Adho mukha svanasana, or downward facing dog, is one of the most frequented posture in yoga—especially vinyasa classes. However, it may also be one of the most commonly misaligned postures in yoga. Misalignment in downdog can lead to tension in the body as practitioners struggle to hold the pose; or, even worse, strain in the wrists, shoulders, and beyond due to improper weight distribution. As the whole body is utilized during this asana, and joints that do not typically bear the weight of the body (the elbows and wrists) are now holding its mass, it is of crucial importance that the posture is safely aligned.
Misalignment in downdog can lead to tension in the body as practitioners struggle to hold the pose; or, even worse, strain in the wrists, shoulders, and beyond due to improper weight distribution.
Many teachers often refer to downdog as a "resting posture," which may sound absurd to those who struggle to hold the position. But when practiced regularly, with healthy alignment, downdog may really start to feel almost effortless as you use the structure of your skeletal system to support the weight of your body.
There are countless benefits to downward facing dog. It is one of those “trifecta” postures that really covers all bases of your yogic practice: strengthening and stretching the body and (eventually) allowing you to “rest” and relax the body so that you can focus your attention inward.
When you find the optimal downdog alignment for your body and then commit that alignment to your muscle memory, you may not only discover a newfound strength and flexibility, but also the ability to truly relax into this “resting” asana.
Start in a Tabletop Position
Focusing on proper anatomical alignment from the onset of every asana helps you set the foundation for conscious and mindful awareness throughout your practice.
Come onto hands and knees in a tabletop position. Stack your hips directly over your knees, and space your knees hip-distance apart. Stack your shoulders directly over your wrists, and place your hands shoulder-width apart. Line up the creases of your wrists so that they're parallel with the front edge of your mat, and spread your fingers wide, evenly spacing them apart from each other. Press down firmly and equally into all four corners of your hands (the four corners of the hand are the mound below the index finger, the mound at the thumb pad, the mound below the pinky finger, and the outer heel of the hand). Give special attention to the mounds below the index fingers, being sure to keep them connected to the floor. Then grip at the mat with your fingertips, allowing little puffs of air to collect underneath your top and middle knuckles. Imagine that you are a cat digging your claws into the top of your mat. This will alleviate pressure in your wrists. Keep your arms straight and engaged without locking your elbows. Keep your head in line with your spine.
Ask someone to watch you, use a mirror, or take a photo (who doesn't love a good tabletop selfie?) to make sure that everything is aligned optimally.
Lift Your Hips High
From all fours, simply tuck your toes, engage your low belly, and lift your hips so that your knees come off the mat. Reach your sit bones high toward the ceiling and press the tops of your thighs back as you work toward straightening your legs. They don’t have to straighten all the way. You may find (especially if your hamstrings feel tight) that keeping your knees bent helps you to lift your hips higher.
Use Plank to Find Your Ideal Downdog Length
From downdog, shift forward into a high plank position (the top of a push-up). If you came into downdog from tabletop, you’ll probably find that you need to walk your feet more toward the back of your mat in order to make one long line with your body. In plank, stack your shoulders directly over your wrists and align your hips with your shoulders, being cautious not to let your lower back dip toward the floor. Instead, keep your abdominals engaged, activating them as if you are cinching a corset around your whole core.
From here, lift your hips up high and press back to downdog, without moving your hands or feet! This is your "perfect" distance. Keep in mind that everyone’s body is very different, and your downdog may look different from photos you have seen or even different from the person practicing next to you in class. As with all yoga postures, there is no one way that a pose “should” look. You may notice, for example, that when you come into downdog from plank, your heels don’t touch the mat. That is totally okay, they don’t need to! (We’ll discuss this more in just a moment.)
Now, Fine Tune
Check back in with your hands. Keep the same foundation that you set in your tabletop position: fingers spread wide, weight equally distributed between the four corners of your hands, and fingertips clawing the mat.
Keep lifting your hips high, press the tops of your thighs back, and allow for your heels to reach down toward the earth. It's simply a reaching—if they don't touch, no worries. It is the action of working toward the floor that’s important, not the actual contact. If you have tighter hamstrings, bend your knees a little or a lot while continuing to reach your sit bones up to relieve some of the pulling on the hamstrings so that you can continue to work with your upper body in the posture while you build flexibility.
Work toward creating an inward rotation of your forearms and an external rotation of your upper arms, broadening your upper shoulder blades to relax the muscles of your upper back.
Lengthen from the back of your heart out through your arms and fingertips, up through your hips, and down through the center of your heels.
Keep the back of your neck long. In Ashtanga yoga, the gaze is traditionally focused toward the belly button in downdog. If this feels comfortable to you, then look there, but if you feel that you are straining your neck in order to look toward the navel, then instead gaze between your thighs, knees, or ankles. Work with and pay attention to your own body to find the appropriate drishti (focal point) for you.
Play around with these alignment cues. Take photos of yourself in downdog to see the structure of your own alignment, and ask for help from a knowledgeable yoga teacher if you have questions. Breathe. And enjoy the journey. Rest when you need to; and then, sooner or later, you may find yourself resting while practicing your downward facing dog. It's a beautiful thing to find those moments of rest in your flow. Yoga is, after all, about finding the balance between effort and ease.