I am an absolute fan of Adho Mukha Svanasana, or as known in Western culture, the Down Dog pose. Ever since I started practicing yoga, this asana has always felt so energizing and at the same time, so soothing!
After twisting my wrist few times during my early 20s, practicing regularly the down dog helped me strengthening the wrists in a "soft way". What do I mean with this? In the asana, we have the perfect weight on the wrists to make the muscles stronger without overdoing it. Pressure isn't too much, it isn't too less: so if you are having wrist pain, usually caused due to weak muscles, give a try to regularly practice the down dog.
At the same time, if practiced correctly, in the downward-facing dog we softly lengthen the shoulders, lower back, hamstrings and calves. Therefore, it makes it as the perfect asana to stretch the body at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the day. Any time when your body feels tense or you feel your muscles are getting stiff, try to hold the down dog for a minute and you will immediately feel more released!
Indeed, the down dog has the following 5 main benefits:
1. Calms the brain and helps relieving stress and mild depression symptoms
2. Brings blood flow to the brain, boosting your energies
3. Strengthens the wrists, arms and shoulders; including ankle joints
4. Lengthens your spine, hamstrings and calves if practiced correctly
5. It eliminates stiffness and back pain
However, few of these benefits get limited (if not eliminated) if we practice the down dog with the wrong alignment.
First rule: place the hands shoulder width apart, and the feet hip width apart.
Second rule: as my Iyengar yoga teacher taught me, fingers should be spread, spreading at the same time the body weight on each finger. Ideally, your index finger should be pointing to the front and in line with your arm.
Then we got the question: how much distance should I keep between my hands and feet? I see lot of students, who tend to shorten their distances. Unfortunately, by shortening this distance, we are also reducing the benefits of lengthening the back, hamstrings and calves :-(
An easy way to find the right distance is coming into the down dog from a plank. Do not move the hands, neither the tip toes. Just bend your knees, lift your butt up and backwards, push away the floor and sink the shoulders towards the feet :-) I know, it sounds easier than doing it...
From my experience of years practicing yoga and teaching, I have seen two types of downward-facing dogs:
When we believe our body isn't flexible and rather stiff, or we simply have never done a down dog before, we tend to do a pose that looks like a hybrid between plank and the real down dog (does it make sense?) eliminating all those amazing benefits of the asana :-( Also, there must be a misconception that the goal of Adho Mukha Svanasana is to bring the heels down.. and hence I see lot of yoga practitioners compromising their spine alignment (e.g. rounding the back) just to completely lengthen the legs and reach the floor.
The second type I called it "shoulders overstretch". Very common misalignment when your shoulders are very flexible or even hypermobile. It looks cool, very bendy.. Yeh yeh, but eventually, if you continue sinking and over stretching your shoulders, you will get injured. Flexibility without strength is a major cause for dislocations and other joint injuries.
In a nutshell, a correct down dog should stretch your shoulders but also strengthen them. It should be focused first lengthening your back, and once you got it straight, straightening the legs and finally bringing the heels down. It should feel active on your hands, but at the same time stretchy in the body.
How we can correct these misalignments?
In order to correct the down dog and get the full benefits out of it, I recommend to attend regular yoga classes with an experienced teacher that can guide you. We all have different body types and hence, an experienced eye can help you customizing your downward-facing dog instead of giving standard instructions that may not fit your body type.
Said this, wish you all happy Adho Mukha Svanasana practice! :-)