Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares six unique ways to vary this familiar balance-boosting pose.
Through years of asana practice, I’ve flirted with arm balances, binds, and inversions, but find myself drawn back to the same foundational poses again and again. What interests me most in my practice is investigating what feels easy and what feels hard, where I am connected and disconnected, and where I feel strength or a lack of it. And it’s often in the simplest poses where I find the most space for that kind of exploration.
One of my favorites is the humble kneeling balance pose bird dog, which offers an effective and accessible way to train functional stability in the shoulders, core, and hips.
For the standard pose you start on all fours with wrists aligned under shoulders and knees under hips. Then you lift one arm forward and the opposite leg back, reducing your contact with the floor and thus challenging your stability. It’s easy to do, but not easy to do well. The key is to create and maintain stability in the shoulders, along with a neutral spine and pelvis, despite the downward force of gravity.
This requires three key actions:
• Scapular protraction: Gravity tends to draw the rib cage toward the floor, hollowing the space between the shoulder blades, or “winging” them off the back ribs. Pushing the floor away with your hands connects the scapula to your side ribs, which creates a much more stable weight-bearing position by engaging the serratus anterior muscles.
• Core support for a neutral spine: Gravity also draws the navel closer to the floor, deepening the lumbar curve. This presents the opportunity to train coordinated support from the core muscles. Drawing the navel to the spine reduces the exaggerated lumbar curve and engages the rectus abdominis, a superficial abdominal muscle. Then hugging in around the waist as if you’ve put on a belt or a corset activates your deepest core muscle, the transverse abdominis. This action creates a feeling of length from crown to tail called axial extension.
• Creation of neutral pelvic and hip positions: As we extend one leg behind us in bird dog, we tend to tilt the pelvis to that side, lifting the hip rather than simply lifting the leg. Squaring our frontal hip points to the floor and rotating the inner thigh of the lifted leg toward the ceiling counters this tendency; it stabilizes our pelvis by recruiting the gluteus medius on the outer hip of the support leg and our primary hip extensor, the gluteus maximus, on the lifted leg.
These actions alone are foundational to yoga asana practice, and apply to many more poses—including plank pose, side plank (vasisthasana), downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana), handstand (adho mukha vrksasana), headstand (sirsasana), and even warrior III (virabhadrasana III).
But that’s not the only reason I love to play with bird dog: A few simple variations, like those offered below, benefit the whole body.
This variation opens the lifted arm and leg out to 45 degrees. The movement itself is a great way to improve stability by shifting the center of gravity, which forces the shoulder, core, and hip stabilizers to compensate. The new arm position also recruits the latissimus dorsi (which wraps around the back and side ribs), especially if we hug the upper arm bone toward the side waist. The new leg position strengthens the gluteus medius on the hip of the lifted leg, especially if we keep our toes pointing toward the floor (abducting the thighbone rather than rotating it).
To try it, start on all fours with your wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. If you have any discomfort bearing weight on your knees or hands, use a folded mat or blanket as padding under your knees or the heels of your hands. Hug in around your waist to keep your spine neutral, and then straighten your left leg out behind you and set the ball of your foot on the floor.
Without tilting your hips or dropping your belly, lift your left foot with toes pointing straight down to the floor. Feel your left glutes engage. Press the floor away with your hands to draw your scapula toward your side ribs, and keep your shoulders level as you send your right arm out in front of you, bringing your bicep by your ear. Rotate your thumb toward the ceiling so that the right side of your neck can soften. Lengthen from your right fingertips to the sole of your left foot.
From here, open your right arm out to the right and your left leg out to the left, creating a diagonal line. Keep your right thumb pointed toward the ceiling, left toes down toward the floor, and spine neutral. Lengthen again from your right fingertips to the sole of your left foot, this time feeling engagement in your right side ribs and your left outer hip.
Inhale to bring your left arm and right leg back to their starting positions, and exhale to open to a diagonal. Maintain a strong and stable center as you flow between poses three more times, finally returning to all fours before switching sides. After you’ve completed both sides, send your hips back toward your heels to rest in child’s pose (balasana) for a few breaths.
There are two movements in this variation. The first movement rounds your spine and curls your knee toward your nose, giving an extra boost to the serratus anterior and the rectus abdominis; it also recruits the hip flexors. In the second movement, lifting a bent knee in hip extension turns on the hamstrings, which are often underused in yoga. Done with precision, this variation engages your back body as well as the front.
To try it yourself, start once again on all fours with neutral spine and pelvis. This time keep both hands on the floor. Press down through your hands and the tops of your feet, scoop your navel toward your spine, and round your back from crown to tail like an angry cat. At the same time, draw your left knee toward your chest as if to touch your nose or forehead. Exhale here, feeling your front body contract powerfully.
Then return your spine to neutral, but keep your knee lifted toward your chest. And on an inhale, without tilting your hips or releasing your navel, take your thigh behind you with your knee still bent, so that the sole of your left foot is facing the ceiling. Keep your low back broad, rather than allowing it to dip, in order to feel your right buttock and hamstrings engage. Inhale here, then exhale as you scoop your knee back in toward your nose.
Maintain a strong and stable center as you flow between the two poses five times total, and then return to all fours to switch sides.
