Downward facing dog – which muscles stretch and strengthen?

One of the most practiced asana in yoga classes would be Adho Mukha Svanasana, or so called ‘’downward facing dog’’. Although we practice this asana an uncountable number of times, we often forget how many checkpoints there are, like not only lengthening your spine, hips up towards sky but also like ‘’engage your quads.’ To be honest with you, I have thought that this ‘Downward facing dog’ is all about stretching. The more I stretch my hamstrings, calves, shoulders, and back, the more I thought I could improve my downward facing dog pose. However, since I have been taking this course and learning about the anatomy of our body, I have learnt that this pose is not all about stretching.
While we do downward facing dog, we often hear ‘Engage your quads’, meaning activate and contract your quadriceps. Here is why you engage your quads in doing the downward facing dog. There is a concept called ‘Active stretch’. This is stretching the muscle you want while contracting the opposite muscles, rather than just relying on your body weight or gravity to stretch the muscle. So, if you want to stretch your hamstrings, contracting the opposite muscle, which is quadriceps, will make you more flexible.
In addition, quadriceps are not the only muscles you need to contract. My heels still do not touch the ground as my hamstrings and the back side of my calves are not flexible enough. So I would need a stronger contraction on my anterior tibialis to get more flexibility.
This concept is applied not only to downward facing dog but also other asanas requiring some flexibility, for example Padangusthasana and Paschimottanasana. Also, this is not only for those who are not flexible. For those who are super flexible, this is useful to gain more control of your body. When we practice under the supervision of Master Paalu, he often say ‘’Close the gap between your body” or “Our quads are not strong enough” This means rather just bringing our upper body forward relying on our flexibility, probably means using more strength of our muscle. Through using control and the strength of our body, we can have more awareness of our body.
Human anatomy is complicated and we will not be able to memorise all the names of muscles as long as we are not medical students. However, if we understand this concept a bit, this could result in proper alignment and bring us more benefits while we practice yoga.
200hr YTT Weekday Sep 2015