Three Ways to Practice Downward Facing Dog
Downward facing dog pose offers us the opportunity to find the deep core muscle strength (of the obliques, spinal extensors, and hip flexors) that will support the spine in its elongated neutral shape; to bear weight well in both the hands and the feet; and to strengthen the legs (quadriceps) and the arms and shoulders (triceps, serratus anterior, infraspinatus, teres minor, and deltoids). It also encourages expansion of the back and sides of the rib cage and shoulders and the lengthening of the backs of the legs (glutes, hamstrings, and calves). It is a symmetrical pose that facilitates balanced effort between the upper and lower halves of the body as well as between the right and left sides. Downward facing dog turns us inward, away from the world, which may help to calm us, while as an arm-supported inversion it may impart focus and vitality.
Because many of us practice downward facing dog so frequently, it’s important that our alignment is precise in order to avoid injuries to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders that may result from repetitive misalignment. However, downward facing dog’s very ubiquity means that it often gets less attention in yoga class than trickier poses. In the step-by-step directions below, we’ll explore three facets of downward facing dog: the spine; the feet and the knees; and the hands, arms, and shoulders. By transitioning into the pose in three different ways, we can shift the focus to each of these areas individually and create a downward facing dog that is both safe and challenging.
Because many of us practice downward facing dog so frequently, it’s important that our alignment is precise in order to avoid injuries to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders that may result from repetitive misalignment.
The following routes into downward facing dog are appropriate for beginners interested in safely building the pose, but they will also allow seasoned yogis to expand their awareness of the pose. If downward facing dog has gotten “easy,” moving into the pose in the ways suggested below may help to renew its intensity, as does holding it for longer. Beginners might work to hold the pose for a minute at a time, while those with more experience can work up to two- to three-minute holds for an even deeper experience.
Route 1: Downward Facing Dog from Plank
Entering into downward facing dog from plank allows us to find the full length of the pose—helpful if our downward facing dogs have been on the “short” side and to establish an elongated neutral spine, also known as axial extension. An important part of this spinal shape, and one often lost in downward facing dog, is the lumbar (lower spinal) curve. This inward curve is vital not only to the health of our spines, but also to the multitude of muscles and organs that depend on the spaciousness supplied by an elongated neutral spine to function properly.
1. Set yourself up on your hands and knees, with your hands near the front of your mat, your wrists directly below your shoulders, and your wrist creases parallel to the front edge of your mat.
2. Imagine a long stick, like a broomstick, lying along the length of your back. To create an elongated neutral spine, gently press the back of your tailbone and the back of your head into that imaginary stick, and lengthen the tip of your tailbone and the crown of your head away from each other. Your shoulder blades and the back of your bottom ribs move toward the stick, too, but your lower back moves away from it, curving slightly toward your belly. This is your lumbar curve, and you’ll want to maintain it in downward facing dog (and through as much of your life as possible!).
3. If your belly sags toward the floor, draw your lower belly in toward your spine with every exhale, so that with each breath you encourage the activation of the core musculature that will support your lumbar spine.
4. Keep your shoulders over your wrists and maintain your elongated neutral spine as you step one foot, then the other, back into plank pose. Reaffirm the shape of your spine by pressing the back of your head and tailbone against the imaginary stick, and lengthen them away from each other.
5. Keep your hands and feet anchored and hike your hips up, bending your knees slightly, and release your head until your ears are in line with your upper arms. Bending the knees makes it easier for those of us with tight hamstrings to tip the tailbone up and back and maintain the lumbar curve. (Note: After lifting your hips, stepping your feet incrementally farther forward to get a better grip with the balls of your feet is okay, but resist the urge to take a big step forward or move your hands back in order to get the heels to touch the mat—it’s not necessary to get the heels all the way down. In fact, many of us lose the lumbar curve when we ground our heels.)
6. Reaffirm your elongated neutral spine by continuing to press your tailbone and the back of your head into the imaginary stick: because your spine is on a diagonal now, your tailbone will reach up and back while the crown of your head reaches forward and down.
7. Straighten your legs only as much as you can while maintaining a gentle curve in your lower back.
Route 2: Downward Facing Dog from Half Forward Fold
Walking the hands forward from a half forward fold (ardha uttanasana) to come into downward facing dog allows us to refine the alignment of the legs while bearing weight more effectively through the feet. This work not only strengthens the feet and the legs, but may help alleviate wrist pain and shoulder stress in this pose: when the feet and legs do more, the hands, wrists, and shoulders can do a little less.
1. From a standing position at the back of your mat, hinge at your hips, coming into ardha uttanasana, bringing your hands to your shins or your fingertips to the floor underneath your shoulders. (Reach your heart forward and bring your spine into its elongated neutral shape, as you did in route 1 above.) Though this pose is typically done with straight legs, feel free to bend your knees if your lower back rounds when you straighten your legs.
2. Check that your feet are hip-distance apart and parallel, the outside edges of your feet in line with the outside edges of your mat.
3. Keeping the backs of your knees soft (do not hyperextend), check that the center of each knee lines between the second and third toe of each foot. (For more on knee/toe alignment, check out “Alignment Help for the Hamstrings,” which I co-wrote with Dr. Jonina Turzi.)
