Downward Dog

Two weekends ago I went to my first ever yoga conference near Seattle and took a workshop from Tiffany Cruikshank called Flip Your World Upside Down. Little did I know that Tiffany is blowing up as a teacher right now and is a bit of a celebrity. But I didn’t care about that. What I did care about was what I learned from her about going upside down and how best to support my shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints while doing so. Let me say, I was on my hands for about an hour and half and I had no joint pain during or afterwards. It was awesome. And I’m going to share a little bit of what I learned with you!
It is important to turn on a few key muscles in your Downward Dogs, Dolphins, and Arm Balances such as Handstands. But for today we’re going to focus solely on how to revolutionize your downward dog.

Muscle #1: Latissimus dorsi

Also known as the Lats. These muscles are located underneath and below your shoulder blade. An easy way to find them is to draw your shoulder blades down your back until they stop moving. The muscles that engage are your Lats! Turning these muscles on begins to stabilize your shoulder joint. Each additional muscle that we investigate below will create a cradling effect around the joint, offering good support and making us less likely to aggravate our rotator cuff muscles!

Muscle #2: Serratus Anterior

This muscle, as you can see, is located along the upper ribs and actually inserts into the shoulder blade. It is another key stabilizing muscle. You can feel it by extending your arms straight out in front of you, palms flexed. Squeeze your upper arms in towards your arm pits and feel for the muscles underneath and to the side of your pecs firing.

Muscle #3: Pectoralis major & minor

Two for one here. Now we are stabilizing the shoulder joint from more of a front side perspective. You can feel for turning these two muscles on by extending your arms in front of you again, palms flexed. Press your hands forward like you are pressing into an imaginary wall and feel the front of your chest turn on. If you can’t feel anything place your hands on a wall and press.

Muscle #4: Rhomboid minor & major

Another 2 for 1 here. These muscles are responsible for drawing the shoulder blades together and rotating them downward. You use your rhomboids when you pull a drawer open. Another way to feel them engage is to, again, put your arms out in front of you, palms flexed. Broaden across your collarbones and feel the muscles along the your upper spine engage.

Put them all together!

1. Extend your arms straight out in front of you, palms flexed.
2. Take a deep inhale and on your exhale draw your shoulder blades down your back, feel for your Lats firing. Hold that.
3. Inhale again and on exhale squeeze your upper arms towards your arm pits turning on serratus anterior. Hold that and inhale again.
4. Exhale and press your palms forward like you are pressing into a wall to engage the pecs. Hold and Inhale.
5. Finally exhale once more and broaden across your collarbones feeling for your rhomboids engaging.

By now you should be sweating a little and feel a sense of warmth and security around your shoulders. If you feel any pain please stop and consult a local professional! You can do the exercise above on your hands and knees and I suggest engaging all of these muscles from that position before you press up into Downward Dog. Engaging these key muscles should take any pain in the joints out of this pose!

And Finally: The Ribs

Another key component to keep the above muscles working in Downward Dog are the ribs. Keep your floating ribs tucked up and in and move your chest and ribs as a unit towards your thighs. This move will keep your low back lengthened and allow you to keep engaging all those important muscles around your shoulder joints! You can play around with this concept if you don’t understand what I’m saying. Come into Downward Dog. Sink your floating ribs towards the floor (you can even think of your chest sinking down). When I do this I lose all muscle connection and my weight immediately goes into my joints.

Try the above exercises and let me know how you feel. What kind of pain and trouble have you had with your practice of Downward Dog? What has helped?

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