Brad's Iyengar Yoga Notebook
Adho Mukha Svanasana
"Another day, another dog pose."
It is best to learn to come into Adho Mukha Svanasana starting from the ground on "all fours" like a dog.   Wait until you are mature in the pose to begin to come into the pose by jumping or walking your feet back from Uttanasana.   The distance you take between your hands and feet depends somewhat upon your experience and your flexibility.   At first, you will want to have more distance between your hands and feet and slowly shorten that distance over time as your flexibility allows.
One way to measure a good, more or less standard, distance between your hands and your feet for this pose is to lie prone on your abdomen first.   Place your palms on the mat with your fingers spread wide and your thumbs right at the level of your nipple line.   Then, without moving your hands or your feet, come up to a kneeling position.   Keep your head lifted in this kneeling position -- don't relax it toward the floor until you come into the full pose.   Then from kneeling, again without repositioning your hands or feet, come into Adho Mukha Svanasana.   You can adjust the distance between your hands and feet slightly from there as necessary.   Ingrain that approximate distance between your hands and feet into your cellular memory, even though it is not an absolute -- sometimes you will want your pose to be longer or shorter for various reasons.
Always place your palms consciously on your sticky mat with undivided attention.   Place your hands on the mat shoulder width or slightly wider than your shoulder width.   It is correct to have your middle fingers parallel to each other, or you may also turn your hands outward slightly to have your forefingers parallel to each other.   If you have tight shoulders, it helps to rotate your hands outward more.   Spread the fingers of each of your hands on the mat widely so there are even spaces between them and also elongate through each finger.   Each of your fingernails should be facing upward toward the ceiling, not canted to the side.
Press your hands into the floor, like you're doing it for posterity in wet concrete in Hollywood.   Pay particular attention to pressing the base knuckles of your forefingers down since they have a tendency to lift.   If you relax your palm on the top of a flat surface, you will notice the hand's tendency to arch with a peak at the base of your forefinger.   This is why you have to pay specific attention to this area when your hand is on the floor and press especially the bases of your forefingers into the floor in order to flatten your palms evenly on the floor with as much pressure in this forefinger area as exists in the large muscles at the base of your thumb and little fingers (the thenar and hypothenar eminences respectively).   Extend intelligence evenly over the whole surface of your palms on the floor, not neglecting any area.
We all have a tendency to take weight to the outside edges of our hands in this pose.   We have to take more weight consciously to our inner hands to counteract this tendency.   There are several ways to work on this inner hand consciousness.   Turning the hands slightly outward is one way to help shift some consciousness to the inner hands.   Another important action is pressing the thumbs and index fingers down on the mat.   As an exercise, you can practice even lifting your other fingers and the outside edges of your hands off the mat.   Another action is to squeeze your inner forearms toward each other to bring you more to your inner palms.   Whatever actions work best for you personally, remember your thumbs and your forefingers are the two most important places to keep intelligence in your hands in all poses where your hands are on the floor.   This includes not only Adho Mukha Svanasana, but also importantly Bakasana, Full Arm Balance, and all the arm balancing poses.
When you are coming into this pose, your weight in your hands should not shift back into the heels of your palms, but should stay more into your knuckles and fingers.   Also you want to resist your forearms from falling toward the floor.   The muscles under your forearms have to engage upward into your forearm bones, just as in the standing poses the muscles of your calves have to engage forward into your shin bones (even while the thighs are pulling back).   One point of lifting your forearms upward away from the floor is to make the weight in the bases of your palms light and help shift more of your weight into the knuckle region of your palms as mentioned.   Resist upward with your forearms even more than you think you need to.
With intelligence in your hands and arms, sit your buttocks back toward your heels and then begin to move into the pose.   Your feet should be hip width apart, your hands in line with your feet, your arms in line with your legs.   The less flexible you are, the more distance you will want to take between your feet and hands.
Your first action when coming into the pose should be to begin to straighten your legs somewhat and raise your sitting bones to their maximum height in the air toward the ceiling.   Come up on the balls of your feet at first to do this and do not try to straighten your legs completely at first.   Always come onto the balls of your feet to help raise your hips at the beginning of the pose, even if you do it only for a moment.   The most important point of this pose is to raise your sitting bones as high as possible while allowing the small of your back to release under its own weight without tension.   One way of getting a feel for this strong raising of your hips is to have someone lift your hips from above with a strap running underneath your pelvis, then try to recreate that feeling in your pose without the support.
