Of the thousands of known yoga asanas, there is no pose more archetypal of modern posture practice than Adho Mukha Svanasana, the downward facing dog. And for good reason: there is little a well-performed dog pose can't do. It is an inversion, it is a standing pose, it is an arm balance, it strengthens the upper body, it strengthens the lower body, it is a forward fold, it is a back bend, it tractions the spine, and over time it elicits all of the bandhas. Opposition is the blueprint of the posture; its essence is ha-tha, or yin-yang.
Many yoga teachers will go so far to say that if you can only do one yoga posture, it should be downward facing dog. Although I would never – ever! – even dream of judging someone else's yoga practice, if I were to hypothetically want to do such a thing, I would look at their dog pose, and all would be revealed. How the practitioner uses her hands and shoulders directly corresponds to her inversion and arm-balancing practice. How she uses her feet and hips will translate to her standing poses. Her pelvis and costal arch will reveal how she breathes, and her control over the inner body. The shape and length of her spine reflects on her forward folds and backward bends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a posture that does so much, there is an equal amount of debate about how the posture should be performed. There are certainly stylistic differences across systems of yoga and individual practitioners in all asanas, but down dog seems to occupy a category all its own. Even within the same tradition of yoga, you will see drastically different presentations of downward facing dog. It seems every yoga teacher has an opinion of how the pose should be performed, and what its focus should be. Some yoga teachers even go so far as to write entire blog articles dedicated to the practice and intent of dog pose.
The first thing I notice when looking at Krishnamacharya's dog pose is the posterior tilt of his pelvis. His posterior pelvic tilt is creating a strong concavity in his abdomen, and a slight convexity in his lumbar spine. This concavity of the abdomen is the external shape of both mula bandha and uddiyana bandha.
Krishnamacharya's chin is also in contact with his chest, creating jalandhara bandha. Note that he is able to do this by lifting his chest towards his chin, and not by collapsing his collar bones and sternum towards the floor. The three main bandhas are therefore all evident in his posture.
The overall shape of his posture is more of a forward fold, with the sacrum and lumbar spine resembling the shape a well-done bakasana might create. This presentation of the posture has mostly fallen out of favor, having been replaced by a more neutral, and evenly extended spine.
The longer I look at his posture, the more I see strength. Despite the grainy texture and poor resolution of the photograph, Krishnamacharya’s body appears to radiate power. His legs as solid as tree trunks, his ribcage powerful, the deep muscles of his pelvis alive – as though every muscle in his body is simultaneously engaged, working in unison. His body appears to be carved out of wood. It is obvious he has a working mastery of creating opposition within the body.
Looking at Jois’ dog pose, I immediately see certain similarities to Krishnamacharya's posture. The overall form is the same: there is a similar posterior pelvic tilt, concave abdomen, convex lumbar spine, and contact between chin and chest. On the spectrum of forward folding to backward bending, Jois' dog is again more of a forward fold.
As obvious as the similarities are between the two postures, the differences are equally apparent. Overall, Jois' dog seems less much integrated: his lumbar spine is less uniformly rounded, his costal arch less defined, the contact of his chin and chest stems much more from the neck dropping to meet the chest rather than the chest lifting to meet the chin.
Upon closer examination, I see that his shins are collapsing towards his feet, and his forearms are collapsing towards the floor. This weakness in the foundation of his lower limbs is perhaps transferred into his torso and spine, accounting for the less integrated bandhas. My final note is that Jois appears to have a scoliosis, manifesting as an uneven shoulder girdle and perhaps a rotation of the ribcage.
This less integrated posture is likely due to Jois being grossly less experienced than Krishnamacharya at the time this photo was taken. It is interesting that yoga asana is one of the few physical practices where the older practitioner is often much more adept than the younger practitioner. This is, of course, assuming the older practitioner has consistently practiced his art for a longer period of time.
As much as Jois' posture strongly resembled Krishnamacharya's, Iyengar's posture seems to strongly differ. Gone is the posterior pelvic tilt, removed the contact of chin to chest, the shape of the spine drastically different. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the contact of Iyengar's head with the floor. Even to the untrained eye it is apparent that Iyengar took the pose in a much different direction than his teacher.
The overall shape of Iyengar's spine is much more neutral, and uniformly in extension. Despite the more neutral spine, it is obvious that Iyengar's lower abdomen is concave, his linea semilunaris clearly defined, the mula bandha apparent.
The shape and tone of Iyengar's costal arch also differs from Krishnamarcharya's. While Krishnamacharya has a strong line of demarcation between his ribcage and abdomen, Iyengar's ribcage seems to swell, his chest and abdomen slowly tapering to a deep hollow triangle formed by his frontal hip bones and pubic bone. To me, this says that the respiratory diaphragmd of Krishnamarcharya, and Jois were fixed, their pelvic and respiratory musculature simultaneously strongly engaged. Iyengar, on the other hand, seems to have separated the work of his diaphragm from the work of his pelvic and deep abdominal musculature.
