this pose will feel good with your knees bent or up on your toes. Or with one leg extended behind you or bending one knee at a time.
In my experience, most students are more comfortable in down dog when they tailor the pose. The instructions I’ve given you are just general guidelines. They are intended only to familiarize you with the basic shape of the pose. That’s not going to feel right for everyone. The point of practicing this pose is to be open to the possibility that there’s another way for you to do this that’s more appropriate for you. Open your mind and let your guidance flow in. Then follow it.