Lift your groins (the creases between your torso and thighs) through your sitting bones.   Feel your groins move away from your hands as much as possible.   That is the "name of the game" in Adho Mukha Svanasana.   This asana is all about finding extension in your spine.
In your torso, there are two tracts to elongate.   The inner tract runs from your forefingers, through your inner elbows, up to your inner groins.   The outer tract runs from your little fingers, through your elbows, through your armpits, up to your outer hips.   Elongate both these tracts equally and maximally.   Lift your armpit chest and also your floating ribs away from your armpits and upward toward your hips strongly.   Forget about what is going on in your legs until you have established these actions.
Expand the front of your body.   Lengthen from your sternum upward to your pubic bone.   Lengthen your spine upward from your C7 vertebra to your tailbone.   Also lift your rear waist skin upward toward your sitting bones.   Your sternum area and your spine both should lift upward in this pose.   At first, it may help you to get length in your torso if you draw your sternum strongly away from your hands, and that is a good action.   However, one feeling you may eventually be able to achieve is to allow your sternum and the bones of your chest to move toward your head, while the skin of the front of your torso keeps moving upward toward your navel.   This is a subtle feeling.
Broaden the muscles of your pelvic floor both side to side and front to back.   (You can practice the feeling of broadening your pelvic floor muscles by squatting deeply and feeling the sensation you achieve there.)   Once these muscles are broad, have the feeling of pushing out of your arms up all the way through your pelvic floor.   Rotate your pubic bone back between your thighs as you go on lifting through your pelvis.
Straighten your elbows fully and don't worry about hyperextending them.   You won't.   Spread the skin of your inner elbows.   Turn the inner creases of your elbows to face each other and draw your elbows in toward each other.   Consciously keep your elbows firm to keep your arms straight.   Do not grip the floor with your hands -- press into the floor.   If all your limbs are not actively engaged in pressing downward maximally, your torso will not be able to release fully.   Compact your outer shoulders toward each other (without compressing your collar bones inward), and as you do this, lengthen your arms maximally.   The feeling of the torso in this pose is much the same as if you were standing in Tadasana and stretching your arms strongly overhead in Urdhva Hastasana.   Do not let your weight fall too strongly into your wrists.   You want to have almost no weight in your wrists.   Shift some of the weight your wrists are bearing into your palms and the joints at the bases of your fingers, especially the first finger.   If you do this properly, you can see a little space or light under the arch between the rear base of your hand and the floor.   Keeping weight out of your wrists is important not only in this pose, but also poses like Plank Pose, Caturanga Dandasana, and Full Arm Balance.
In Adho Mukha Svanasana, just as in Virabhadrasana II, your upper and lower arms turn in opposite directions of each other.   This action is like wringing the water out of a towel.   From your elbows down, your forearms should be spiraling inward to take weight evenly into your inner palms as much as your outer palms.   Look to make sure this brings your inner and outer wrists the same distance from the floor (the outer wrists have a tendency to be lower).   From your elbows up, your upper arms should be spiraling outward to assist with drawing your shoulders away from your ears and broadening your collar bones.   Roll your triceps underneath and toward your ears strongly.   Roll your biceps outward as much as possible.   Since the underneath aspect of your shoulders (your armpits) will open naturally just by the very nature of the pose, you will need to place more conscious energy into opening the outsides or upper aspect of your shoulders to prevent that area from becoming collapsed or congested.   Spiraling your upper arms outward assists in this outside shoulder consciousness.   Engage all the muscles of your forearms and upper arms into your arm bones while still feeling that you are extending outward through your bones.   Lift your entire arms from their undersides, especially your armpits to avoid collapsing the tops of your shoulders.
Draw the upper sides of your scapulae into your body and upwards away from your hands (as opposed to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana where it is the lower scapulae that you want to draw inward and lift from).   But as you do that, lift your forearms toward the ceiling, donít let them sink.
In Adho Mukha Svanasana, as in full arm balance, Urdhva Hastasana, and Pinca Mayurasana, much of the work of the pose is in opening your shoulder and armpit area so when viewed from the side, the line from your hands to your elbows to your shoulders to your hips is a perfectly straight line.   Stand in Urdhva Hastasana and look at this line on your own body in a mirror.   Many of us can only get this line straight by letting the bottom of our ribcage jut forward (i.e. by tilting our upper torso back and arching our low back).   As discussed previously for Urdhva Hastasana, keep Tadasana in your upper torso first and foremost, and then take your arms straight overhead as straight as possible (moving them behind your ears if possible in Urdhva Hastasana, although that is not an issue in Adho Mukha Svanasana).   Put effort into opening your shoulders and armpits more and more.
