Downward Dog Shoulder Alignment

DOWNWARD DOG

SHOULDER ALIGNMENT 

How Yoga Props Enhance Your Downward Dog

ADHO MUKHA

ALIGNMENT QUESTIONS IN DOWNWARD-FACING DOG

How many times have you done Downward-Facing Dog in your yoga practice? I can’t answer that either. It’s a posture that shows up in a yoga class quite often. It just becomes part of the foundation of a physical practice after a while. When you started your practice, you may have been told that it’s a resting posture, but it doesn’t always feel like that, does it? It takes some time for it to feel “right” or even “comfortable.” You’ve most likely navigated through things like the following:

Should my heels touch the mat?

How far apart should my hands be from one another?

What about the direction of my hands?

How far apart should my hands be from my feet?

Should my wrists feel this way?

Is it ok to bend my knees?

This list goes on. 

Over time, you start to develop a deeper understanding of the pose and to develop and integrate patterns in your body that feel “right.”

As you continue to learn and grow in your practice, you may also reach a point where you begin to wonder if these patterns are actually serving you. This wondering may come from pain and/or injuries that arise, or simply from exposure to different practices and/or teachers. What often happens is that once you get comfortable with “the way you’ve always done it,” the challenge may be to consider a different way and/or to add on some new actions to actually improve not only the posture but also the health of your joint placement/alignment in the posture.  

It is important, however, to be open to the process of “unlearning” and the process of developing new patterns. The important perspective to take when you encounter times like this in your yoga practice is to understand that it is all a part of growth and your specific journey to learn more about your own body. It’s actually an opportunity. Approaching your practice with an openness to opportunity often leads to the unraveling and to access to new breakthroughs in your practice. 

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WHAT IS SHOULDER IMPINGEMENT?

“Shoulder impingement is a common condition believed to contribute to the development or progression of rotator cuff disease.” 

Ludewig, Paula M, and Jonathan P Braman. “Shoulder impingement: biomechanical considerations in rehabilitation.” Manual therapy vol. 16,1 (2011): 33-9. doi:10.1016/j.math.2010.08.004

Shoulder impingement and/or a pinching sensation in the shoulders is a common complaint when it comes to the execution of Downward-Facing Dog. You might feel this in early attempts to do the posture or after repeating patterns like drawing your shoulders away from your ears, which may cause pain or irritation in the posture.

In the video, Matt explains quite nicely by saying that when you draw the scapulae (shoulder blades) away from your ears, the upper arm bone (humerus) collides with the acromion process. This action and collision is what creates the impingement, or “pinching.” This pinching can create pain or discomfort or may even lead to injury. From a visual standpoint, how do you know this is happening? Matt explains that you can see what looks like a “dimple” in the shoulder when the humerus is pulling down away from your ears. For further information for proper alignment in Downward Dog, you can also check out Matt’s blog 3 STEPS TO AVOID SHOULDER IMPINGEMENT IN DOWNWARD-FACING DOG.

WATCH THE VIDEO: DOWNWARD-DOG SHOULDER ALIGNMENT

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USING A ROLLED UP YOGA MAT FOR DOWNWARD-FACING DOG

Rolling up a yoga mat and using it as an additional prop provides excellent feedback and even assists you in the execution of the steps to set up Downward-Facing Dog. It helps to create new patterns in your body to avoid shoulder impingement in this foundational posture.

 Matt details exactly how to use your mat by following these steps:

  1. Place a rolled-up mat horizontally across the top of your mat.
  2. Place your hands in front of the rolled-up mat.
  3. Move backward into Downward Dog (bend your knees and send your tailbone to the sky).
  4. Lifting them up, move your armpits forward toward your hands. 

What’s happening here is that this action will activate the rhomboids, and the upper trapezius will activate from the lift of the armpits. This will also support the movement of the top of the shoulder blades going inward while the bottom of the scapula are protracting.

This step also provides a great opportunity to check in and get some feedback within your body. If you’re putting a lot of pressure into the yoga mat, then you know you’re dropping the armpits down and are causing the sub-acromion pinch. Matt offers the cue here of reaching through the outer lines of the arms so that the scapulae upwardly rotate.

