“It feels obvious that you need to stretch your hamstrings and calves more to achieve heel-to-mat contact but this can often be a misconception,” says Bar Method master trainer Kate Grove. “Many people with really tight calves, hamstrings, and even short Achilles tendons will never reach the floor." And while that trifecta is enough to keep you from striking the pose, your ankles could also be to blame. According to CorePower Yoga Minnesota area leader and instructor Anastasia Albert, some people experience compression on the fronts of their ankles in down dog. “The pressure is due to the structure of the ankle joint, causing bone to run into bone,” she explains. “This is simply how some bodies are built.”
Instead of dwelling on these areas, Grove suggests concentrating on lengthening the upper body, drawing your shoulders down, lifting your hips up and back, and pulling in the navel. “This way you will create more space in the front and it won't be such a stretch to reach the floor for the lower body,” she says. With those tidbits in mind, Albert and Grove share their five favorite exercises for maximum downward dog flexibility. Check them out (and test them out) below.
5 exercises to get your heels to the ground in down dog
1. Ragdoll forward fold: “Tension in the low back and upper hamstrings can be a major inhibitor to heels reaching the mat in down dog, and ragdoll is one of my favorites to create more space in those typically tight spaces,” Albert says. “To practice this stretch, step your feet at least hip-width if not further apart and bend your knees generously. Hinge forward from your hips to drape your torso over your thighs. Let your arms and head hang down toward the mat.” For an added stretch, she says you can interlace your forearms to create some gentle traction for your spine. “Shift your weight forward toward the balls of your feet to direct more opening into your low back and hamstrings,” she instructs.
2. Thread the needle shoulder stretches: To really stretch and open up your shoulders, Grove says to thread the needle. To set up the movement, get on your hands and knees and thread your right arm under your left side, twisting as you go. For an intense stretch bend all the way down so that your right shoulder is on the ground, holding the brunt of your weight. Keep your hips and torso as square as possible while executing the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds before doing the same on the left side.
3. Wide-legged forward fold: “This stretch creates length for the hamstrings, but also the inner thighs,” Albert explains. “To move in, turn to face the side of your mat and move your feet wide apart.” She suggests starting with a distance of about three to four feet and customizing from there. “A longer stance will offer more inner thigh stretch, a shorter stance will target hamstrings,” she explains. “Like in ragdoll, hinge forward from your hips and reach your fingertips toward the mat.”
4. Child’s pose: Ah, one of my personal favorites. This is the go-to rest pose, but it actually can do a world of good for your shoulders, back, and spine. Get on your knees and spread them wide apart. Lengthen your spine as if there’s a string coming out of the top of your head, pulling you up and then down towards the mat. The goal here is to get your forehead on the mat, but you can stretch your arms long out in front of you in the interim until you reach that point of flexibility.
5. Lateral lunge: “This pose offers opportunity to stretch the calves on both legs in a different way,” Albert explains. To set up this pose, start with a wide-legged forward fold. “Begin to bend one knee while keeping the other leg straight—your hips will move toward your bent knee,” she says. Here, she points out that you have the option to keep your hips lifted or sit them down onto your lower leg. “Flex the foot of your straight leg and roll onto your heel so that your toes point toward the ceiling,” Albert instructs. “You can point and flex the toes of your straight leg to stretch in that calf. If the heel of your bent leg lifted as you sat your hips down, gently press it back toward the floor to create length there too.”
Excited to put these moves to the test? While you’re at it, check out the move that works your arms, shoulders, and core all at the same time. And learn how changing the position of your feet can totally transform your workout.
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