Students who struggle with Downward Dog may have limited range of motion (ROM) in one or more of four important joints. Learn how to assess your students' ROM and help them modify their poses.
Long Dogs and Short Dogs.
There are many subtle variations of Downward Dog but they can be approximately divided into two standard variations: Long Dogs and Short Dogs. Long Dogs are done by stepping further back with the feet. The arms and shoulders bear more weight in Long Dog.
Short Dog is done by not stepping back as far as a normal Down Dog. Short Dog is more like a forward bend in that less weight is on the hands and more weight is on the feet.
Upper BodyLong Dog works the shoulders and spine.
Long Dog requires more strength from the chest, torso, shoulders and arms. The precaution to take when teaching Long Dog is to be sure the students’ hands or feet do not slip. This may require them to brace their feet against a wall while using a mat with good traction for their hands.
Long Dog also works the calf muscles.
When a student steps back into a Long Dog the ankle joint must flex more if the heels are to stay on the ground. This results in a deeper stretch of the calf muscles.
Down Dog with Bent Knees.
If you want to isolate the shoulders or spine but don’t want your students to step back into a Long Dog then have them slightly bend both knees instead. This makes it easier to push their hips back and isolate the shoulders and spine but doesn’t require as much upper body strength as the Long Dog.
Short Dog works the hamstrings.
Short Dog requires less upper body strength but more hamstring flexibility The Short Dog is also sometimes used because it takes some weight off of the arms and wrists so they are not under as much strain.
Four sections of Downward Dog
The Downward Dog affects four specific sections of the body: 1. Shoulders 2. Spine 3. Hamstrings 4. Calves. We will now explore the tests that determine the range of motion (ROM) for each of these areas. Once we have determined which body section we are trying to emphasize we can suggest our students adopt the appropriate variation of Long Dog or Short Dog.
Testing Shoulder ROM
Have your student kneel down on their mat while you stand immediately behind them. You should gently brace your knee against their back so you don’t pull them off balance. Ask the student to raise both arms up. Gently take hold of her wrists and draw her arms back toward her ears. Keep gently pulling until you feel the student is starting to be pulled backward against your knee. When doing this test it is important that the student keeps her shoulders down.
Some students can have their arms pulled back until they are nearly vertical. Others can hardly raise their arms more than halfway. If a student has difficulty raising their arms you might suggest Long Dog or Bent Knees.
It is important to caution a student to not be aggressive with these variations. The ultimate limit to shoulder movement is the shape of the bones. If a student naively tries to “open” her shoulders when the bones are compressed she could injure herself. Any pain in the shoulder should be avoided. A student should work only in the range of gentle stretching.
Testing Spine ROM
The Down Dog is not particularly effective for exercising the lower spine. Poses such as Cobra or Camel are much more effective for that area. But Down Dog is good at isolating the thoracic spine between the shoulder blades. The thoracic spine does not have much range of motion but maintaining that ROM is important for our posture, relieving muscle tension , and dispersing stagnant chi in the area.
The test for this area is very similar to the test for the shoulders. The student kneels down while you stand directly behind them. Your knee should be gently braced against their back. The student raises her arms up as before but this time when you take hold and gently pull them back encourage the student to let her shoulders raise up and back. A student’s arms will go much further back when her shoulders up than when her shoulders down as in the shoulder test. This is because the scapulas move back and squeeze together. This results in a pleasant pressure or “push” on the thoracic spine, much like someone pressing their hands onto spine. This push in the back and the corresponding expansion of the chest in the front is very pleasant and very beneficial for our health and posture.
Some students’ arms will come back behind their ears nearly forty five degrees. Others pull back only slightly.
If a student is restricted in this area you might suggest Long Dog or Bent Knees to exercise this area. It is sometimes effective to have a student keep their head up when trying to isolate the spine in these poses.
Testing Hamstring ROM
Have your student stand in the middle of the room with arms at his sides and feet about hip width apart. Now ask him to bend forward keeping his spine and legs straight. He should be able to tilt his pelvis to slightly below horizontal without rounding his spine. If he cannot do this then his hamstrings are tight and you might suggest he practice Short Dog.
Testing Ankle ROM
How effectively a student can stretch their calf muscles is determined by how much they can flex their ankles. The more they can flex their ankles then the more they can stretch their calf muscles and Achilles tendons. So the test for Calf muscle ROM is really a test of ankle ROM.
Ask your student to kneel on their left knee with their right foot on the floor. This is the starting position for a simple lunge. Now ask your student to bend the front knee and sink down toward the floor. They may use their hands for balance. As the student sinks lower the right ankle must bend. The student should stop sinking down as soon as their right heel lifts off the floor. This is the limit to their ankle ROM. The angle of ankle bend is easily measured by your finger and thumb or by using two pencils. Whatever angle you measure the student will not be able to flex their ankle more than that when practicing Downward Dogs.
If your student has tight calf muscles you might suggest Long Dog. A variation of Long Dog is called “Walking your Heels”. Ask the student assume a normal Down Dog and have her bend one leg and shift most of the weight to the straight leg. This allows more body weight to push back into the ankle and stretch the calf muscles. Alternating sides is how this variation of Down Dog came to be called “Walking your Heels”.
If your student has flexible ankles they will be able to practice Long Dog and still keep their heels on the ground. If your student has restricted ankle ROM then they might be unable to keep their heels on the floor in even a modest Down Dog. If this is the case it is important you remind them that it is the stretch on the calves that is important.
Variation is good.
One needn’t be particularly restricted to enjoy these variations. You and your students might want to practice all of these variations simply to work deeper into these areas.