The Humble Dog

Today I would like to talk about what is probably the most ubiquitous of yoga asanas. It is an asana so well known that even most non-yoga practitioners know what it is. In fact, it is one of the first asanas a beginner would learn in a yoga class. It is the Downward Facing Dog (or Downward Dog or Downdog in short). In Sanskrit, Downward Dog is known as Adho Mukha Svanasana.
Of the thousands that I could have chosen to write about, why did I pick this asana? Well simply because it is a relatively “easy” yoga pose.  Almost anyone can do it. Because of this, it is a pose that Yoga teachers do not spend much time breaking down in class. I do not understand why this is so. None of the yoga classes I went to as a Beginner gave me the specifics of this asana except for the usual alignment tips like:

  • Straighten your arms and legs, Straighten your back.
  • Press your heels down
  • Press your hands, press your feet
  • Transfer the weight to your legs (How to transfer was never conveyed)

The thing is proper alignment in Downward dog is critical because it lays the foundation for more difficult arm-balancing asanas as one progresses.

Obviously I did not know this when I first started out.  This means I ended up doing the Downward dog incorrectly for an extremely long time. It was not until I started getting injuries, both from Downward dog and arm balances like Astavakrasana , Uthitha Kurmasana and even Kakasana (refer to pics below) that I finally realized I was doing my Downward dog wrong all along.


How I finally realized I was doing my Downward dog incorrectly
I had been practicing yoga neither regularly nor for a very long time when I decided to go to India to do yoga in December 2014. I did not love yoga either. In fact I knew nothing about yoga philosophy. I saw yoga as a form of exercise. I went to India very simply because I just badly needed to get away. The initial plan was to stay for a month. I ended up staying for 2 months. During that period, I practiced yoga twice a day, in the morning for 2 hours then in the afternoon for another 1.5 hours. This went on 6 days a week for 2 months. I did Downward dog probably thousands of times during that period. In my final 2 weeks in India, I started to get a pain at the base of my thumb near my right wrist. I visited a local physiotherapist who diagnosed me with De Quervain Tenosynovitis. It is an inflammation of the tendons on the side of the wrist at the base of the thumb. I had also sprained the ring finger of my right dominant right hand. Thankfully, the injuries healed gradually upon my return home.
I eventually pinpointed the cause of my injuries to my Downward dog and arm balancing asanas and set out to find what exactly I was doing wrong. It came down to how I was distributing the weight in my palms as I pressed them down onto the ground.
For Downward dog, I had been pressing my palms down all along as my teachers had taught. My hands were flat on the ground. However most of my weight was placed at the base of the hand near my wrist. I had been pressing down on my wrists all along. In addition to that, I did not know that I had to transfer the weight to my legs, which means that I had been doing Downward dog with most of the weight on my hands. Do that continually for 2 months straight, it was no wonder I had gotten injured! Because my weight distribution in my hands was wrong in my Downward dog, that led to other injuries when I did arm balances, hence the sprained ring finger. I am battling a sprained middle right finger as I draft this article. It all makes sense now!
Proper Weight Distribution on Hands
There are of course many alignment tips for Downdog, including how to shift the weight from your hands to your legs to ease the pressure off your hands, but I will focus my attention on the hands since it is what has caused me a myriad of hand injuries to date.
Turn your hand around and examine it. Notice the fleshy bits on your palm? That’s where majority of the weight should be placed. The weight should be evenly distributed among the 6 portions highlighted in blue (Refer PIC4).  In my case, I had been putting more weight on the bottom 2 fleshy parts of my palms, with more weight placed on the fleshy bits near my wrist. Secondary weight is placed on the fingers, with a concentration of that weight at the fingertips (Refer PIC5).
Weight distribution

PIC7: Yogi Hands
PIC7: Yogi Hand
Refer to PIC6 for total weight distribution on hands. Blue areas are where the most weight should be placed, followed by the pink and transparent light pink areas.This is the correct weight distribution on your hands for Downward dog or any arm balancing asana. Hands should be placed shoulder width apart with what I call Yogi hands. Yogi hands means the lines on the back of your wrists should be in line with the edge of the top of your mat. Fingers should be spread far apart and all highlighted points, both pink and blue, should always be in contact with the mat. Press the 4 corners of your palms onto the mat. PIC7 shows how yogi hands look like. My right middle finger is taped up because once again I have managed to sprain (a mild case of Stenosing Tenosynovitis also known as Trigger Finger) my finger doing arms balances.
Why I keep spraining my fingers in arm balance 

Having repeated injuries is extremely frustrating. But it is your body’s way of telling you that you are doing something wrongly. It could also be your body telling you to take a break and rest. Injury could be due to over practicing, or it could be due to improper technique or alignment.

In my case, my third and ring fingers on my right hand have been repeatedly injured because:

  1. My right hand is considerably stronger than my left because as a pole dancer I typically make use of my right arm  more than my left. Because of this vast difference in arm strength, in an arm balance asana, I tend to place more of my weight on my stronger right side
  2. Improper weight distribution on the hands

Point number 1 shows how important it is to balance your weight on both your arms. This means both your arms need to be equally strong. This is why I am trying to work more on my left side to make it stronger.
Point number 2 is what is related to this article. This is how my hands look like in arm balances. I start with Yogi hands but somehow along the way, I scrunch my fingers to claw the ground. What this means is that my weight is balanced on the areas highlighted in blue. I have noticed that I tend tilt my palms such that the weight distribution shifts onto the outsides of my hands. Correspondingly, the bulk of my weight shifts according to the highlighted dark blue areas in PIC8. The pressure I put on my fingertips transfer to my finger joints. It is pretty clear why my third and ring fingers keep getting injured.
Can you see now how important it is to get your foundation right? If I had learnt how to do Downward dog the proper way, I would not have to retrain my muscle memory now that I am going deeper into more advanced arm balances. I would urge all yogis and even all yoga teachers re-look your Downward dog alignment and muscle movement and ensure it is right. It might be a humble dog but for it to be the ever faithful companion in your Surya Namaskars and Vinyasas, you need to first give it the proper attention it deserves.
200Hr YTTC Sept 2015

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