 “During normal motion, the scapulae will upwardly rotate and posteriorly tilt on the thorax during elevation of the arm in flexion, abduction, scapular plane abduction, or unrestricted overhead reaching.”

 Ludewig, Paula M, and Jonathan P Braman. “Shoulder impingement: biomechanical considerations in rehabilitation.” Manual therapy vol. 16,1 (2011): 33-9. doi:10.1016/j.math.2010.08.004

5. Externally rotate the humerus (biceps face forward, and pinky edge of the hand pulls bottom portion of scapula around).

After these actions are put into place, you may feel like the inside edge of your hand is pulling up, so articulating the next step is important.

6. Turn your palms down (the radioulnar joint pronates the forearm, and this is a separate action that happens specifically at the forearm, separately from the action of the external rotation of the humerus).

7. Turn hands out a little more and wider (this also helps to create less chance of shoulder impingement).

8. Heels of the hands are lifted (again, creating that lightness and less touch against the yoga mat). 

Not only will this create less impingement, it will also strengthen the flexors of the wrist, which will feel better and allow you to feel more safe.

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SIMPLIFY THE STEPS FOR MASTERING DOWNWARD-DOG SHOULDER ALIGNMENT

In the video, Matt offers what’s called a “Mock” or “Modified” Downward Dog on your knees. Here are the steps:

  1. Lift armpits 
  2. Lengthen — shoulders to the ears 
  3. Go up and back
  4. Externally rotate the arm bones (biceps face forward)
  5. Lift heels of the hands (carpal tunnels)

Integrating these new actions may feel quite awkward once you start to gradually implement them. They may not feel quite “right.” This is that process of “unlearning” and creating new neuromuscular patterns in your body.  Eventually they will start to feel more “comfortable,” and you will notice the change in the development of your strength. Setting this foundation will help to support your journey in other postures in which it is necessary to utilize strength and balance from your shoulders, forearms, and hands.

If you enjoy diving deeper into the potential of your body and of the yoga practice as a whole, you can deepen your studies in Matt’s 200 and 300 Hr. Trainings.  

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full side plank and modifications

FULL SIDE PLANK WITH MODIFICATIONS

STEP-BY-STEP VASHISTHASANA BREAKDOWN

FULL SIDE PLANK

FULL SIDE PLANK AND MODIFICATIONS: VASHISTHASANA

USING THE WALL AS A PROP

Full Side Plank (Vashisthasana) has many modification options and variations to help make it more accessible or more challenging. I love teaching this posture with a foot on the wall to increase stability and provide a frame of reference for shifting the weight out of the hand and into the foot. 

Some people avoid props, thinking of them as a “crutch.” For sure, they can be used as a way to avoid challenges if that is your intention, but they can also be used to increase body awareness and help you develop technique. Props are neither good nor bad; it’s just a matter of how and why you are using them. Is it that you want to avoid challenge or that you want to face challenge intelligently and appropriately?

In the video tutorial below, I show how to modify side plank by placing your top foot on the wall. This reduces the required balance and will allow you to focus on the foundations of the posture, like the strength of your hand and wrist. Press your thumb and pinky fingers into the ground. Then focus on your bottom foot, pressing the instep of your foot into the wall. Eventually, you will be able to place the whole standing foot on the ground, which will give you strength and the power to lift the hips up. Lastly, keep your shoulder externally rotating, as indicated in the video.

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Full Side Plank & Modifications • Vashisthasana at the Wall

This Side Plank tutorial footage is taken from the July 2021 Immersion, titled BALANCE

Full Side Plank Setup

What I don’t discuss in this particular clip is how the setup of this posture is exactly like Wild Thing. This means your pelvis is more open toward the sky, while in standard Side Plank, your feet are stacked. The spine is in a backbend as well, unlike the standard variation, where the spine is neutral.

