Written by Kara Goodsell
In the final posture of the Purna Surya Namaskar series we look at Adho Mukha Svanasana, a basic arm supported inversion.
The base of the triangular figure from hands to feet represents the relationship to the earth, other beings, matter and gravity. The three sides of the triangle represent the forces of the universe: Brahma the creative force, Vishnu the sustaining force and Shiva, the force of change.
This asana represents the pivotal point at which the forces of entropy and evolution and opposing gravitational forces are in perfect balance and harmony.
Adho = down
Mukha = face
Svana = dog
Asana = comfortable seat
Contraindications & Cautions
Lower backer back issues: bend the knees
Tight hamstrings: bend the knees
Carpal tunnel syndrome: use props underneath the heels of the hands as support, or avoid the full pose and practice Ardha (half) Mukha Svanasana variation (with hands, hip height, at the wall)
Rotator cuff/shoulder injury: Practice Ardha (half) Mukha Svanasana variation (as above)
Late pregnancy: avoid late term – may need to practice Ardha (half) Mukha Svanasana variation (as above)
Stretches the entire back side of the body, especially the arms, shoulders, hips, hamstrings, calves and Achilles tendon;
Strengthens the hands, arms, shoulders and legs;
Lengthens the spine and strengthens the muscles of the chest, opening the heart and increasing lung capacity. Rejuvenates discs;
Beneficial for the endocrine system and improves digestion;
Increases circulation to the brain;
Removes fatigue and rejuvenates the body.
From Bhujangasana, tuck the toes under and on an exhale, lift the torso away from the floor and the sitting bones towards the ceiling. To begin, keep the knees slightly bent and the heels lifted away from the floor.
Position the hands shoulder width apart. Spread the fingers so that there are even spaces between them and press the third knuckle of the forefinger and the base of the thumb into the mat. Ideally the fore-fingers are parallel to each other, however if you experience tightness in the shoulders, it helps to rotate the hands slightly outward.
Have the feet hip width apart, with the hands in line with the feet and the arms in line with the legs. Spread the toes, distributing the weight evenly across the mounds of the feet from the big toe side to the little toe side
Lift the sitting bones to their maximum height – the action of staying on the balls of the feet and keeping the knees bent will help raise the hips. Allow the lumbar spine (or small of the back) to release under its own weight, finding extension in the spine, and draw the navel towards the spine to stabilise the pelvis.
On an exhalation (and if the hamstring flexibility allows) stretch the heels down toward the floor, pressing the skin, muscle and thigh bone toward the backs of the legs. Spread the buttocks sideways away from each other, so that the thighs roll inward slightly and the inner thigh moves backwards. Lift the kneecaps by tightening the quadriceps upwards and into the bone.
Keep the arms active by pressing downwards into the hands and squeezing the elbows in towards each other, with the palms evenly pressed into the floor. Engage the muscles under the forearms upward and into the forearm bones, and turn the inner creases of the elbows and armpits toward each other.
Firm the shoulder blades against the back by spiraling the upper arms outwards. Draw the shoulders away from the ears, widen them, and draw them toward the tailbone. Allow the collar bone to broaden and armpits to open. Keep the third knuckle of the forefingers pressing into the mat.
Relax the head and release the muscles around the neck, allowing the chest and head to release toward the floor and then back toward the thighs. Keep the back of the neck long. Allow the thoracic (mid) spine to move deeper into the back.
Expand the front of the body, lengthening from the sternum to the pubic bone.
Alignment & Anatomical Focus:
The asana has two lines of energy radiating outward from the centre pelvis. The first line of energy moves down the legs and into the feet. The second line travels through the spine and arms into the hands.
In finding the extension of the spine, there are two tracts to elongate: the inner tract running from the forefingers, through the inner elbows, up to the inner groin, and the outer tract from the little fingers, through the elbows and armpits, up to the outer hips.
Feet, Knees & Thighs:
The feet are hip width apart and the outside edges of the feet are parallel to the sides of the mat – which means the big toes are usually slightly turned in.
The weight of the body is distributed evenly across the mounds of the feet. Stretch the heels back so that the Achilles tendons and the soles of the feet broaden and lengthen. As you stretch down through the heels, lift the inner arches. The legs are working against gravity in the pose, and grounding down through the heels; helps re-distribute the weight of the body from the shoulders/arms to the legs and create a feeling of lightness in the upper body. It is this strong backward action of the legs which keeps the spine from collapsing toward the floor.
Broaden the calves and lengthen them down toward the floor as you lift the shin bones up towards the knees.
The tops of the knee caps are drawn upwards and into the legs. The area just above and below the knees should both press back, with the area just below the knee at the centre of the shin most active. Avoid hyper extending the knees.
Tighten the quadriceps and turn the thighs inwards to help spread the sitting bones apart as they are lifting. Bring intelligence to the inner thighs as you move the inner thigh back more strongly than the outer thigh, so that the centres of the thighs are straight forward.
Pelvis and Hips & Torso:
It is important to raise the sitting bones as high as possible, while at the same time allowing the small of the back to release under its own weight without tension.
As you exhale, move the pelvis backward and upward and become aware of how the crease formed by the torso and the thighs moves up and away from the wrists.
Allow the lumbar spine to release down and away from the hips and to be in extension
Lift the floating ribs away from the armpits and up towards the hips and open the chest toward the floor. Draw the lower ribs and abdomen upward and inward into the body.
Expand the front of the body and lengthen the spine from the crown of the head to the tail bone.
Shoulders, Arms & Hands
Ideally there is almost no weight in the wrists.
There is a tendency to take weight into the outside edges of the hands in this pose, so pay particular attention to pressing the third knuckle of the forefinger into the mat to counteract this action. Turning the hands slightly outward can also help with the tendency. When you are in the pose, avoid the weight shifting back into the heels of the palms and avoid gripping the floor.
Straighten the arms by squeezing the elbows in toward one another. The upper arm and lower arm turn in opposite directions, so that there is a spiraling action in the arms. From the elbows up, the upper arms are spiraling outward to assist with drawing the shoulders away from the ears. The muscles of the arms are actively engaged to the bones, with the forearms resisting upward into the forearm bones – this helps shift the weight into the third knuckle region of the hand and avoid collapse in the shoulder.
Note: those students who have a tendency to hyperextend in their elbow joints need to take extra care to keep the elbows ‘soft’, moving the inner elbow, to the outer elbow, and to firm the outer, upper arm muscles (triceps) into the bones.
Keep the shoulder blades (scapulae) moving down toward the tailbone to help open the chest.
Bring intelligence to opening the armpits and shoulders.
When viewed from the side, the line from the hands-elbows-hips is a straight line.
From the perspective of the breath the pose is an inversion, which naturally moves the diaphragm toward the head. This can have the effect of deepening the exhaling action of the abdominal muscles.
As you hold the asana, use the breath to work the pose more deeply: On the inhalation press into the hands to lengthen the arms and achieve the maximum length from the hands to the tailbone – elongate the arms and torso. On the exhalation, allow the heels to ground and take the head and chest closer to the legs.
1. Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life, Published by Random House 2002).