Pose of the month: Downward Dog

By Natalia | 29th October 2015
A photograph of two women practising the yoga position downward dog outside on yoga mats, wearing white yoga kit.

This article is the first in a series looking in-depth at particular yoga poses. Today we are deepening our knowledge about one of the most commonly practiced poses – Downward Facing Dog, in Sanskrit known as Adho Mukha Svanasana. Downward Dog is one of the most iconic poses and there is a high chance that you know it and have practiced it on more than one occasion.

Downward Dog can be part of your warm up sequence – the Sun Salutation (otherwise known as Surya Namaskara). It is also used as a transition pose (linking poses), a gentle inversion pose, a strengthening pose and some people suggest it is a resting pose! Here we share with you some tips, how you can start to love the pose and enjoy the numerous benefits that Downward Dog can bring.

Benefits of Downward Facing Dog

There are many benefits for including Downward Dog regularly in your yoga practice:

  1. Increases strength in the upper body
    Downward Dog builds strength in the shoulders, arms, wrists and hands. It is a great preparatory pose for arm balances.
  2. Opens chest and shoulders
    Nowadays, many people work at desk jobs and in a stressful environment, so tend to hold a lot of tension in the neck and shoulder areas. Adho Mukha Svanasana helps to open these tight areas of our bodies. It stretches the shoulders, opens the chest and allows the neck to rest.
  3. Lengthens the spine
    Downward Dog is a gentle inversion pose (the head is lower than the heart) during which you reverse the usual downward pressure on the spine, thereby providing rest for the spine and an opportunity to re-align the vertebra.
  4. Increases flexibility in your hamstrings
    Many of our daily activities – walking, sitting, running – lead to a shortening in the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings can play a role in causing lower back pain. Downward Dog is great to stretch those overly tight hamstrings, at the same time keeping the spine in a nice, neutral position.
  5. Increases blood circulation
    Downward Dog promotes blood circulation within the whole body. Positioning the head below the heart level encourages the circulatory system to pump fresh blood through the body, thereby boosting the immune system, flushing out toxins and regulating blood pressure.

How to get into the pose?

The easiest way to get into the pose is from cat pose – on all fours (so your hands and knees are on the floor). Make sure that your knees are hip distance apart with the knees in line below the hips and your wrists in line beneath your shoulders. Spread your fingers wide to create a wide base and have your arms straight. Tuck your pelvis into neutral position by engaging your core muscles – this creates a long, neutral spine.

Then, tuck your toes under and exhale to lengthen your whole upper body from the hands, through the arms, spine, taking your sitting bones up towards the sky, with the heels lifted. This creates a straight line from the hands to the tailbone. Keep the same distance between your feet and hands. At the beginning feel free to bend your knees in turn, (moving each heel away and back towards the floor) which gently stretches your hamstrings. When you feel ready, start to lower the heels towards the floor, keeping your tailbone up. Spread your body weight evenly between arms and legs. Hold for a few breaths. To release, you can bend your knees and come down into childs pose.

Alignment tips

  1. Activate your arms. Press down through your wrists, rotate your forearms inwards, while rotating upper arms and shoulders outwards. It sounds quite tricky, but it´s not. Just notice this subtle difference in your body.
  2. Keep your neck and head in one line with the spine. Don´t strain by looking forward, but also don´t let it hang. The neck should be relaxed.
  3. Firm your shoulder blades and broaden across the upper back.
  4. Engage the inner muscles of your core to stabilize your back – lift the inner groins up.
  5. Keep your spine nice and long by sending your sitting bones and tailbone up and back. If it´s necessary bend the knees, but don´t round your back!
  6. Keep your knees lifted.

Tips for beginners

If you are new to yoga, if you hold lots of tension in your shoulders or if you have short or tight hamstrings, at the beginning it might be challenging for you to perform Downward Dog. Try this instead:

  1. Practice the pose against a wall.

Stand in front of the wall with your feet and legs hip distance apart. Place your hands on the wall shoulder distance apart at waist level. Press your hands into the wall and then walk your feet away until your torso and arms are stretched – this brings your chest and arms parallel to the floor. Your legs will be vertical. As you inhale, push into the wall, lengthening through your arms, torso and shoulders. As you exhale lift your sitting bones up towards the sky, lengthening your hamstrings.

2.  If you feel uncomfortable or your joints are under pressure, check your alignment (see tips above). So often we struggle in Downward Dog, because our alignment is not quite right.

What to watch out for when practicing Downward Dog:

  1. Putting too much weight on your arms and wrists. Make sure you spread your body weight evenly between arms and legs. Pull your tailbone back and up, thereby shifting the weight back into the hips.
  2. Rounding your spine. If you feel that you lose the length in the spine because of tight hamstrings, keep your knees slightly bent. It is better to practice with bent knees and a straight back than to focus on straightening your legs.
  3. Your wrists. If you have any wrists issues, hold the pose for a shorter period of time. Try to create smaller angle between your forearms and the floor. But if it causes pain, skip the pose.
  4. Over-extending the joints (especially elbows and shoulders). If you are hyper mobile in the elbows or shoulders, take care to keep your upper body in one line from the hips to the wrists, and resist pushing the elbows out further. Holding Downward Dog correctly can help to increase strength in these hyper-mobile areas.

We always recommend learning poses with a qualified yoga teacher, who can check your alignment and make any adjustments to ensure you practice safely.

Have patience with learning Downward Dog. Always respect and appreciate your bodies abilities. Hopefully, soon you will fall in love with this pose!

Have a safe practice.

Headshot of Natalia - Health and Wellbeing Mentor at La Crisalida Retreats
Natalia

Natalia is a yoga teacher and explorer of life (and the world!).

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