Lessons of a Yoga Teacher 4: Loving my Downward Dog

I like to know the reason for things. I love people and I'm fascinated by the way we tick.

I love piecing together the bits of this amazing puzzle that is our body and our health.

So I get really irritated when I'm told that something is good or bad for me but I'm not told why.

There are so many things we are told by 'experts' that we are supposed to just DO and not question. Like children we are told..."just do it, because I said so!" And we toddle off and eat our Five a Day trusting that if 'they' said so, it must be true.

The Five a Day rule comes from a joint campaign developed by the fruit and veg growing industry and public health organisation in California in the late 1980s. This rule for health is not based on any research, and yet we see it everywhere.

Think about a time when you were told to do something but didn't really understand why? Did you continue? Likely not.

Maybe you tried those physio exercises for a bit, but soon got bored and that niggling question kept popping into your head "what is this supposed to be doing for me anyway?"

Giving an adult respect, and as much clear and useful information as possible, will encourage them to behave like one.

As adults we make responsible choices that are best for us long-term.

I believe that stretching is one of the best ways to improve your physical and mental health. You know that entering a yoga class will result in you stretching, and I'm sure you have felt or been told at some point that you need a good stretch. But why?

In the next few articles, I will tell you as much as I know about stretching, and why it's so essentially important to your health. For now, you're going to have to just take my word for it.

Try doing this stretch, purely on the basis of how it makes you feel. Then I will take you behind the scenes and help you develop an understanding of stretching that will keep you stretching for life.

Downward Dog:

This has to be my favourite stretch.

I love the opening, lengthening feeling in my spine and the stretch down the back of my legs.

Downward dog is a staple in yoga. It is one of the main ingredients in posture flows. Getting to know how to deeply flex your hips in dog will help you with all the other forward bends too.

It opens your hips and hamstrings and strengthens your shoulders, arms and wrists.

You also stretch the front of your chest and under your arms which is invigorating for the heart and lungs. Invigorating also because this is an inversion - any position that brings a part of your body above your heart is an inversion.

Inversions are great for your whole system, as they counter the downward pressure of gravity on your internal systems and organs, giving you restorative relief and an energetic lift.

I will take you up into dog slowly, as one of the common mistakes made when first practising it is to try and get your heels onto the ground like the teacher does. Your teacher has probably done 6459 dogs (approx) which have slowly lengthened their hip flexors and legs, making this heel-down position possible - and without putting pressure on the spine.

If you rush to push your heels down, you will send the tension from your legs to the most flexible and vulnerable part of your spine. This causes irritation to your discs and muscles.

So this way of practising downward dog will avoid that, and it should feel good.

Come into a kneeling position on your mat and press your thumbs into the soft hollow at the top of your legs. Then bend forward and feel your thumbs being sandwiched by your belly and thighs. Push your thumbs in deeper - this place is your hip crease. It's really essential that you know your hip crease so you recognise where to work into, in Downard Dog.

Keeping your hips creased, extend your arms along the mat, and tuck your toes under. Now lift your bum up into the air and reach up and back into your hip creases (where your thumbs were).

Notice the stretch you get in the back of your legs and the length in your spine. Come back down onto your knees and, keeping your toes tucked under, bring your hips down onto your heels. This position is called Puppy Dog. Feel the deep crease in your hips here.

Now come up into Downward Dog on the inhale and rest back down into Puppy Dog on the exhale a few times. Until you feel that you're getting the hang of keeping your hips creased.

Now come up into Downward Dog and lift right up onto the tips of your toes. Bring your chest as close to your thighs as you can. Draw your heels towards the ground, but stop when you feel like your hips are un-creasing.

This is the furthest you should bring your heels down at the moment, but they will reach the floor eventually, when things have loosened up a bit.

As you can feel this is a good stretch, so when you're ready stay in the pose for about six breaths, reaching your hips up and back and trying to keep your shoulders apart so they are not squeezing too close to you neck.

Focus on the feeling of stretching and see how it feels. Do you enjoy the feeling, or just the rest afterwards? Which part of your body is stretching the most here, and if you bend your knees more or rock one knee bent and the other straight, how does that feel?

In the next article I will tell you a bit about whats happening to your tissues when you stretch. This should help you to understand and feel the benefits of stretching, so you're not just doing it because I told you to!

Part 1: Confessions of a yoga teacher...

Part 2: Am I breathing?

Part 3: Find your edge

Jessica Hatchett teaches yoga in West Cork. For more information on her classes and events go to www.yogawestcork.com

Her next retreat is at Dzogchen Beara on 13th to 15th Sept 2013.

Photography by www.luluash.co.uk


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