I recently fractured one of those small bones in the ball of my foot. According to my doctor, it would take about four to six months for my foot to fully heal. But after taking just a few weeks off, the swelling went away and I returned to my normal yoga class. Upon returning to my practice after the injury, however, I became acutely aware of how uncomfortable it was to do downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana). This became a real “pain in the foot,” given that it was the most frequent pose in nearly every yoga class I took.
This challenge made me think about my experiences teaching yoga. I’d been aware of students in my class being uncomfortable in downdog, but I didn’t realize how frustrating this could be until I experienced this discomfort firsthand. While downdog is often considered a resting pose, it’s not easy for many. It requires that we bear weight on both the hands and feet, which can be challenging for those working with weakness or injury in or around these areas. It can also prove troublesome for students whose hamstrings and shoulders feel especially tight. Not exactly as “restful” as a teacher who feels comfortable in this pose herself might assume! When I see students struggling in downdog, I often give them additional alignment cues, physical assists (with permission), or variation suggestions. After working with my own recent downdog challenges, I’ve really started to appreciate how wonderful adho mukha svanasana alternatives can be!
Here are a few go-to variations that I’ve found especially helpful for the times when a traditional downward facing dog isn’t the best choice:
1. Child’s Pose
If you need a break (or notice that your students need a break), this is the least “active” downdog alternative and offers you a chance to truly catch your breath and rest.
Starting on all fours (hands and knees), bring your big toes together. Separate your knees as wide apart as is comfortable for you, and sit your hips back on your heels. Walk your hands toward the top of your mat as you fold forward over (or between) your thighs. Reach your hips toward the back of your mat as you lengthen your spine forward and rest your forehead on the mat.
Variations on child’s pose
Knees can be wide apart or together. Arms can be extended overhead with elbows resting on the mat, or, alternately, you can bend your elbows and stack your hands, resting your forehead on top of your hands, or simply rest your arms along your sides with palms facing up.
To make the pose more active, if your arms are overhead, come up onto your fingertips and press down into them to engage your arms, lifting your elbows off the mat as you continue to stretch back through your hips and lengthen forward through your spine.
To find a side-body stretch in child’s pose, walk your hands over to the right and draw your left hip crease back. Stay for a few breaths, then return to center and repeat on the other side.
2. Tabletop Pose
This is a good option when you (or your students) are ready to work actively but might have limitations that make holding downward facing dog for a long time less than ideal.
Tabletop is frequently used as a transition pose. As a result it’s often ignored as a pose in and of itself, as we quickly move through it to get to something else. Have you ever taken a class where you were instructed to hold table? I know I can’t recall a time that I was. But by spending some quality time here on all fours, you can explore appropriate alignment for downward facing dog and other challenging poses that require weight bearing on the hands.
Come onto your hands and knees. Make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart (or just slightly wider), with your wrists beneath or slightly forward of your shoulders, depending on what feels most comfortable for you. Separate your knees hip-width apart, with your hips stacked over your knees. Create a neutral spine by gazing slightly forward of the space between your hands, so that the back of your head is in line with the back of your tailbone
From here you can tuck the toes of one foot (if they're not tucked already) and straighten that leg back, extending through your heel for a calf stretch. Stay for a few breaths, then repeat on the second side. This variation requires that you engage your legs more actively, while maintaining a stable foundation in your upper body and core.
You can also do many of the same leg variations that are often cued in downdog. For example: lifting one leg, drawing the knee into the chest, and then re-extending the leg back out (repeating for a few repetitions on each side makes for an excellent core exercise!).
3. Puppy Pose
This variation is the closest to a traditional downdog, but it takes a lot of the work out of your lower body, while still allowing for an extension of the spine, engagement of the arms, and an opening in the shoulders and the musculature of the upper middle back.
Start on hands and knees with your knees directly under your hips, then walk your hands toward the top of your mat to fully extend your arms overhead. Keep your hands outer-shoulder-width apart (as wide as they would be for downdog), wrist creases parallel to the front of the mat. Rest your forehead on the mat while holding the pose. Just like you would in downdog, root down into the mounds below your index fingers and thumbs, and externally rotate your upper arms to avoid collapsing in your chest.
For a more active pose, lift your forehead off the mat so that your head is between your upper arms—where it would be in the classic form of downdog.
From this position, you can find a spinal twist by coming into thread-the-needle. Twist to the right as you thread your left arm underneath your right, placing your left shoulder on the mat. Rest on the left side of your head and keep your right hand on the mat for support. Take a few deep breaths here, and then move to the other side.
Add some variety to your yoga class by throwing in some of these poses (and their variations!) in place of downdog. There are many more alternatives to choose from (like dolphin pose or wall dog), and I encourage you to explore others if traditional downward facing dog is not optimal for you or your students.
Know that by providing options for students and/or opening your own practice to the benefits of variation, you are inviting the body, mind, and spirit to an enhanced exploration of asana!
Model is wearing Quench Leggings, in "Sedona" by Hottie Yoga Wear.