Learning to love downward-facing dog

Yoga mat

There may be no more obvious hobby for someone interested in alleviating anxiety to pick up other than yoga. Before you think “Oh no, she’s turning into one of those Kombucha-crazed yogis,” let me just preface this by saying that I am far from being a prototypical practicer of yoga. I’m almost a little embarrassed to say that I like going to yoga classes because I am quite possibly the least flexible person I know and still sometimes have to look around to see what pose we’re on. And here’s something welp-worthy that I’ve just discovered in the past few months: It’s actually difficult for me to sit up straight with my legs flat out in front of me, feet flexed. I’m fairly certain most kindergarteners could one-up me with that.

But in all sincerity, yoga is my favorite recently-acquired hobby. Though I’ve gone through spurts of yoga in the past, this is the first time I’ve committed to practicing yoga on a regular basis. And I really do believe that practicing on a structured schedule has altered my view on yoga. Formerly valueless and downright painful poses have grown familiar and — dare I say it!? — enjoyable. No pose embodies this for me more than adho mukha svanasana or downward-facing dog.

A couple of years ago, I left my very first true yoga class with jelly arms thanks to downward-facing dog and came to dread this particular asana in subsequent classes. Downward-facing dog felt something like a painfully prolonged distorted and cruel twisted plank of sorts, and I felt silly and weak for not being able to withstand this foundational asana. Why would my yoga teachers pleasantly tell us that we could “savor” this position (of pain!!) for several breaths? (Also, why are my breaths always shorter than the breaths that yoga teachers count? Is there some metric of conversion that I have not yet been introduced to?) There was nothing meditative about it, I thought. Downward-facing dog grew to be synonymous with pain: My wrists ached, my arms burned and once the tips of my fingers felt like they were going numb.

In all of this, I’ve accepted that yoga is not something that can be learned immediately in a class. Though yoga teachers will instruct beginners, including myself, through the various asanas, there is something to be said about learning how to hold a pose by yourself, with your own body. If I had a dollar for all of the different ways yoga teachers have attempted to convey downward-dog to me, I’d be able to buy a Lululemon hoodie. But really, the amount of yoga vernacular to describe physical positions is simply dizzying and yet nothing any one teacher said ever switched on my metaphorical downward-facing dog lightbulb.

Instead, it’s just practice and developing a personal understanding of small bodily adjustments. In a recent class, I found myself inadvertently relaxing when the teacher instructed us to return to adho mukha svanasana after a series of standing poses. My calves breathed a sigh of relief when I bent forward and rocked into a deeper downward-dog, heels creeping closer to the ground. I’m honestly not quite sure when or how I learned to hold downward-facing dog without wanting to collapse into child’s pose, but I’m guessing that it was an inch-by-inch education (literally) that I developed very slowly, maybe even beginning with my earliest classes.

Today, I don’t think any of my yoga practices have truly begun with real fervor until I stand in my first downward-facing dog. I’ve learned to reach into the ground not with my arms, but instead with medial muscles in my back, and this has made a huge difference in the meditative-quality of this pose. No longer is downward-facing dog an asana to dread in class, but instead a reprieve from strenuous poses. And last week, I let out an internal “Whee!” when my yoga teacher approached me — bent over in my downward-facing dog — and complimented the strength of my pose. Though my heels still float off the ground in this pose, I now understand that it’s really not about how perfect or good the asana is, but the progress it represents.

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