|Downward-Facing Dog to Upward Bow
by Barbara Benagh
Engaging the Shoulders
The series begins with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) . Though a staple of almost every hatha yoga practice, a fully satisfying Downward Dog can be incredibly elusive even for veteran practitioners. I suggest that you begin in Balasana (Child's Pose) , sitting on your heels and bending forward until your torso rests on your legs, your head on the floor, and your arms at your sides.
To become quiet and focused, close your eyes and tune in to your breathing. Do you feel your body move slightly in response to each breath? With that movement, you're already dancing. The pulse of the breath, like a drum, serves as the rhythm for all our movements. Its beat is always there, but our bodies can become so conditioned to thinking and analyzing that we forget to simply listen for it–and to feel the constant internal dance. Child's Pose, in its simplicity, puts forth few obstacles to such internal inquiry. In quiet poses like this, the internal rhythm is so obvious that I can't help but wonder if the original yogis became so fascinated by their own inner rhythms as they sat in meditation that eventually they couldn't contain an urge to express that pulse externally in the movements we call asanas.
Allow your sense of inner rhythm to grow in Child's Pose, staying focused on your breath as you extend your arms forward and straighten them. Place your hands on the floor about shoulder-width apart. Inhale to lift your hips off your heels and exhale as you come to all fours. Since good shoulder rotation will be a necessity in the coming vinyasa, let's pause to investigate the arms and shoulders. Not knowing how to best use the shoulders is a major stumbling block in yoga for many people, but with time and interest anyone can undo less than optimal habits and replace them with better alignment, movement, and ease.
Keeping your head at shoulder level, spread your fingers wide open. To reduce weight on the wrists, root the balls of your fingers into the floor, especially the ball of the index finger and the pad of the thumb. This movement activates the arches of the hands, improving both stability and buoyancy in the wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
Arrange your arms so that the inner elbows face slightly forward. If you are very flexible in your shoulders, watch that you don't roll your elbows too far forward, an action that can compress the shoulders. Next, extend from the side ribs through the triceps (the muscles on the back of the upper arm) and continue to rotate your upper arms outward. These actions take on added strength when you simultaneously reroot the balls of the fingers. Grounding the hands rotates your lower arms slightly in, which may seem to contradict the external rotation of the upper arms. Actually, it doesn't; your elbow joints are designed with ample flexibility to allow both these actions, and your arms will be more stable as a result of making them.
Externally rotating your upper arms also expands the chest and broadens the back, permitting the muscles of the thoracic spine to engage more fully. Consciously slide your inner shoulder blades away from the ears to allow the upper spine to move forward into the chest, reducing the convex curve of your upper back. You will need to pay attention to this action as you move into Downward Dog, where the challenge of maintaining shoulder alignment increases.
Now turn your focus to your breathing again, this time trying to sense its rhythm as movement in the muscles along the spine, perhaps even letting it move your spine a bit. Be curious about how the spine moves; explore its capacity to bend, arch, rotate, lengthen, and shorten. You can investigate these possibilities in any way you wish. Your movements need not be large; indeed, your body may appear to be static. But notice if you resist the idea of such improvisation. If you become dogmatic about constantly enforcing alignment and technique, valuable as they may be, form can become an imposition that masks inner rhythm and makes every unplanned movement suspect instead of an opportunity for learning.
• Tones Spine
• Massages and strengthens abdominal organs
• Makes shoulders more flexible
• Strengthens arms and legs Builds endurance Contraindications
• Tendency to dislocate shoulders Chronic shoulder injuries
• Unmanaged high or low blood pressure
• Herniated lumbar discs
• Positional vertigo