The downward facing dog pose is probably the first yoga pose you will encounter in most yoga classes. I was astonished to learn in my yoga teacher training that after many years of practicing yoga, I had been approaching downward facing dog all wrong. My arms were not properly rotated, my hands were not completely flat against the mat, and my tailbone was lax – as if it didn’t have a major role to play in getting into this shape. Because this pose is so commonly practiced, many yoga teachers often assume that students know it and instructions and adjustments are overlooked. This tutorial is meant to shed some light on how to improve your down dog and get the full benefit out of this basic yoga pose. Below, I mark a clear pathway to a beautifully inverted V.
What is Downward Facing Dog in Yoga?
Downward facing in Sanskrit is Adho Muka Svanasana. AH-do = downward; MOO-ka=face; svah-NAHS-anna=dog pose. The yoga posture is classified as a symmetrical inverted arm support yoga pose. It is symmetrical in that it facilitates a balanced effort between the upper and lower halves of the body and the right and left sides. It’s often one of the first yoga poses in a sequence and is used sometimes as a strengthening, transitioning or resting posture. Downward facing dog is prevalent in vinyasa flows and sun salutations. Mastering the alignment of this basic yoga pose is key to flowing with ease and grace in yoga classes, it can help you to stabilize the joints and muscles needed to master more difficult yoga poses such as chaturanga and wheel pose. See my previous yoga tutorial on how to wheel pose.
Five Benefits of Downward Facing Dog
BKS Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, asserts in Illustrated Light on Yoga that this asana stretches the shoulders, legs, spine and whole body; builds strength throughout the body, particularly the arms, legs, and feet; relieves fatigue and rejuvenates the body; improves the immune system, digestion, and blood flow to the sinuses, and calms the mind and lifts the spirits. The benefits of downward facing dog are so immense it begs the question as to why it’s only a transition pose and why we don’t spend more time mindfully practicing downward facing dog every day. The best way to understand downward facing dog benefits is through its key actions:
- Strengthens the upper body, arms, and wrists.The motion of the upper limbs, shoulder flexion elbow extension, wrist dorsiflexion and upward rotation of the scapular are the actions you take when you inhale the breath and lift your hips into downward dog. These are the skeletal joint actions taken to get into the pose.
- Stabilizes & strengthens shoulder muscles (rotator cuff). Once you are in the pose, the rotator cuff is a group of four shoulder muscles that surround each shoulder—like a cuff. It gets damaged often enough that its name has become synonymous with injury. Externally rotating your arms in downward facing dog strengthens the infraspinatus and T. minor -the two external rotators of the rotator cuff. This is a bonus for anyone who sits a computer desk all day as make our arms and shoulders progressively weaker. Otherwise, it aids you in the quest for the arms of the women warriors of Black Panther — or prevent injury by protecting the shoulder joint by positioning the ball in the socket while you raise your arm overhead.
- Stretches hamstrings & calf muscles. The hamstring stretch of downward facing dog occurs when you straighten your legs, lengthen the heels down. If you have tight hamstring muscles, you could wind up suffering from lower back pain, tight hamstrings reduce the mobility of your pelvis, which in turn increases strain and pressure on your lower back. Having flexible hamstrings prevents lower backspin and improves overall athletic ability. Stretching the calf muscles will prevent injury to the ankle and the many little muscles that help stabilize the ankle, and reduce the possibility of tearing your Achilles tendon.
- Lengthens the spine. You are born with a certain spinal length. But certain habits can erode length. For those of us who are height-challenged, this is horrible news. The good news is that basic yoga postures such a down dog can help to elongate the spine. (Assuming the spine is in neutral) flexing the shoulders and hips, and extending the elbows and knees all contribute to the lengthening of the spine.
- Rests the heart and quiets the brain. When you practice downward facing dog, it helps you to see things from a different angle – both literally and in-kind in our daily lives. Practicing this pose daily can also boost self-confidence. Because of the increased blood flow to the head and upper regions of the body, down dog contributes to a healthy brain, improved cognition and reduced anxiety and depression.
How to Do a Downward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog Tips | Yoga Hacks
Yoga blocks can be used in downward facing dog to lengthen the spine and take pressure off the shoulders. Yoga Jellies can be used to reduce the weight of your body on wrists that are sore or recovering from injury. As downward facing dog is an arm bearing pose – your hands essentially have to act as feet. See my YogaJellies tutorial here.
If you try the downward facing dog yoga hacks, please comment below on how these adjustments worked for you! If this tutorial was useful, please like and share on social media. Don’t forget to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on yoga tutorials or tips.