Continue lifting your groins and hips maximally away from your hands as you begin to execute other actions in the pose.
Draw your torso inward toward your legs so your head hangs more toward the floor.   Allow your head to hang freely like the clapper of a bell.   Eventually aim to take your head to the floor.   Move your spine upward and inward as your head releases down.   It is the firmness of your legs and upward action of your spine in Adho Mukha Svanasana that allows your head to release fully.
Feel as though you are trying to touch your chest to your knees.   This pose should feel like a backbend between your shoulder blades, although that is more of a feeling than an actual movement.   Although your hips are in flexion, your upper torso should be fully in extension, with not a single vertebra sticking out anywhere along your spine.   This sometimes gives this asana a backbending flavor.   You can't take a short cut, though, and just dive your shoulders down toward the floor to achieve the backbending flavor.   That action must come from your hips, low back, and the front of your body.   If you have a feeling of backbending, it should be in your mid-thoracic spine.
Pay attention to releasing your lumbar spine down away from your hips to allow the normal lumbar concavity (lordosis).   A common problem in this asana is having the low back rounded upward because of hip and hamstring tightness.   Have a partner feel the spine of your lumbar area.   If any of the vertebrae are sticking out, you need to take more distance between your hands and feet or bend your knees more until your hamstrings have loosened sufficiently to allow your lumbar spine to be in extension in the pose.   The extension of your spine is more important than straightening your legs or how low you can get your heels to the floor.   Of course, there can also be an excess of spine extension in this pose, with too much concavity in your low back.   You must learn the right balance between flexibility and solidity.   As in all poses, use the sensitivity of your skin to deepen your experience of the pose.   If your skin is stretching on your low back, you will know your low back is rounded.
Your thoracic ("dorsal") spine should be moving into your body, concaving.   But don't let your lower ribs drop toward the floor in this position -- this is especially common for people who are quite flexible.   Your lower ribs and abdomen should draw into your body.   More flexible individuals will tend to relax and let their lower ribs drop and their low back over-arch.   They must lift their lower ribs and navel upward and inward.   It is your chest that you should draw toward your thighs, not your lower front ribs.   Also pay attention not to collapse your shoulders as you move your chest toward your thighs.
Eventually, as your hamstring flexibility allows, your secondary goal is to walk your feet forward toward your hands a little more, press your thighs (skin, muscles, and thigh bones) strongly back into the backs of your legs to straighten your legs, and ground your heels.   This maneuver should not be made at the expense of allowing the small of your back to arch upward or your hips to fall from their maximal height.   Learning to ground your heels comes after learning to do the pose with straight legs which comes only after you are able to lift your hips maximally, open the front of your torso maximally, and allow your lumbar spine to be in extension.
Once you have begun to straighten your legs and take your heels toward the floor, draw your inner legs up from your ankles all the way up into your groins.   Distribute your weight evenly across the mounds of both feet from the big toe side to the little toe side.   Lift the arches of your feet.   Broaden your heels as you descend them toward the floor.   Before taking your heels downward toward the floor, first take them back toward the wall behind you and maintain that action throughout the pose.   Stretch your heels back so the soles of your feet lengthen and then down so the backs of your legs lengthen.   Stretch down through your heels, but lift as much from your inner ankles as you can.
Lift the front side of your upper shinbones upward away from the floor and toward your knees more and more to stretch the backs of your legs.   This is just the opposite of the shin action of Uttanasana and Trikonasana where you take your upper shins forward to avoid knee hyperextension.   Don't worry about knee hyperextension in Adho Mukha Svanasana.   One reason we do not have to worry about knee hyperextension in this pose is that the legs are at an angle and are not fully weight-bearing.   Take your thighbones into the backs of your legs and your shin bones into the back of your legs.   This is "Adho Mukha Svanasana legs."
Keep taking your thigh bones into the backs of your legs strongly.   Also cut inward at the outside of your shins sharply toward your midline.   Move your knees back -- the area just above and just below your knees should both press back.   The area just below the knee at the center of the shin should be most active.   Mr. Iyengar often used to placed blocks there touching the top of the shins to focus a student's lifting action there.
Draw the tops of your kneecaps upward and into your legs.   Tighten your quadriceps and turn your thighs inward to help spread your sitting bones apart as you are lifting them.   Move your inner thighs back more strongly than your outer ones to keep the centers of your thighs straight forward and also to bring consciousness to your inner thighs, an area where we often lack consciousness.   Turning the tops of your knees outward will help center your thighs forward and prevent them from rotating too far inward.   Verify your thighs are parallel and straight forward.   Also have the feeling of rotating your inner heels backward and outward.   Then you also need to draw your outer calves and the outer arches of your feet back strongly to resist the inward rotation of your legs (and keep your heels from splaying outward with the inward rotation of your thighs).   So there is a "resisting action" in the legs just like that of the arms (forearms spiraling inward and upper arms spiraling outward).