4. Distribute your weight equally between the inner and outer balls of the feet, and the inner and outer heels, while keeping the toes light.
5. Bend your knees enough so you can bring your fingertips to the floor a foot or so in front of your feet, keeping your knees in line with your centermost toes.
6. Keep your knees bent as you gradually walk your hands toward the front of your mat, imagining as you do that there is a rope around the tops of your thighs pulling them back. This should help keep your tailbone tipping up and back and your lower back curving in, and even help you to keep weight in the balls of the feet, though the heels will lift as you come forward. Be careful not to stop too soon! Walk your hands far enough forward that the spine can fully lengthen, as it did in route 1.
7. In downward facing dog with knees still bent, check on the alignment of your legs and the weight-bearing of your feet: make sure your middle toes are pointing forward, your knees are tracking toward your middle toes, and the inner and outer balls of your feet are evenly weighted. Even though you don’t necessarily want the heels to touch the floor, reach down with the entirety of your heels as if they were pressing into the floor. For extra credit, lengthen the tips of your toes toward your wrists.
8. Maintaining this work in your legs and feet, straighten your legs only as much as you can while maintaining your lumbar curve.
Route 3: Downward Facing Dog from Extended Puppy Pose
Moving back from extended puppy pose (uttana shishosana) into downward facing dog creates a hefty challenge for the arms and shoulders by better aligning them and refining weight-bearing in the hands. (For more on healthy shoulder placement, see Dr. Turzi’s video on neutral shoulder alignment.)
Please note that while experimenting with this transition has the potential to prevent shoulder injuries, for recently injured shoulders it may be too intense: work in step 1 for now, and ask your doctor or physical therapist about how best to proceed.
1. Set yourself up toward the back of your mat on hands and knees. Place your hands under your shoulders and make sure your wrist creases are parallel to the front edge of your mat. (While some teachers advocate spreading the fingers wide apart, if this causes tension across your palms, see how it feels to bring the fingers all the way together, even cuddling the thumbs against the index fingers. This hand position may help you expand across the palms, especially across the heels of the hands, where you want space for the median nerve in the carpal tunnel.)
While maintaining an elongated neutral spine, settle your weight into your hands, pressing down with every knuckle, with the bases of your fingers, with your fingertips, and with the inner and outer heels of your hands. Practice moving your shoulder heads deeper into their sockets—where they belong and have the most muscular support—by sinking your heart toward the floor until you create a slight crevice between your shoulder blades, then drawing the bottom tips of your shoulder blades toward each other.
2. Keeping your hips over your knees and your spine in its elongated neutral shape, pad your hands toward the front of your mat until your upper body has formed a long, diagonal line like that of downward facing dog. Lower your head so that your ears are in line with your upper arms. Readjust your fingers if need be to find the placement that worked for you in step 1. Bend your elbows slightly and externally rotate your upper arms until the eyes of the elbows face the webbing between your index fingers and thumbs. This will bring more weight to the outer edges of the hands.
3. Maintain as much of this external rotation as possible as you root the base of each index finger, every knuckle and every fingertip firmly into the earth, and then straighten your arms. (Tipping weight into the fingertips may help to alleviate stress on the wrists.)
4. Draw your shoulders deep into their sockets by pressing your hands into the floor to lift the upper arms and hollow the armpits, and move your heart slightly toward your toes, being careful not to let your forehead touch the floor: keep your ears in line with your upper arms and maintain your neutral, elongated spinal alignment.
5. Now attempt to press the floor forward with your hands in order to move your shoulder blades toward your hands. Whenever the arms are higher than shoulder level, as they are in extended puppy pose and downward facing dog, be sure to allow the shoulder blades to ascend with them. Not only is this upward rotation important for the healthy functioning of your shoulders, but when you do the opposite and try to move your shoulder blades away from your ears and toward your hips in this pose, notice how either your lowest front ribs jut toward the floor, or your elbows bend out to the sides. (Hint: If moving the shoulder blades toward your hands causes neck discomfort, re-elongating your spine might be the solution. Instead of moving your shoulder blades toward your hips, try reaching the crown of your head toward the mat between your hands.)
6. As slowly as possible, without altering the architecture of your hands, arms, and shoulders, or sacrificing your elongated neutral spine, curl your toes under, and keeping your knees bent, hike your hips up.
7. In downward facing dog with bent knees, check that your hands are still well-rooted, the eyes of your elbows are doing their best to point toward the space between your thumbs and index fingers, your shoulder heads are deep in their sockets, and your shoulder blades are still moving toward your hands.
8. Now straighten your legs only as much as you can while maintaining your neutral, elongated spinal alignment.
Notice that each of the three transitions creates distinct muscular actions that persist throughout the entire pose, offering three distinct experiences of downward facing dog: one with an elongated neutral spine supported by the strength of your exhalations, one with strong and well-aligned legs and feet that bear weight well, one with externally rotated shoulders, deep in their sockets, shoulder blades coursing forward and down toward well-rooted hands. In a perfect world, we would incorporate all of these actions into every downward facing dog we do.
Downward facing dog, practiced with such attention to detail, can be a great preparation for a wide range of poses: forward folds, arm balances, and inversions. However, with so much value reaped from just the one pose, we might find that a single well-executed downward facing dog feels like a complete practice on its own.
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>