Yoga Practice for Hikers: The Downward Dog vs. The Cobra Pose…

We all love our outdoor pursuits, but hiking and backpacking can put unique strain on your body.  The forward bending posture and, often, prolonged uphill climbing creates stress in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  Carrying a pack, even of light weight, puts strain on the upper back, shoulders and neck.  Then there’s the usual fatigue in the calves, ankles and arches of the feet that will happen to anyone who is on their feet for long periods of time.  There are two basic Yoga Asanas (Poses) that will specifically help stretch and strengthen all of these muscle groups to help reduce the risk of injury.

Both asanas are found in the Sun Salutation sequence.  If you followed my previous Yoga Practice for Hikers article you are already familiar with the Downward-Facing Dog and the Cobra Pose as they are both an integral part of that sequence.

The Downward-Facing Dog

Downward-Facing Dog Pose...

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) puts focus on strengthening the upper back while also stretching the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands.  Holding this pose and moving through this pose also work to strengthen the arms and legs.  It is also said to be beneficial for digestion and relieves headaches, back ache, insomnia and fatigue.  For our purposes, we will be focused on the muscle contraction in the upper back at the apex of the pose, and getting as much of a stretch as is comfortable in the hamstrings, calves and arches while maintaining a tight core.

The Cobra Pose

Cobra Pose...

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) is used to strengthen the spine and stretch out the chest, lungs, shoulders and abdomen.  At the deepest stretch in this pose it will also firm the glutes and stretch your quads.  Proper deep breathing in this pose will help to stretch and open the chest.  Cobra is supposed to stimulate the digestive organs, help relieve stress and fatigue, sooth the sciatic nerve and be therapeutic for Asthma.  We will be focused on keeping shoulders back and chest out, pushing the hips to the floor to strengthen the glutes and get a good stretch in the quads.

Alternate: The Upward-Facing Dog

Upward-Facing Dog Pose...

If you want to add focus to strengthening the arms and wrists, we can replace the Cobra Pose with Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).  The benefits and muscles affected are similar but the Upward-Facing Dog requires pushing up and forward, with the hands firmly planted, using the arms, shoulders and upper back to hold the position.  There is a tendency to “hang” on the shoulders in this pose, which compresses the neck and lowers the chest.  Be mindful of your posture here, shoulders should be drawn back toward the tailbone lengthening the neck.  Head should be straight, looking forward, or slightly bent back.

Putting it to practice…

Now I’ll walk you through the sequence.  For those of you who have done Hindu Push-ups, this will be very similar.  As always, you should start in a relaxed position (either seated or standing) and practice proper Yoga breathing until your mind is calm, focused and present.  You can actually use the beginning of the Sun Salutation sequence to get into position:

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge).
  5. In pause between breaths, move your left foot back, both knees on the floor (or into Plank Position – THIS IS OUR STARTING POSITION).
  6. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your feet and your heals toward the ground (Downward Dog Position).  Focus on knitting your shoulder blades together, upper back tight, chest out, shoulders back and arms straight.  Keep your neck in line with your torso (spine straight).  Feel the full stretch in your glutes, hamstrings, calves and arches.  Do NOT force the stretch beyond what is comfortable.  The pose should not hurt.  You may hold this pose for several breaths if you like, but continue proper, controlled breathing with your core strong.
  7. Exhale and slowly lower your chest and nose to within an inch or two of the mat, your hands firmly planted and elbows in close to the body (Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose).  Your knees may touch the mat if you prefer.  You can pause at this position briefly or you can glide through this pose and straight in to Cobra Pose.  If you will be moving into Upward-Facing Dog instead of Cobra, keep your legs straight here and do not let your knees touch the floor.
  8. Inhale and lower pelvis while pushing the chest up, arms supporting the posture and shoulders back (Cobra Position).  Focus on knitting the shoulder blades again with your chest out and shoulders back.  Don’t worry about forcing your back to arch uncomfortably, but focus more on keeping your shoulders back, head up, and pushing your hips to the ground.  The arch should be held using the back muscles, not by pushing with your arms (unless you are using Forward-Facing Dog here).  Feel the stretch in your quads.  If you are comfortable with it, roll off the balls of your feet and point your toes.  This will move you forward a little and deepen the stretch.  Breathe deeply in this position opening the chest and lungs.
  9. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your thighs again and your heals toward the floor returning to Downward Dog Position.  Repeat steps 6 through 8.