In a much larger sense, it appears as though Iyengar is using the pose to open his shoulder girdle and thoracic spine. In this way, the shape of his chest and lateral arms almost resembles the opening created in urdhva dhanurasana. The result of this opening is the contact of his head to the floor, but the notable absence of hardly any collapse in his collarbones or legs.
In the same way that I see strength and a hardness in Krishnamacharya's posture, in Iyengar's pose I see a softness, an effortlessness, despite his doing something extremely difficult. Iyengar is somehow able to relax and expand his outer body while his inner body remains strong and supportive. This tension creates an unparalleled balance between effort and release.
So far, we have seen changes in downward facing dog in just one generation of yoga practitioner, from Krishnamacharya to his direct disciples Jois and Iyengar. Below are two photos showcasing six of Pattabhi Jois' most accomplished students, all of them well-known and respected in the Ashtanga Yoga world.
Richard Freeman's (top photo, maroon trunks) and Karen Haberman's (top photo, dark purple leotard) dog poses seem to most resemble Iyengar's presentation of the pose due to the lift of the buttocks and the openness of the shoulder girdle. Eddie Stern (bottom photo, green trunks), on the other hand, reminds me a lot of Jois' posture due to the drop of the head and the slight convexity to his lumbar spine.
The tone of Tim Miller's (top photo, green trunks) body and posture remind me a lot of Krishnamacharya. Less evident in the photo above, but apparent in both the video it was taken from and other photos of Miller, is the strength that seems to radiate from him. Even now in his mid-60s, he seems particularly robust.
How about disciples of B.K.S. Iyengar? Below are photos of two senior Iyengar yoga teachers, Patricia Walden and John Schumacher.
The most obvious difference is that neither practitioner is resting their head on the floor, creating a different shape in the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle. Despite the different shape of the upper back and shoulders, I feel the work of their shoulders is similar to Iyengar's.
The second difference I notice right away is the shape and action of the abdomen. Walden has a strong line of demarcation at her costal arch, creating more of an uddiyana bandha shape, reminiscent of Jois and Krishnamacharya. Schumacher's costal arch much more resembles Iyengar's, his chest and abdomen tapering towards his public bone. Neither practitioner has the chin in contact with the chest.
Both Walden and Schumacher present more of a neutrally extended spine. Both are also able to create tremendous lift through their legs and buttock bones. Walden's posture really seems to embody the lightness and ease of Iyengar's posture. In contrast, in Schumacher's body I see more of Iyengar's power, especially in his legs. Despite small differences in the presentation of their dog poses, in their own way both Walden and Schaumacher are able to convey much of the essence of Iyengar's posture.
Below is a photo of Simon Borg Olivier's downward facing dog. Olivier was a student of Jois, Iyengar, and Krishnamacharya's son, TKV Desikachar.
The presentation of Olivier's chest and abdomen is unlike any of the others examined thus far. The longer I stare at it, the more of a mystery it becomes. Olivier's costal arch is not clearly defined as in Jois' posture, but his abdomen also does not taper like Iyengar's. However, the expansion of Olivier's chest implies uddiyana bandha is present, and the shape and tone of his abdomen implies mula bandha is engaged.
Olivier's body and posture remind me a lot of Krishnamacharya. Despite the different spinal alignment and presentation of the abdomen, the tone and essence feel the same. I see tremendous strength and integration in Olivier's body. Like Krishnamacharya, it appears as though every muscle group is working in unison to create something greater than the sum of their parts.
We've now looked at three generations of downward facing dog, starting with a 100-year-old photograph of Krishnamacharya, and following the evolution of the posture through his students, and his students' students. We've seen various ways of working in the posture, from spinal alignment to abdominal tone, each practitioner bringing a little artistic flair to the posture, making it their own. Even the intent of the posture seems to change from person to person, Krishnamacharya seemed to use the pose as a forward fold to strengthen the lower abdomen, Iyengar presented the pose as more of a backward bend to open the upper spine, and most of the third generation practitioners practice the pose as something in the middle.
But where does this leave us? Is there a "correct" dog pose? Or is the "correctness" more dependent on the intent of the posture? How much of alignment is external form, and how much of it is internal tone? How does alignment change based on body type? Is downward facing dog being refined with time, or polluted?
These questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. It is obvious from our study of dog pose that asana practice is experiential, and that experimentation within it must take place. We return to the yoga mat each day to delve deep inside of ourselves, looking for answers. Hopeful that if we dig deep enough we'll eventually hit water, and our thirst will be quenched, our questions answered. Perhaps Pattabhi Jois summed it all up in only five words "take practice, ALL is coming."