One of the most recognized yoga poses in the West, Downward-Facing Dog — Adho Mukha Svanasana (Ah-doh MOO-kuh shvan-AHS-uh-nuh) — is a standing pose and mild inversion that builds strength while stretching the whole body. It's named after the way dogs naturally stretch their entire bodies! Downward-Facing Dog (also sometimes called "Downward Dog" or just "Down Dog") is an essential component of Sun Salutations and is often done many times during a yoga class. It can be used as a transitional pose, a resting pose, and a strength-builder.
Benefits of Downward-Facing Dog
If you struggle with Down Dog, be compassionate and patient with yourself; you are not the first person with tight hamstrings or weak arms. On the other hand, be diligent. Ultimately, Down Dog will start to feel so good that you will really empathize with the full-body joy that dogs display while doing the pose.
Downward-Facing Dog energizes and rejuvenates the entire body. It deeply stretches your hamstrings, shoulders, calves, arches, hands, and spine while building strength in your arms, shoulders, and legs. Because your heart is higher than your head in this pose, it is considered a mild inversion (less strenuous than other inversions, such as Headstand) and holds all the benefits of inversions: Relief from headaches, insomnia, fatigue, and mild depression. The flow of blood to the brain also calms the nervous system, improves memory and concentration, and relieves stress.
Regular practice of this pose can improve digestion, relieve back pain, and help prevent osteoporosis. It is also known to be therapeutic for sinusitis, asthma, flat feet, and for the symptoms of menopause.
Do not practice Downward-Facing Dog if you have severe carpal tunnel syndrome or are in late-term pregnancy. It should also be avoided by those with injury to the back, arms, or shoulders; and by those with high blood pressure, eye or inner ear infections. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
- Begin on your hands and knees. Align your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. The fold of your wrists should be parallel with the top edge of your mat. Point your middle fingers directly to the top edge of your mat.
- Stretch your elbows and relax your upper back.
- Spread your fingers wide and press firmly through your palms and knuckles. Distribute your weight evenly across your hands.
- Exhale as you tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor. Reach your pelvis up toward the ceiling, then draw your sit bones toward the wall behind you. Gently begin to straighten your legs, but do not lock your knees. Bring your body into the shape of an "A." Imagine your hips and thighs being pulled backwards from the top of your thighs. Do not walk your feet closer to your hands — keep the extension of your whole body.
- Press the floor away from you as you lift through your pelvis. As you lengthen your spine, lift your sit bones up toward the ceiling. Now press down equally through your heels and the palms of your hands.
- Firm the outer muscles of your arms and press your index fingers into the floor. Lift from the inner muscles of your arms to the top of both shoulders. Draw your shoulder blades into your upper back ribs and toward your tailbone. Broaden across your collarbones.
- Rotate your arms externally so your elbow creases face your thumbs.
- Draw your chest toward your thighs as you continue to press the mat away from you, lengthening and decompressing your spine.
- Engage your quadriceps. Rotate your thighs inward as you continue to lift your sit bones high. Sink your heels toward the floor.
- Align your ears with your upper arms. Relax your head, but do not let it dangle. Gaze between your legs or toward your navel.
- Hold for 5-100 breaths.
- To release, exhale as you gently bend your knees and come back to your hands and knees.
Modifications & Variations
Since Downward-Facing Dog is performed so often during Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga classes, it's important to learn how to do it correctly to avoid injury and fatigue. Try these simple changes to find a variation that works best for you:
- To begin warming up and stretching the hips, bend one knee while keeping the other leg straight. Change sides and repeat five times.
- To correctly learn the spine-lengthening aspect of Downward Dog, first bend your knees in the pose, coming onto the balls of your feet. Bring your shins parallel to the mat and keep your sit bones lifting high and back. Press your hips toward the wall behind you. Then, slowly begin to straighten your legs.
- For a greater challenge, lift your right leg as high as possible, reaching through the heel. Keeping your right leg lifted, extend your left arm behind you. Rest the back of your hand on your low back. Repeat on the other side.
- For a restorative version of the pose, place a yoga block under your head. Release all neck tension. Hold for up to five minutes.
- Place a yoga block between your inner thighs to learn the movement of inner rotation. Grip the block with your thighs and press it toward the wall behind you as you hold the pose.
When done correctly, Downward Dog can greatly benefit the whole body. Keep the following information in mind when practicing this pose:
- If you are very flexible, do not let your rib cage sink toward the floor. Draw your lower ribs in and maintain a flat back.
- Your heels do not need to touch the ground. Do not worry about it — avoid walking your feet closer to your hands for this purpose. Maintain the length of your spine and the lift of your pelvis.
The Dog Days of Yoga
Practicing Downward Dog will warm, strengthen, and stretch the entire body. You can use it as a transitional pose (between other poses), or as a full-body stretch on its own. Try a few rounds of Downward Dog during your day to increase blood flow and energy while calming your mind! You may find the benefits extend to all areas of your life, even off the mat.