There are other alignments you could explore, but these will tend to give you the greatest access to the full Side Plank variation where you grab the top foot and extend the leg. If you want to practice the full class, be sure to check out Class #9 of the July 2021 Immersion, called Balance

 

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Three Full Side Plank Modifications and Variations

  1. Foot on the Wall: Once you rise up into Wild Thing, place the back foot on the wall and push your weight toward the wall, even if it means both knees are bent. This is not only okay but an indication that you are doing it properly.
  2. Tree Pose: The next step is infinitely more challenging because it requires greater balance and flexibility. Take the foot off the wall, similar to Tree Pose but without placing the foot on your inner thigh (though that is also another variation). I suggest pushing your knee into your hand to get your hip flexors active. Hip flexor strength becomes key when you attempt to straighten the leg. Often the tension of the hamstrings is too much and people have to let go of the foot. If your hip flexors are strong and used to engaging in this position, then they can help out by keeping the top leg closer to your upper body, lessening the chances that you’ll have to let go of the foot when extending the leg up to the sky.
  3. Full Side Plank or “Extended Vashisthasana”: Pull your knee in as tight as possible in order to grab your foot. Either stay as a modification or begin to kick the foot to the sky, straightening the top leg. Pro tip: It’s helpful to keep the bottom, weight-bearing leg bent while extending the top leg upward. 
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  • GET BACK TO FEELING ENERGIZED
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Can’t Straighten Your Legs?

This is normal and really shouldn’t be your focus. This is an incredibly physically demanding posture that requires extreme flexibility. Even with slightly bent knees, the posture is still visually stunning and, I would argue, even more biomechanically sound because bent knees typically trigger more muscle engagement.

 

 

Edited by 300-hour Chromatic yoga teacher, Donna Morin.

 

TOP RELEVANT RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Balance Immersion: 12 Classes Focused on Balance (video above is taken from this immersion) 

2. Arm Balance Immersion: 12 Classes – 12 Arm Balances

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Lifting The Arches of Your Feet

Are Your Arches Lifted?

Setting the foundation for standing postures - Avoid Collapsed Arches

Is your foundation trong?

Setting the foundation of any posture is arguably the most important step you can take aside from breathing of course, which you can simply consider a part of the foundation. You probably have heard me talk about the foundation of arm balances and handstands a million times, but how about standing postures? If you have practiced with me on retreat or at the Elements of Mastery, you already know the importance of what I am about to share with you. If you have not worked with me before, no problem, I am going to take you through a step-by-step approach to building a strong, solid foundation for all your standing postures.

Have you been asked to lift the arches of your foot in a class? Did you know how to do that on your own? Maybe you were told to lift your toes in order to do so, and you probably noticed a loss of connection to stability. Lifting your toes can be a great way to strengthen some of the muscles I am about to share with you, but it is literally just the beginning.

Does it really matter?

This is a great question and I wouldn’t blame you for asking because ultimately knowing the why behind anything we do gives our actions power. So why lift the arches? Consider your feet the foundation of all standing postures. Would you build your extremely expensive one-of-a-kind house on mud, or would you prefer a solid foundation you know will hold up over time? Picture it, a strong, heavy house resting on a muddy foundation, eventually part of the house would start to sink downward while other parts remained strong. The pressure would build and the weakest parts would start to break. This happens in our body, and the weakest points are typically our joints. The joints are weak because they are the place where two or more bones come together for the purpose of movement. If they were too strong, no movement would be available. Gravity is always upon us and pulling us downward. When our bones are properly aligned there is less stress on the joints. However, what if we have an imbalance at the ankle that causes our weight to fall to the inside or outside of the foot? Not only is the ankle or foot at risk but ALL of the joints that exist above it are too because they have to compensate for the new alignment. This is why you could have a pain in your neck that stems from weakness and miss-alignment at the ankle. You feel it in the neck because the neck is compensating for everything below it. This is very important to understand especially if you are a yoga teacher or in any field of physical health. Does it matter…? YES!

The Anatomy

For the purposes of this article, we will talk about two joint actions and the muscle groups that create them: Eversion and Pronation of the ankle which occurs at the subtalar joint. The subtalar joint is just below the ankle joint. The ankle joint allows for the up and down movements of plantar flexion (pointing the foot) and dorsiflexion (flexing the foot), while the subtalar joint allows the foot to rock from side to side. For the purpose of simplicity, we will refer to both of these joints as a collective –  “the ankle”.

