Flexibility Fridays: Downward Dog, An Athlete's Best Friend

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Downward Dog

Every Friday during the month of February, Dana Santas, founder and director of Radius Yoga Conditioning (RYC), who has worked with more than 18 teams across the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS, will guide you on how to improve your flexibility and improve your performance with yoga.

If athletes had to pick one yoga posture to perform, it should be Downward Dog. I use this pose consistently in every one of my athlete's warm-up programs, because it stretches, strengthens and stimulates the entire body. It also improves the flexibility of commonly tight lower-body muscles, helping to improve your range of motion and decreasing the chance of injury.

I often compare Downward Dog to a sports swing. Whether it's a baseball, golf or tennis swing, you need to fire your muscles in a synchronized and coordinated fashion to effectively make contact with the ball. The same thing applies to the Downward Dog pose. Your muscles must work with each other to support and balance the inverted V shape of the pose. And like the sometimes elusive nature of the perfect swing, it's often tough to find your sweet spot in Downward Dog, which is why many athletes perform it incorrectly or avoid it because it "doesn't feel right."

The upper body must create a line of stabilizing muscular energy that starts at the wrists and moves into the shoulders, through the spine and to the pelvis. The muscles from the pelvis down to the heels must be flexible enough to receive the weight and energy from the upper body to create the balanced posture. This requires a release of the hamstrings, calves and Achilles tendons.

The most common mistake athletes make is failing to bend their knees to accommodate tight hamstrings. If the tension is too great, forcing your legs straight will cause you to round your back and throw the weight forward onto your shoulders. The second most common mistake is collapsing into the shoulders. Keep your shoulders stable by engaging your triceps to straighten your arms and sliding your shoulder blades toward your waist.

Follow the directions below to get the most out of this upper-body strengthening, lower-body lengthening and total-body energizing pose.

Downward Facing Dog

Start in Extended Child's Pose, pushing your hips back toward your heels as far as possible. Reach your arms out in front to their full extent, keeping them shoulder-distance apart. This puts your hands and feet in the proper position to transition into Downward Dog, based on your current level of flexibility and body length. It's important that you don't adjust your hands and feet once you come up into Downward Dog.

To come into Downward Dog, inhale and look at your hands, making sure your fingers are spread. Exhale as you curl your toes under and push your pelvis up to form an inverted V shape. Engage your triceps and quads to straighten your arms and legs, and stabilize your elbows and knees, respectively. Look back at your legs and keep your gaze there. You should not be able to see the insides of your heels. If so, rotate your hips inward so your feet are parallel.

Press through your index fingers, thumbs and base of your palms as though you were pushing your body away from the mat. Broaden your upper back and draw your shoulder blades toward your waist. Engage your abdominals by pulling your navel in toward your spine; this action supports the pelvis and signals the low back to release and lengthen. Feel the elongation of your spine in the diagonal line that matches the angle of your arms. This is a very important element of the pose; if you do not create this angle with your back and arms, you will carry too much weight in your shoulders, causing you to assume a position closer to that of a Push-Up. To counter this, bend your knees as much as necessary, enabling you to pull your hips back, and align your spine and arms.

Take five long deep breathes in Downward Dog and then release into Extended Child's Pose for one or two breaths. Repeat three times.

Want more? Catch up on all Flexibility Friday posts.

Photo:  bu.edu

Dana Santas, E-RYT, ACSM-cPT, is the founder and director of Radius Yoga Conditioning (RYC), an international yoga training and consulting business offering customized sport- and athlete-specific yoga programs. Specializing in serving pro athletes, Santas has worked with more than 18 teams across the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS. RYC is accessible to athletes, coaches and teams through numerous formats, including Skype/Facetime sessions and customized team training. Her work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, on MLB.com, the NHL Network, Fox Sports, WebMD, CNNRadio and elsewhere. For more information, visit radiusyoga.com.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock