Spine-Lengthening Asanas: Balasana and Adho Mukha Svanasana

Quick description and disclaimer: I am a big person and solid, hypermobile in some joints and with limiting bone structure in others. In my nearly 12 years as a yogi, I’ve had the privilege of working with some truly awesome teachers — and therefore have little deference to anyone who demands that I strive to look like the Mainstream Media and Cookie Cutter Approved Yogi Ideal.

And I think that’s true for a lot of us, in essence if not in detail.

Here’s the thing: Your body is right for yoga. Right now, today. The asana aspect of yoga — which is only part of a multifaceted practice — should involve the pose working with your body, rather than trying to force a body into what might be its wrong pose.

That’s what I’d like to explore in my posts here:

  1. The idea that different asanas are appropriate for different bodies, purposes, and times.
  2. The idea that there is some connection between different asanas and that different expressions of a pose may achieve the same physical body or subtle body effect.

This week I’d like to focus on a continuum of spine-lengthening poses that include different expressions of balasana (child’s pose) and adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose). The key element in all of these is that they lengthen the spine: some seated, some standing; some with more muscle engagement, some with more external support. And there are lots of variations in what the rest of the body is doing, but they all bring the spinal column toward more length.

Before we get into the variations themselves, I want to bring up a quick word about actions and sensation versus aesthetics and absolute positions. Basically, if you’re feeling healthy engagement and opening in your spine, if you’re feeling that sensation of lengthening, it matters less about what the shape looks like from the outside. Not that ideas about shapes can’t be useful guides — they can! — but they don’t trump the body’s sensation. So it’s up to your sensation to guide you into the correct expression for you in each moment.

The first pose I want to look at is a pretty traditional extended balasana:

It’s essentially a kneeling forward fold, and there’s a pretty straight line from the extended arms, through the spine, and up and back to the hips. For folks with shoulders and knees that allow it, this is a pretty customizable pose. You can press more or less with the palms to increase muscular effort in the arms. Similarly, adjusting the knees further apart tends to bring a larger stretch in the mid and upper spine while moving the knees closer together tends toward stretching the lower back. None of these variations is inherently better or worse (or “more advanced” or “less advanced”); they’re just different, which is reflective of different bodies and different circumstances.

If extended child isn’t your thing (or isn’t your thing today — needs change, after all), there’s also a supported version:

Though the torso is primarily supported by the bolster here (and you can use as many bolsters, pillows, or blankets as you like to achieve the proper height for you) rather than the arms, the idea of spinal length is still very much present in this pose. Oh, and I will point out that rather than a sandbag, I sometimes find a rice sock heating pad along by spine and/or across my hips and sacrum to be several kinds of awesome here. Mine is heavy enough to still add length and support, and the heat does a lot for removing my muscle tension.

Continuing on this trip of kneeling lengthening poses is anahatasana, sometimes called melting heart pose (the closer translation of the Sanskrit) or puppy dog pose (because of its physical similarity to downward facing dog):

Here the hips are lifted vertically over the knees, and the arms are doing more direct weight bearing, but the line from fingers to hips is pretty close to the line in balasana. Particularly because this pose starts to involve some “drawing in” (shoulders into their sockets, shoulder blades down the back, abdominals in to support the lower spine), it can be good for yogis with hypermobility in any of those areas.

Another canine pose, sometimes called “half dog” pose, continues the spine line and might also incorporate some hamstring stretching:

Depending on your legs, hips, and spine, the line of your torso may or may not come completely horizontal here, and that’s okay. Horizontal is not the goal. Lengthening — as an action — is the goal. If bending your knees releases tension in your hamstrings or the back of your pelvis, it’s 110% okay to do that in order to facilitate opening in the spine. Also, because my head isn’t below my heart in this pose, I find it easier to release my shoulder blades down my back. (In more common versions of child’s pose and down dog, my lower back is inclined higher than my upper back — meaning releasing my shoulders “down” is actually releasing them “up,” which is sometimes sort of tricky for me to wrap my brain around.)

If chair yoga is more available to you, this same half dog can be performed seated:

Drawing of a seated forward bend.

The idea is to sit on the sit bones and engage through the feet and legs as much as possible in order to bend forward from the hips — keeping the spine long — rather than rounding forward through the back. Depending on how open your hamstrings are, you may feel some hamstring stretch in the seated version too. This expression allows for a lot of upper body activation and shoulder opening without too much intensity in the hamstrings or on the knees.

Finally, there’s the traditional expression of adho mukha svanasana, which is probably a widely recognized asana:

I sort of think about all of these poses as using body position as weights and levers to lengthen the spine. This expression of down dog might be with the lever on a different setting, but it’s still the same basic process. The arms are extended out, pressing the floor away. The legs, knees bent or not, are drawing down from the hips, adding to the lengthening action in a way that’s not too different from the sandbag prop here. Gravity is more involved here, but the center of the pose — that lengthening spine — is the same.

Right.

So I’ve already written a buttload, but there’s one more thing I want to get in before I go to sleep. And that’s the idea that a lot of these expressions are readily interchangeable during the course of a practice. It might be difficult to take a wall pose as part of a sun salutation, but it would be pretty easy to press back into a puppy or child’s pose instead of into a down dog if either of the first two were the right pose for me at the time. While it’s certainly true that the poses have differences and therefore distinct reasons why I might prefer one over another in any given moment, it’s also true that if my intent is to select a pose that creates length in my back, being able to make a mindful choice is a good thing.

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Posted in asana
3 comments on “Spine-Lengthening Asanas: Balasana and Adho Mukha Svanasana
  1. […] going to look at a few different seated backbends, all of which are suitable counter poses to the forward bends from last week. A few general safety […]

  2. […] in this post and a few prone backbends in the next, all of which are suitable counter poses to the forward bends from last week. A few general safety […]

  3. […] between puppy dog and child’s pose — There’s a video here, but basically, puppy dog has the hips raised vertically over the knees instead of dropping back […]

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