Even though your thighs are moving back strongly, soften (or "hollow") your groins.   You should have this same feeling in your forward bends, Tadasana, etc.   Do not hold tension in your groins.   Press inward toward your midline at the outside of your hips ("compact your hips"), but do not let this action compromise the spreading of your groins and buttock bones.
Lengthen and broaden your calves.   While you keep drawing your hamstrings up toward your buttocks, lengthen your calves downward toward the floor.   Open the back skin of your knees strongly so there would be no space there if you put a block up against the skin.   Do this even if you cannot get your heels all the way to the ground.   Doing this asana gives you a good opportunity to stretch your calves and Achilles tendon region.   Occasionally press one heel down strongly toward the floor while bending the other knee and feel the stretch in the calf you are pressing down.   Then repeat the other side.   Then try walking your feet a short step closer to your hands and repeat.
One way of extending more consciousness into your feet is to try to shift your weight more onto the posterior aspects of the balls of your feet, so you can lift your toes off the mat if you want to, even the stubborn little one.   This action is much more important than getting your heels to the floor.   There is no problem with having your heels not reach the floor.   Many seasoned yoga practitioners never have their heels reach the floor.   That's a beginner's preoccupation -- let it go.
Eventually your weight in this pose will be carried more by your legs and less by your shoulders and arms.   Use your arm strength and draw from your legs to bring your weight back into your legs and out of your shoulders and arms.   Shift your weight back into your hips and legs.   Pull strongly back this way to create a feeling of lightness in your arms as much as possible, keeping your weight out of your shoulders.   This action will become easier with time.   The more you draw your hips back, the lighter you will be in your shoulders.   And it is the lift and strong backward action of your legs that keeps your spine from collapsing toward the floor.   Strive to make this pose more and more effortless.   Strive to make your pose as close to Savasana in spirit as possible.
As you hold the asana, use your breath to work on the pose.   Breathe in and raise your sitting bones higher.   Breathe out and take your heels lower.   Breathe in and elongate your arms and torso.   Breathe out and take your chest more toward your legs.
In Adho Mukha Svanasana, your focus is on maximal whole body extension so it's good to rest afterward for a few moments in Child's Pose in which everything is flexed in a relaxed way.   If this is the first pose of the session, or early on in your session, keep your energy up by stepping forward out of the pose into Uttanasana.   If you are doing Adho Mukha Svanasana toward the end of your session, coming down out of the pose and resting in Child's Pose is nice.
There are many ways to use props to enhance your performance of Adho Mukha Svanasana and to focus work on certain actions.   One way to work on this pose is to support your heels.   With your heels supported, the backs of your legs are extended all the way from your heels up to your hamstrings, especially the backs of your knees.   There is some stretch and at the same time there is some passivity there so that you can, for instance, work more on the thigh actions of the pose.   If you take your heels to the wall, it is the back of your heels which touch the wall (not the bottom of your heels high up on the wall).   This is often a good practice for those who cannot ground their heels fully to get the sensation of grounding the heels.
Another way to get the sensation and satisfaction of grounding your heels is to have your hands on blocks in this pose.   This variation takes weight out of your arms and shoulders and allows you to be much more present in your legs in the pose.   This variation is especially good also if you are suffering from a hand, arm, or shoulder injury since it takes some weight out of those areas.
When practicing this pose hanging from the wall ropes, the ropes pulling your thighs backward allows you to find more freedom in your lower abdomen and the front of your torso in general.   This is also another way to take weight out of your arms and shoulders.
One way of using a partner to help you in Adho Mukha Svanasana is to have your partner push upward on the top of your pelvis just above your low back strongly with both palms flat on the top of your low back/pelvis region, taking some weight out of your arms and helping you to move toward grounding your heels.   After a few moments of this action, have your partner release and feel the difference that the partner work made.   Try to establish that feeling in your own pose.
Another way your partner can help you is to stand on your hands with the balls (not heels) and toes of their feet (particularly pressing down your inner hands -- your thumb and forefingers) and then to repeatedly apply light pressure with one hand to your thoracic ("dorsal") spine area around the ninth thoracic vertebra (where the strap of a bra would be on a woman) to encourage you to draw that area into your body.