The invitation of downward dog: Are you strong enough to rest here now?

Downward Dog is a restorative pose for experienced practitioners, but can be hard work for beginners. — Wikipedia

I was first introduced to downward dog by a yoga teacher who made all sorts of pleasure noises as she guided us into the pose: “hips toward the sky, arms outstretched, long back, neck relaxed, hands planted, fingers spread. Plug yourself into the earth through your palms and soles.” But there was little about it that I found pleasant. There was too much weight on my arms as I struggled to find some equilibrium, and I couldn’t figure out how other people could keep their feet flat without bending their knees. “Join me in downward dog,” the teacher would say, or, “Relax into downward dog.” She presented it as a reward, but for me it was mostly just one more hard, awkward pose in a string of such poses. I usually found myself obsessing over the instructions (wanting to please my teacher), or losing myself in random thoughts to distract myself from my discomfort.

At some point, I began to learn the rhythm of the flow well enough to actually sort of settle into my downward dog. And I got strong enough that I could begin to trust my core — the long, deep center of my body — so I wasn’t relying as much on my shoulders and arms to carry the burden. My first inkling of downward dog as a truly restorative possibility, though, came when I took a course on the Ashtanga series, a prescribed set of poses in quick succession with a reputation for being challenging. The combination of strength, flexibility and discipline it demands is legendary and I knew I was underprepared going in. But I had wise, skillful and compassionate teachers, so I went for it.

I know that some criticize the Ashtanga series for the rigidity of its sequencing and its punishing pace. And, yes, the scripted nature of the asanas, some of them impossibly difficult — for me, at any rate —placed it in stark contrast to the “relaxing flow” yoga that one might seek at the end of a tough workday. But, paradoxically, it was in this Ashtanga class that I first discovered the sweetness of downward dog, partly because, in the context of the overall difficulty of the class, it was so easily distinguishable as an oasis.

And because there was a recipe book of sequences, I did not need to wonder what my teacher was going to throw at me next. This particular pose became a welcome opportunity to breathe (literally) and, somehow, also, to feel myself sinking into the source of breath itself. Downward dog began to reveal itself to me — as gentle, familiar and restorative — only against that backdrop of unprecedented physical challenge and regimentation. So even though part of me dreaded my Ashtanga sessions, I also loved them. Especially when, after just a few weeks, I could feel myself growing stronger and more flexible across the full expanse of my body, from the muscles in my toes to those in my fingers, from the back of my neck to the joints in my ankles.

Paradoxically, the growing power and mobility of my body allowed me to see that the true strength required for me to fully relax into this pose would go well beyond the physical. For, ultimately, the great invitation of downward facing dog is that one be present, neither reliving the last asana or fretting about the next one. Coming to trust the strength of one’s body is, no doubt, a critical step. But learning to fully be here now for the few seconds or minutes that the pose lasts — without being swept away by the addictive self-talk of planning, judgment or fantasy — turns out to be much harder. We may be able to brute force ourselves forward through the demanding twists and flows, but it is in the so-called “resting” poses that we may face our greatest challenge.

It may be obvious that I am not just focused on downward dog here. Rather, it is the very “discipline of rest” that I am considering, including the many ways there are to stay “busy and productive” long after all requirements for life-sustaining activity have been fulfilled. I’m thinking about how we may be praised by others, and how we may applaud ourselves for propelling ourselves insistently forward in the name of “achievement” and “self-improvement.” Even those of us who include lots of “me-time” activities like yoga, meditation, and nature walks may treat these too as mere tasks to be completed on our “disciplined” quest for a “healthy” or “spiritual” life.

It is our right, of course, to delude ourselves into believing that this current moment can be outrun or outwitted through such spiritual busyness. But it’s a self-deception that becomes much harder to maintain in the liminal gap of the in-between. That negative space in the photograph, those pauses between musical notes. This resting asana planted like a bridge between an imagined past and a future that will never arrive.

In humble gratitude to the “wise, skillful, compassionate” teachers I mention above, especially Mona Ceniceros and Melanie Williams at Sun Moon Yoga in Minnesota.

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