The connection between yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) fascinates me. When we do yoga poses, we activate various meridians in the TCM system, usually without awareness that we are doing so.
Here’s why doing downward-facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana) feels so good (once your shoulders open up and the muscles in the back of your legs lengthen) and why it’s so good for your health.
Downward-facing dog is arguably the most common pose in yoga. It’s done in Iyengar, anusara, vinyasa, ashtanga, bikram, and other styles of hatha yoga. It’s a cornerstone of sun salutations. It’s considered a resting pose in post-beginner yoga classes.
It’s so well-known, even many non-yogis recognize it: palms and soles flat on the floor several feet apart, buttocks high, back and legs straight.
Downdog does our bodies so much good because it activates the bladder meridian, the longest channel in the body, running from the inner eye, up over the top of the head, down the back and the backs of the legs, ending at the pinkie toe. It even doubles up on part of its path:
To do downdog is to activate the bladder meridian’s 67 points, more than any other meridian (times two, because there are left and right meridians).
The bladder meridian is yang, meaning it deals with the outer world. The bladder channel is our first line of defense, so activating it boosts immunity. Not only is this meridian related to the urinary bladder, it also relates strongly to (and balances) the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-restore) nervous systems.
If you are stressed (and most of us are most of the time), stimulating the bladder meridian activates the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing relaxation. It’s why people get so much out of having their backs massaged. Notice all those BL points in the sacrum area? The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by S2, S3, and S4 spinal nerves at the sacrum, and by several cranial nerves as well.
So doing downward-facing dog helps you relax and release tension.
There are also “Back Shu Points” located along the bladder channel. They are associated with organs and with chronic issues like insomnia, asthma, menstrual problems, IBS, anxiety, and so on. Doing downward-facing dog could prevent or alleviate chronic disease.
Downward-facing dog is also an easy inversion for the upper body, refreshing blood to the head and moving lymph.
Plus, you know, it just feels good to stretch like that! Do down dog to stretch the glutes, hamstrings, calf muscles, and Achilles tendons. Even the soles of the feet!
Let it open up your shoulders. Really feel your hands and feet connecting to the ground. Relax your neck and let your head drop toward the ground. Feel your strength. Straighten your legs and work toward lowering your heels to the floor. Do variations (on tiptoes, pedaling your feet, 3-legged dog, wild thing).
Then come down onto your knees, push your butt back toward your heels, and sink into child’s pose to enjoy that relaxation.
Downward-facing dog is a cornerstone of my yoga practice. If I could only do one pose, that would be it! Jai, adho mukha svanasana.