The arch of the foot

There are multiple muscles that help to form the arch of the foot. How high someone’s arches are may be due to the structure of the foot – the bones might be shaped in a more flattened position. However, we aren’t concerned with the external look of an arched foot but rather, training the muscles to activate appropriately for our feet. Most of us can use strengthening of these muscles. The way that I found really helps is first learning how to isometrically engage the muscles of inversion and eversion at the same time which forms a “bootstrap” like scenario around the foot. One of the fibula muscles wraps from the outer shin down the outer ankle and attaches near the ball mound of the big toe – That is pretty cool! There are muscles underneath the sole of the foot that when activated in conjunction with the muscles of inversion and eversion allow us to find greater engagement and lift of our arches.

One of the best ways to integrate these actions in your practice is to repeat them throughout your yoga practices. If you are interested in greater balance, stability, and ankle awareness there are two online immersions – 12 class packages that focus heavily on the feet and ankles.

1. The July 2020 Immersion titled The Chakras & the Elements – the Earth and Water practices will provide a profound awakening to the ankles and feet and how they relate to your practice.

2. The August 2020 Immersion titled Journey To Bliss follows a similar format as of July; the first few practices target the ankles and feet. I highly recommended either or both of these immersions.

Everting

ankle strength, heal sprained ankle with yoga

Inverting

ankle strengthening for yoga
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3 Steps To Activate the Core of the Foot

  1. Press the outer edge of the food down.
  2. Maintain this action, and counter engage by pressing the big ball mounted and big toes down.
  3. Drag the big ball mound back toward the inner heel.
inversion of the ankle - arch of the feet

Step 1 - invert the ankle

While you can certainly evert the ankle first, I find for most people it is more effective to start with inverting the ankle when approaching standing postures. For clarity of the action, I am showing it in a seated position – try it seated first so you are very clear on how to invert. When in Warrior 2, press the outer edge of the front foot into the ground until your feel the muscle deep in the calf muscle activating. The ball mound and the big toe might lift when you do this – it is ok for now.

evert the ankle in warrior 2 yoga pose

Step 2: Evert the Ankle

I recommend learning everting when seated – first, pull the outer edges of the feet back, it can be helpful to press the big toe and toe mound forward. When articulating this action properly you will feel the muscles along the outer shin engage. After you are aware of the action, the next part can be challenging. In warrior 2, be sure to maintain the muscle activation of inversion and add eversion by pressing the big toe and toe mound down into the ground, while trying to roll the outer ankle in slightly. Be sure not to fall flat into the inner arch while doing so – if this happens it means you are no longer activating the muscles of inversion, so go back to step 1 and try again.

arch of the foot in warrior 2 yoga pose

Step 3: contract The Arch

While this step is optional, it can be really helpful especially for anyone that gets plantar fasciitis. The idea is to maintain steps 1 and 2 but then add an activation of the musculature along the bottom (plantar side) of the foot. The action is to try and drag the big ball mound of the foot toward the inner heel. Like inversion and eversion, this action can be quite foreign and may take a bit of time until you are able to feel the muscles contract. I really like to focus on this action in the change of seasons when I am switching between different shoes and my feet are trying to adapt to the differences.

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The Results

Activating the arch of the foot can be challenging at first. Typically the hardest part is learning how to co-contract opposing muscle groups. When opposing muscle groups contract at the same time, you get lifting and stabilizing of the joints. In this case, when you activate the muscles along the inside and outside the leg, it’s like pulling up your bootstraps and stabilizing the ankle. As a wonderful result, the arch of the foot pulls up.

Integration

 To fully integrate these actions into your practice you will need repetition throughout all of your standing postures. Try it in your next class, or if you want a full workshop that incorporates these exact actions throughout, check out Hips: Rock Em and Unlock Em workshop below.

Thanks for stopping by. Leave a comment if this post has been helpful, or if you have questions or requests for future posts.

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