Many people have a love/hate relationship with Downward Facing Dog. It’s the nemesis of beginners and can challenge seasoned practitioners for years. People are often surprised when I tell them that I find Down Dog hard. In my opinion, it ranks up there with Warrior 1 and Upward Facing Dog as a technically challenging pose.
It’s a great pose to measure your progress in as it never gets an easier – you just get better.
So what’ the purpose of the pose anyway?
- Lengthens the spine
- Stretches the legs
- Builds upper body strength
- Strengthens the core
- Like all inversions (upside down poses) it calms the nervous system and can relieve anxiety and stress
- It opens up the chest
- It improves circulation
- It’s weight bearing so improves bone density
Down Dog also acts as a rest pose (trust me beginners, you’ll get there) and a chance to pause and center yourself between sequences.
Here’s the basics tips:
1. Hand and foot position
- Hands are shoulder-width distance apart and the feet hip-width distance apart.
- Fingers are spread wide with the middle finger facing forward and thumbs facing each other
- Toes are slightly pigeon-toed so that the outer edges of the feet are parallel with the edges of the mat (you can’t see your heels when you look back)
- Knees can be bent and the heels don’t need to touch the floor
- Feet together or too wide
- Hands too close together
- Hands turned inward (middle fingers facing each other instead of forward)
- Hands and feet too far apart from each other so the pose becomes a push up rather than a V-shape
2. Straighten the spine
- Bend your knees deeply, push the hips up and back so that there’s one long line from the crease of your wrists to your hips
- If you have tight hamstrings, keep the knees bent so that you make a V-shape rather than a U-shape.
- Rounding the spine
- Low hips
- Too much weight in the arms/shoulders
3. Broaden the shoulders
To strengthen and support the shoulder girdle you want to rotate the forearms inwards so that the insides of the elbows face each other and rotate the upper arms outward so that the armpits face each other. This will protect your rotator cuff from injury and promote stability in the shoulders. Stable, strong shoulders will also lead to less pressure/pain in the wrists.
Draw the shoulder blades down your back, away from the ears by engaging you lattisimus dorsi.
Image credit: Daily Bandha
- Collapsing or hyper-extending through the shoulders
- Shoulders hunching up to the ears
- Rounded shoulders
- Shoulders and upper arms rotating/collapsing inwards
4. Get the legs working
Downward Dog shouldn’t feel like an awkward push up with all your weight bearing down in the shoulders. Try to shift more body weight back towards the legs by pushing the floor away with your hands.
- Lift up the kneecaps, activate your quadriceps and draw them up towards your hips.
- Rotate the inner knees towards each other will get your sitting bones up higher
- Then push your thigh bones back
- Draw your heels down towards the mat (they don’t have to touch – mine don’t).
5. Engage the core
Lift up through the pelvic floor and draw the navel towards the spine. This helps to protect the lower back and creates greater strength and stability in the pose.
So once you’ve got the basics rights, here’s few tips from our teachers to take your old dog to the next level:
Press all 10 finger pads into the floor, like you are griping the mat. This really helps to wake up all the receptors in the hands, ensures equal distribution of weight through the hand and encourages less weight on the wrists.
Pressing the hands into the floor as if trying to create an imprint of their hands on the mat (so pressing down rather than forward or pulling back), it really fires up the arms and helps plug shoulder blades onto the back of the ribs, integrate the shoulders, and encourage the arm pits to face each other.
Sometimes, if someone is really tight in the lower back or hamstrings, I suggest that, without actually moving their feet, they press the right foot to the right and left foot to the left (making sure not to roll the feet), as if trying to make more space between the legs. I think it helps them learn how to roll inner thighs back, get a stretch across the hamstrings, widen sit bones and open the lower back.
- Use your mat to check your body is perfectly even and balanced upon it, hands and feet at same distance from either side of the mat
- Soften elbow and knee joints (micro bend) to avoid hyper-extending
- Lift and suck belly under ribs and lengthen the tailbone towards big toes (esp. for shoulder hyper extenders – chest slumpers)
- Use the breath to bring an acute body awareness and continuing to focus on all aspects from fingers to toes and back again with each inhale and exhale