When I first learned downward facing dog I knew nothing about Sanskrit, why I should be doing this silly pose or how in the world it was supposed to be restful. All I knew was that it felt good for a few breaths and then I was done. It stretched my legs and back and made my arms and shoulders burn. Anyone with me?
Well, over the years of practice I’ve learned a few things and have grown to love this pose. I remember how I felt the first time I thought to myself during a practice “Thank God I’m in Down Dog!” That was a big moment for me! I found myself loving down dog and being grateful for it and not just grateful that I was getting out of it. It had finally become the rest pose everyone said it was going to be!
Being a yoga nerd I’ll share a little about the Sanskrit, Adho Mukha Svanasana. Adho (ahh – doe (like a female deer)) means “downward”. It is a directional word. Mukha (moo – kah) is a word for “face”. In this case it is another directional word, as in “where you are looking” or “facing”. Svanasana is two words combined Svana and Asana. Svana (svah – nah) is the Sanskrit word for “dog” and Asana (ahh – sah – nah) is a word that means “seat” and is how we designate a yoga posture.
Enough with the Sanskrit lesson. What about the pose? Here are some great tips on what to think about while practicing this pose.
1. Where to start?
Extended Child’s Pose (Balasana) is the perfect place for most people to start the practice of Downward Facing Dog. When you are stretched out with the arms forward and the hips back in Child’s Pose it is the perfect spacing for the distance between your hands in front and your feet behind.
So stretch out in Child’s Pose, come to your hands and knees, tuck the toes and lift the hips up and back. There. You are in Down Dog. Now to refine the pose. Lets start at the hands and work our way down through the body.
2. Foundational Hands, Shoulder Distance
The hands should be shoulder joint distance apart with the fingers spread wide. This is only 4-6 inches apart for most. The hands should actively press into the mat through each fingertip and all the joints. This will strengthen the hands and wrists. Be sure to focus a little extra energy into the thumb and index fingers. This will help you internally rotate the forearms.
3. Wrist Creases Aligned
Another way to protect the wrists is to align the wrist creases to the front edge of your mat or notice if the wrist creases draw a straight line toward each other. This places the hands and arms in an anatomically advantageous position.
4. Activate the Arms and Shoulders
Notice how as you press the hands down into the floor the energy rebounds back up through the rest of the arms to make them feel more energized. Let this energy continue up through the shoulders, drawing the shoulder blades down your back towards your hips. This helps relax the shoulders while maintaining integrity in them.
As your thumbs press down into the ground the forearms internally rotate. The movement of the shoulder blades toward each other and down the back externally rotates the upper arms. You’ll feel the arm pits pointing down toward the floor and the muscles on the side of your ribs (serratus anterior) activate.
The shoulders should be in a straight line between the wrists and the hips. This opens the shoulders and helps align the spine.
5. Head and Neck Relaxed
There shouldn’t be any strain in the neck. Allow it to relax between the arms. Another option is keeping the head and neck aligned with the rest of the spine. While holding Down Dog there is no need to lift the head and gaze forward. Simply look back toward your feet.
Keep the shoulders away from the neck and ears to allow more space in the neck.
6. Spine Neutral and Long
The arms, shoulders and spine should all be aligned in Downward Facing Dog. The spine should feel long with no bulge in the lower back. It is more important to have the spine and shoulders open and aligned than to have the knees straight. Bend the knees to find more openness in the spine.
7. Engage the Abdominals
Feel the lower abdominals draw in towards the spine. This action will lengthen the spine, stabilize the lower back and takes weight out of shoulders and wrists, placing it back in the legs. Keep the core engaged throughout the pose while maintaining a full belly breath.
8. Tilt the Pelvis Forward, Tailbone Up
The pelvis is the center point or fulcrum of this pose. Tightness of the lower back and hamstrings can really limit the range of motion of the pelvis. Focus on tilting the pelvis forward which will elongate the abdomen and remove any bulging in the lower back. It will also stretch the hamstrings (for some quite intensely). If this happens bend the knees to relieve strain.
Feel your sit bones widen as you reach the tailbone upward and back. In order to accomplish this let your inner thighs rotate inward as you firm the outer thighs.
9. Knees Can Be Bent or Straight
Most people think you need to have your legs straight in Down Dog. This is fine as long as you can keep the integrity of the pose everywhere else while the knees straighten. Even if you can straighten the legs, play around to feel the difference with the knees bent in the low back and hamstrings. You’ll also notice that the shoulders can open more freely with the knees bending. Straightening the legs should not change the shape of the spine or pelvis.
10. Heels Sinking Toward the Ground, Feet Hip Distance
Allow your feet to be hip joint distance apart, about 6 inches for most. The feet should not be together. When you look back at your feet you shouldn’t see your heels. If you do, turn them out slightly so the legs are not rotating, but are neutral. Now, let your heels sink downward toward the floor. There is no need to push down through the toes, which lifts the heels. Instead, surrender them down with gravity. The heels do not need to touch the floor. You should feel a lovely stretch in the calves, Achilles tendons and soles of the feet when the heels are low.
11. How Long Do I Hold It?
If you are new to the practice of Downward Facing Dog start by holding the pose for a breath or two, rest then repeat. As you begin this pose it feels like a lot of work – and it is! Your body needs to get used to holding itself upside down. With practice you can lengthen the amount of time spent here. When you start to come to your edge be sure to relax into the pose and focus on the breath. Breathe through what you can. If your breath becomes unsteady and your body is tightening and fatiguing, rest. There is no trophy for holding it for a long time.
As with all yoga practices patience is one of the best things to help you along. Be patient with your body and let it work harmoniously with your breath and your mind. Your body will open up to this pose eventually and you will one day find yourself saying in class to yourself, “Thank God for Down Dog!
So what do you think about this pose? Do you love how it makes your body feel? Are you indifferent to its effects? Do you loath this pose? Feel free to share your experience of Down Dog with us below!
Remember that these are general alignment tips and do not take into consideration individual injuries and health conditions. If you have specific concerns talk with a professional yoga teacher or leave a question below.
One more tip, if you are working on refining Down Dog it may be wise to take one or two of these tips to focus on at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself with every single detail imaginable. Find the spots that you need to work on and improve slowly over time with consistent practice.
Mindy Arbuckle is the founder of Maitri Yoga Center in Westminster, CO. She is passionate about teaching yoga and sharing the wealth of knowledge that yoga has to offer. She has developed a yoga teacher training program at the 200 & 300 hour levels and absolutely loves helping new teachers find their direction.