The name downward dog comes from the Sanskrit Adho Mukha Svanasa (AH-doh MOO-kah shvah-NAHS-anna) which fully translates into downward facing dog. Now, at first glance, the pose looks easy. I’ll admit, I thought the same thing.
But the reality is that it’s easier to get wrong than right. And being that it’s an alignment pose which, when done right, has tremendous benefits for your back, legs, hips and shoulders, it’s important to nail your form on this one. Here’s how:
Downward Facing Dog: Step-By-Step
Begin by getting down on all fours (hands and knees) with your hands about one hand length in front of your shoulders and knees directly below your hips. Your hands should be shoulder width apart and and your knees should be hip distance apart.
You want your fingers to be pointed toward the top of your yoga mat and the creases of your wrists to be parallel with the top of your mat. Then spread your fingers just a little for added support.
If the tops of your feet are resting on the mat, go ahead and draw your toes under so that the bottoms of your toes are now on the mat - like you’re getting ready to stand up.
Draw your belly in and tighten your core. Press your hands into the mat as though you're about to do a push-up - most of your weight will be on the inner edges of your hands and running through your index finger and thumb.
Now lift up from your core into an “A” frame downward facing dog pose. You may need to keep your knees bent; This is perfectly fine. Press the balls of your feet into the floor and don’t worry about having your heels on the ground as it’s not necessary. Focus on lengthening your spine and pushing your sit bones toward the ceiling.
As you’re resting in downward dog, your body should have the shape of an “A” and your head should be relaxed but not dangling. You’re building length and strength here so resist the urge to walk your legs in toward your arms.
Modifications for Downward Dog
Downward facing dog can be modified to make it easier or increase difficulty. The standard downward facing dog pose is relatively easy. But there are a number of modifications that can take it to moderate and then advanced difficulty which I’ll explain more about below.
- to make your down dog a little harder, try rotating your thighs in toward each other and pushing your sit bones to the sky (without letting your knees invert). What this does is deepen the stretch for your glutes and hamstrings while widening and lengthening your sit bones and further increasing your mobility.
- Once you have your downward dog dialed in, try raising one leg (right or left) so that it's in the air and holding the position for 30 seconds. Then switch and raise your other leg. This promotes strength in your core and the stabilizer muscles throughout your posterior chain.
- If you have trouble with shoulder flexibility, try using a yoga block under each hand or placing your hands on a chair or sturdy table for support.
- For restorative yoga, it can help to place your head on a bolster or block to relieve the pressure on your neck.
- If you feel too much pressure on your wrists, try placing a folded towel under them.
- And if you find yourself needing help but don't have a partner, a yoga swing can be used to support your waist (similar to the image above).
Tips for a Better Downward Facing Dog
Downward dog is all about length and strength through your whole body. While you may be used to poses like forward bends where you feel a big stretch in the hamstrings, you likely won’t have that same feeling in this pose.
A common mistake many people make is walking their feet in towards their hands because they don’t feel that hamstring stretch. Resist that urge and don’t worry if your heels aren't touching the floor. Instead you want to focus on lengthening and keeping proper form.
If you’re already flexible, the temptation with downward dog is to arch your back and drop your head below your shoulders. And if you’re tight, your back is likely to round. So focus specifically on keeping your spine and neck straight and aligned by either bending your knees (to prevent back rounding) or engaging your arms and shoulders (to prevent arching).
This is a contradiction to tip 2 but if you have flexible shoulders, you can intentionally allow your head to sink down between your shoulders and toward the floor (without moving your hands) to increases the stretch through your spine and shoulders.
Focus on keeping your core tight and avoid letting your ribs sink toward the floor.
When you’re properly engaging your arms, your hands should feel like they want to move toward each other and your forearms will rotate slightly inward.
Relax the shoulders and remove any “shrugging” or tightening in this area.
If you find that your lumbar spine is rounded in downward dog, keep your knees bent and focus on drawing your sit bones up toward the ceiling.
Risks of Downward Dog
Shoulder impingement: to avoid impinging and causing pain in your shoulders, try externally rotating your arms - meaning your biceps rotate out and away from each other (just make sure you don't over / hyper-extend). Secondly, extend and elongate the shoulder blades by pushing your hips up and back aiming to get a long angle from the hips down through the arms and lengthening your spine.
Carpal tunnel: Downward dog puts a lot of pressure on your hands and wrists. If you have carpal tunnel, you may have trouble performing this pose so you'll want to either modify by using a folded towel or possibly stay away from the position all together.
Pregnancy: it's best to avoid this pose during late term pregnancy.
High blood pressure: it's advised that if you have high and uncontrolled blood pressure, you seek medical advice before proceeding with this or any other exercise routine.
- Improves lymphatic drainage and moves immune cells throughout your system
- Increases the flow of fresh, oxygenated blood
- Relieves pressure on your vertebrae and extends your spinal column
- Lengthens and decreases tension on the muscles of your back and shoulders
- Builds strength in your arms and legs
- Boosts energy
- Lengthens and stretches the muscles of your legs, back, glutes and arms
- Improves bone density without the impact of typical exercises
- Aids in digestion
- May help with insomnia and headaches
Related: The Best Yoga Mats on The Market
There's many asanas related to downward dog but here's a few of the more tightly connected ones:
- Plank pose
- Forward bends
- Mountain pose
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