To come out of the exercise, reverse steps 1 through 5 until you are back in Mountain Pose.  This sequence is as much a strength training exercise as it is a stretch and I treat it as I would push-ups (Hindu Push-ups).  So, for pre-hike stretch I would maybe do 15 or 20 of these to warm up.  If your breathing becomes too forced and erratic, you are working too hard…reduce the reps or slow down.  Remember to maintain controlled movements, slower is better.  You should not be throwing your body into any of these postures, you should move into them naturally.  As you practice, the postures will feel more natural and comfortable as your strength and flexibility improve.

Yoga Practice for Hikers: Sun Salutation…

Young womanAs lovers of the outdoors, hikers and backpackers alike have a close, almost reverential relationship with the sun.  We love spending our days under the warmth of it’s rays, we use the sun for navigation, we plan our excursions around sunrise and sunset.  Our connection to the sun when we are outdoors is as tied to our survival as the air we breathe and the water we drink.  It is only fitting that the first posture (or asana) sequence we will review for Yoga Practice for Hikers is the Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation.  According to many authorities, the Sun Salutation goes back over 2,500 years to Vedic times when it was used as ritual prostration to honor the dawn.  Tradition was to perform the ritual salutation outdoors, facing the sun for a complete 108 cycles.

This is a great sequence for practice outdoors because you are mostly on your hands and feet and it can be practiced with, or without, a mat.  Find a nice quiet place, free from distraction, on relatively level ground with room for the length of your body to stretch out.  Your hands will be supporting your weight at points, so make sure the ground around you is free of sharp objects that may hurt your palms.  If practicing in the morning, it is tradition to face east toward the rising sun.

Sun Salutation

Stand, relaxed, arms at your side and your feet together.  Breathe deeply (breathing should be through the nose as described in the Three Breath Practice.)

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge).
  5. In pause between breaths, move your left foot back, both knees on the floor (or into Plank Position).
  6. Exhale and lower your chest and nose to the mat (Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose).
  7. Inhale and lower pelvis while pushing the chest up, arms straight and shoulders back (Cobra Position).
  8. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your thighs and your heals toward the ground (Downward Dog Position).
  9. Inhale and bring your right foot forward again, left knee to the ground (Lunge).
  10. Exhale and bring your feet together, hands on the floor on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  11. Inhale and with a straight back, slowly bring your hands up above your head, shoulders back, pelvis forward (Forward Salute Pose).
  12. Exhale and return to starting position (Mountain Pose).
12 Stations of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara)

12 Stations of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara)

Repeat these steps with your left foot for one full cycle.  Complete at least 3 cycles.  You can repeat your Sun Salutations for as long as you like, until your body feels warm, relaxed and flexible.  There are many variations of this asana, but the point is to master breathing through the movements and practicing proper form.  Do not move so fast as to allow sloppy posture, or so slow that you can not breathe in sequence with the movements.  You should feel the full stretch of each position before allowing yourself to transition to the next one.

This asana is a fantastic full-body warm up and is often used at the beginning of many Yoga workouts to get the blood flowing, the muscles warmed up and the body ready for more advanced work.  It is also a great sequence to practice first thing in the morning to wake the body and get the blood flowing after your night’s rest.  Consider practicing this sequence in front of your tent after a night camping trail-side, or to loosen up your body after a long car ride to a remote trailhead.

And don’t forget to BREATHE!