Yoga Tip Tuesdays: Helpful Hints on Stepping Forward From Downward-facing Dog

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On my post about transitioning your toes through the sun salutations, Lynn, a reader, commented: "I am a yoga teacher as well, and have always struggled with both jump to the top of my mat, or to smoothly step forward, do you have any helpful tips for this?"

This is SUCH a good question!! Being able to smoothly move from the back to the front of the mat might look simple, but (as so often in yoga!) it's actually a fairly difficult move for the majority of people. So, whether you are a teacher or a student, it's a very good thing to be able to break down this motion, and to teach it to people of all abilities.

There has been a lot written and demonstrated on the internet about jumping or "floating" forward, and it is a demanding move that I generally don't teach in classes (too much risk of injury when done sloppily) so I'm not going to focus on that. 

Instead, let's have a look at Stepping Forward

If you go to a vinyasa-like yoga class, you will probably hear these words at least 20 times per class: "now step your foot between your hands, and..." Well, for many people, this is easier said than done! If you're not convinced, imagine replicating this move while standing with your palms pressed against a wall! Ok, convinced now?

A little anatomy

Stepping your foot forward from downward facing dog requires a couple of things to happen.  In order for you to lift and bend your knee, your psoas and hip flexor have to strongly engage.  Your psoas is super strong and used to this - it's what it does every time we take a step forward when we are walking!  However, once your hip is fully bent (when your knee comes in towards your body), your psoas can no longer generate any force, which is why we tend to lose momentum half way through. Once you pass that critical point, the weight of the movement must pass from the legs to the arms; with the back, shoulders and core muscles helping to keep lift. Finally, the hamstring has to lengthen and the quadricep engages to bring the bent knee down to the floor and take the weight of the body back to the feet.

The sequence

For this yoga tip, I'm offering a few simple movements that re-create the elements of stepping forward. If we work on those individually, the overall movement will gradually become easier!

1. Nose-to-knee stretch

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Variation 1

Lie on your back with your hands and feet on the floor. Slowly, without using your hands, bend your right knee and bring it all the way up to your chest. Grab your right knee with your hands, and meanwhile keep your left leg strongly engaged, trying to press the back of your left thigh into the floor.

Next, as you exhale, warm up the core by drawing your nose towards your knee. Try not to use your hands, but instead press the belly back down into the ground and curl up from the core. Inhale, coming back down. Repeat 5 times, optionally holding the last repetition for 3-5 breaths.

Variation 2

This time, try the above exercise with the leg straight.  This stretches out the hamstring, while also bringing an extra stretch to the hip flexor of the grounded leg.

When you've done the right side, repeat on the left.

2.  Cat / cow variation and 3-legged dog variation

(click for larger image)

Come up to all fours. As you inhale, raise your right leg (with the knee bent) behind you. As you exhale, lift your belly button up towards the ceiling, arch your spine, and draw your knee as high as you can towards your chest, and bring your nose in towards your knee.

Repeat this 5 times, and on the 5th repetition try to hold the exhale position for 3-5 breaths. Then do the other side.

The 3-legged dog variation is similar to the cat/cow variation, except in downward-facing dog. As before, on an inhalation lift your right leg up behind you, keeping your hips square. As you exhale, lift up from the core, bring your shoulders over your hands, and hug your knee up towards your chest. Next inhale, lead with the leg and push back.

Repeat this 5 times, and on the 5th repetition try to hold the exhale position for 3-5 breaths.

3. Stepping forward

When the exercises above feel smooth, try stepping forward. Begin just as if you were going to repeat the 3-legged dog exercise, above. This time, when your shoulders come over your hands, use the momentum to lengthen from the hamstring and push from your quad to bring your foot down onto the floor between your hands. If your foot doesn't come all the way, gently walk it to the right place.

As you practice this movement, remember to:
  • Compress the hip flexors on the front leg while keeping the front of the back thigh long and strong, like in nose-to-knee stretch
  • Lift the belly button up towards the spine and the backs of the shoulders strong, like in the cat/cow variation
  • Lift your knee high towards your chest and shift your weight all the way forward onto your hands, like in 3-legged dog
  • Look forward and visualise where your foot should land!! Where you gaze goes, your body - eventually - will follow.
Once your front foot is there, pause, transfer your weight to the forward foot,  and repeat a similar motion with the back leg: lifting up, bending the knee, and gently placing the foot on the floor.  Remember to be patient, breathe deeply, and try not to be attached to the results of the exercise - it's the practice that counts!


If you've read this far, I'd love your feedback! Was this tip helpful? Is there anything else you'd like tips about? Leave a comment!