Stepping through from Downward Facing Dog (into a lunge, forward fold or really any other pose) is one of those tricky transitions that you either love or…you know, don’t quite love yet. Depending on the physical dimensions of your skeleton, arm strength, core strength and a number of other factors, stepping through can either come effortlessly to you as you tiptoe through like a soundless ballerina or require a whole lot of clunking around as you stomp like an elephant and not even land your foot halfway up the mat.
If you happen to fall into the later category, fear not! There are tricks and techniques that you can use to help you step through with relative ease and control. And there are plenty of exercises that you can practice to help you get one step closer (pun totally intended) to stepping through from your Down Dog.
Play With Props
Different bodily dimensions always come into play in the physical asana practice. The length of your bones, the “room to give” available at your joints and the shape of your muscles, ligaments, tendons and even fascia all greatly affect the way poses and transitions look and, more importantly, feel within your body. This transition is no exception. The length of your arms in comparison to the length of your legs can make all the difference here. If you have long arms, then you are in luck. If your arms are significantly shorter than your legs, then you are also in luck…you get to play with props! Using blocks underneath your hands during this transition can make a world of difference. Moving the floor further away from you so that you can keep your hips and leg elevated as you reach one foot between the hands can create the difference between effort and ease in this transition. If this is something that you struggle with, I highly suggest propping yourself up onto blocks and giving it a go…you will likely be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Prepare Your Shape
We don’t always have the option (or the time) to grab some blocks during a quickly flowing class. So, when props are not available, there are still some ways to make this transition work smoothly by coaching the proper muscle groups to work at the appropriate times. Start by preparing your hips and legs. Begin in Downward Facing Dog. Extend your fingertips forward in space as if you’re trying to glide them forward on the sticky mat and extend your sit bones up toward the sky. As you inhale, reach your right leg up toward the ceiling. Maintain your hips squared to the floor by inwardly spiraling your right thighbone down toward the mat, keeping your toes facing the floor. Level off your hips and activate your core, drawing your bellybutton in toward your spine and up toward your rib cage. As you exhale, maintain your Down Dog shape (keeping your arms, hips and left leg exactly as they are) and simply bend deeply into the right knee. Draw that knee in toward your chest, allowing your heel to kick your seat. Maintain this Down Dog shape but continue to draw your thigh as close toward your chest as possible. Try to make yourself compact. Hold for about five long, deep breaths and then repeat on the opposite side.
Activate Your Arms & Core
Now that you understand this shape and the activation required throughout the body, specifically in the hips and legs, you can start to hone in on the powerhouses of the step through – your arms and core. Once again, start in Down Dog. Work all of the previous actions: fingertips extending forward, hips reaching skyward, belly strongly engaged and legs firm and active. Again, inhale to reach your right leg up toward the sky, keeping your hips squared to the floor. Inwardly spiral your right thighbone down to the mat and point your toes like a ballerina (and start to channel her graceful energy while you’re at it!). Draw the pit of your belly in toward your spine and, without opening your hip joint, inhale to try to lift your right leg just slightly higher toward the sky using the strength of your core. It will be a tiny, micro-movement if you maintain the squaring of your hips and you will create a strong activation through your abdominals.
On your next exhale, bend deeply into your right knee drawing your thigh toward your chest (as you did in the previous step) and, this time, shift the weight of your torso forward so that you move into a Plank position with your shoulders aligned directly over your wrists. Press the floor away from you and round your back deeply (creating a cat pose or C-shape) while hugging your right knee in toward your chest. Maintain the alignment of your shoulders over your wrists and kick back firmly through your left heel. As you inhale, extend your leg and hips back up into a Three-Legged Down Dog.
So, as you may have noticed, this in and of itself is really difficult. Continue practicing this Knee-to-Nose Core Plank for as long as you can maintain the proper alignment. Be sure to practice equally on both sides of the body. If you want to kick it up a notch, you can work all the same actions, hugging your knee toward your nose and hold there for a few long, deep breaths.
If you’d like to take it one step even further, you can work the same actions hugging the knee toward your nose on an exhale and, inhale, to maintain the rounded-back Plank shape of your body while raising and lowering your right leg to free float and hover just above the mat and then back up and in toward your body. Play around with any or all of these variations as you start to build the strength, stamina and endurance to step through from your Down Dog.
Take It Step-by-Step
Once you feel that you’ve adequately mastered all the previous steps, you can start to work everything together taking it step-by-step to work all the way into the full transition of stepping through from Downward Facing Dog.
To work the full step through, begin in Down Dog (either choosing to use blocks underneath your hands or not – whichever you feel serves you better). Find the engagement previously mentioned throughout your whole body from your fingertips to your hips to your heels. As you inhale, sweep your right leg to the sky, squaring your hips to the floor. As you exhale, draw the knee toward your nose, rounding your back and shifting your weight forward into a Plank. Actively press the floor away from you and look forward toward the top of your mat. Maintain the action of hugging your knee in toward your chest (ideally trying to keep contact between your chest and your right thigh for as long as possible during this transition) as you start to release your heel toward the floor. Aim to reach the heel even further forward than you actually want it to land. Just before your foot touches the mat, very, very slightly lift your hips a little bit higher so you have the space to step your foot forward between your hands. As you reach your foot toward the floor, keep suctioning your bellybutton in toward your spine, slowly lowering your heel then the ball of your foot and then your toes to the mat. You may find it slightly easier to make all of this possible by lifting the heels of your hands as your foot steps through.
Play around with it and practice it a lot. Make sure to repeat these actions stepping each leg forward equally to keep your body balanced. Try not to become attached to the final outcome but enjoy the journey along the way, learning something new about your body or your mind’s reactions to your accomplishments and setbacks. Each time you step onto your mat, you learn something: whether that’s learning how to step through from Down Dog or learning how to not become attached to your physical practice.
Practice each step along the way with accuracy, control and precision, and you may find that, in time, you will begin to master this tricky transition with grace and ease. But until then, enjoy the process, enjoy the journey, enjoy the transition.