After you’ve completed both sides, take a few breaths either in child’s pose or another restful position, before moving on.
This version of bird dog takes a bent elbow and knee out to the side, bringing both shoulder and hip joints into active external rotation. These actions strengthen both the infraspinatus on the posterior shoulder (a muscle that helps balance the shoulder’s tendency to round), and the hip’s external rotators (piriformis, gemellus superior and inferior, obturator externus and internus, and quadratus femoris).
To try it, begin on all fours with stable shoulders and neutral spine and pelvis (as described previously). This time, tilt your hips slightly to float your left knee off your mat. Lift your right hand and bend your right elbow to a right angle, so that your forearm is parallel to the floor.
From here, lift your left knee out to the left side as high as you can without tilting your sacrum. At the same time, lift your right forearm out to the right side as high as possible without tilting your shoulders. Aim to lever your fingertips even higher, above elbow height, to maximize the external rotation in your right shoulder. Inhale here, and then lower your forearm and knee to hover as you exhale.
Repeat the flow four more times, focusing your attention on smooth engagement on the back of your right shoulder and in the center of your left buttock, and then return to all fours to switch sides. After you’ve completed both sides, take a few breaths in a resting pose before moving on.
This variation of bird dog builds mobility in the thoracic spine by adding a twist. One outstretched leg stabilizes the pelvis and lumbar spine, so that the rotation focuses on the mid back.
Start on all fours with stable shoulders and neutral spine and pelvis. This time, take your right leg straight out behind you and place the ball of your foot on the floor. Then bend your left elbow and place your left hand on the back of your head.
Notice that your frontal hip points are parallel to the floor. Keep them that way as you drive down into your right hand and rotate your chest toward the left, lifting your left elbow toward the ceiling.
Rather than trying to make the twist as deep as you can, keep your navel pointing toward the floor in order to focus the movement on your thoracic spine. Inhale here. As you exhale, square your chest back toward the floor.
Repeat the flow five times in total, maintaining stable hips and low back while rotating your rib cage and mid back, and then return to all fours to switch sides. After you’ve completed both sides, take a few resting breaths before continuing.
This flow transitions between bird dog and a modified side plank, cultivating our capacity to move smoothly from one orientation to another. It builds stamina in our support shoulder and creates cohesion between the upper and lower body by highlighting the transverse abdominis and the gluteus medius, which are key trunk stabilizers.
Start in the standard version of bird dog with your right leg extended behind you and your left arm reaching in front of you. Imagine a rod running the length of your spine. Cinch in around your waist to maintain that integrity as you transition.
Bring your right knee back to the floor beneath your hip. Pivot your right shin to the right until it’s parallel to the short end of your mat. Keep driving down through your right hand to draw your shoulder blade toward your side ribs as you turn your chest and hips toward the left side of your mat, extend your left leg and lift your left foot off the floor, and sweep your left arm up toward the ceiling, into a modified side plank.
Pause here to confirm that you’ve maintained a neutral spine. Hug in around your waist while extending out through the crown of your head, left fingers, and left foot. Inhale here, and then exhale to transition back to bird dog with your right leg extended back and left arm reaching forward.
Repeat the flow four more times, making the transition from one shape and orientation to the other as smooth as you can. When you are done, return to all fours, and then switch sides. After completing both sides, take a few breaths in a resting pose of your choice before moving to the final variation.
This variation of bird dog ups the ante for the upper body and core while adding eccentric strength work (engaging the muscles while in a lengthened position) for the quadriceps. This time we lift the knees, reducing the amount of contact with the floor and increasing the stability challenge considerably.
Start on all fours with stable shoulders and neutral spine and pelvis. Tuck your toes and lift your knees a couple of inches off the floor. Shift your weight into the ball of your left foot and your right hand, keeping your torso as stable and level as you can. Slide your left hand forward until just your fingertips rest on the floor, and bring your right leg backward until just the tips of your toes rest on the floor.
Inhale to raise your left hand and right foot off the floor for a floating version of bird dog, and then as smoothly as you can, exhale to return to your starting position on the balls of your feet with wrists under your shoulders. As you inhale to move to the other side, imagine balancing a tray of glasses on your back: Keep your sacrum as level as you can to avoid sending them crashing to the floor. Swap sides four more times, maintaining that stability throughout, and then lower both hands and both knees to the floor to finish.
Take a final few breaths in child’s pose, or another restful pose, and reflect back over all six bird dog variations. Which positions or movements felt easy and which felt hard? Where did you feel the most stable, strong, or connected, and where the least? Which variations, if any, could you benefit from integrating into your home practice?
A common misconception is that we deepen our asana practice only by mastering more difficult or complicated poses. In truth, we can also advance our practice through poses that are simpler or more familiar by finding more nuance or more engagement in them. In fact, foundational poses like bird dog might offer even more fruitful ground for exploration because they are accessible enough to leave us space to play with our alignment.
Bird dog aims to build balance and stability by integrating the upper and lower body. The variations offered here provide ways to achieve that goal by using new angles and transitions to awaken and engage the whole body. Test these out and see what you learn from them. More importantly, I hope you’ll be inspired to come up with your own take on your favorite poses. You may be surprised by what you discover.