Why “Heels Down in Down Dog” Isn’t a Useful Cue (for Everyone)
Plus some alternatives
by Amber Burke
The popular cue “reach your heels down” in downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) has several benefits. However, it also has some downsides, and may require some additional information that lets us know how, and how much, to do it—in order to be most helpful.
Nam Chanterrwyn, yoga teacher and FRC (Functional Range Conditioning) movement specialist, does not insist on “heels down to the ground”: “It may reinforce unrealistic goals for a lot of students whose anatomy may not allow that to happen, much less benefit them if it did. And for those students who can easily accomplish this, there are other cues that can better help them focus on engaging within the pose.”
In addition to “heels down to the ground” setting up an unrealizable and unhelpful anatomical goal for many, even variations of this cue that do not target the ground as a destination (“reach your heels toward the floor,” “reach down through your heels”) may have undesirable consequences, for instance on spinal alignment.
The Importance of a Neutral Spine in Downward Dog
Traditionally, downward dog is a pose in which a neutral spine is elongated (a position also called axial extension). In this pose, all the limbs collaborate to feed length into the pose and create additional space between the vertebrae. A neutral spine entails, among other things, a slight anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis and a gentle inward curve of the lower back.
Downward facing dog is not generally practiced with the pelvis in a posterior (backward) tilt and the spine flexed (rounded). This is not to say that a posterior pelvic tilt and spinal flexion are “bad,” though; these are among the movements elemental to the pelvis and spine.
“For those without back pain history, flexion is usually okay if it’s not done to an extreme, too abruptly, or for too long,” says physical therapist Bill Reif, author of The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain and How to Treat It. (He notes that those with osteoporosis, disc issues, or other back problems should probably avoid most spinal flexion.) He favors practicing flexed poses more dynamically—moving in and out of them—rather than by performing long, static holds, which may cause strain.
While a slight rounding in the back during a brief downward dog may not be a problem for most students, the trouble is, a posterior pelvic tilt and a rounded back is often a habit, a default, not just in downward dog, but in life, especially if we sit in a slouched position for long periods of time.
Yoga can help rid us of that habit by providing us with opportunities to practice optimal pelvic and spinal alignment in downward facing dog and many other “neutral spine” postures. According to Reif, working toward a “mild lumbar extension is good for re-attaining the loss of lordosis [inward curvature] that many ‘sitters’ have.”
This will not only re-habituate the spine to optimal alignment, which so often escapes notice during the course of daily life, but also sets the stage for healthy shoulder positioning. According to Reif, flexing the spine in downward dog leads to rounding of the shoulders, which could widen the scapulae (shoulder blades) into a position less efficient for weight-bearing. “The more you round your back the more your shoulders will have to internally rotate,” he says. “Too much internal rotation may irritate the biceps tendon or strain the rotator cuff muscles.” To encourage the external rotation of the shoulders necessary for their long-term safety in downward dog, it’s a good idea to minimize the rounding of the spine.
Heels Down and the Spine
If a neutral spine is one of the goals for you and your students in downward dog, “heels down” may undermine your intentions. Let’s first talk about this cue in the context of a straight-legged down dog.
In order to create a neutral spine while keeping your legs straight in down dog, your torso and thighs need to be about 90 degrees apart or wider. (Note that this generalization does not apply when the knees are bent, which increases the range of motion in the hips, pelvis, and lower back.) For many students, once the torso and the top of the thigh bones come closer than 90 degrees, the spine must round (or the knees must bend): hence the discouragement of downward dogs that are “too short”—often the result of transitioning into downward facing dog from hands and knees or child’s pose, instead of from a roomier plank pose.
While it is important for spinal alignment for your hands and feet to be far enough apart that the angle between your torso and thighs is at least 90 degrees, you’ve probably noticed that it’s a lot easier to get your heels down if your downward dog is shorter. So, if enterprising yogis take “heels down” to be the goal of the pose, they’ll probably step their feet forward or move their hands back, right? Presto, heels are down…and spines are rounded. Some students may do this because they don’t realize that downward dog is a neutral-spine pose or understand the elements of a neutral spine. Others may simply not have a clear sense of what their backs are doing here. After all, in downward dog students don’t have a clear view of the teacher or of themselves. It can be a disorienting pose, and therefore a difficult pose in which to integrate alignment instructions.
However, the cue’s tendency to cause pelvises to tuck and spines to round is not necessarily a result of shortening the pose. Even if your down dog is appropriately long, upon hearing “reach your heels down” or “reach through the heels,” it’s easy to “steal length” from your spine—flattening or rounding the lower back and/or exaggerating the rounding of the upper back.
Reif explains the anatomical explanation for this theft from spinal length: “Reaching through the heels pulls on the ischial tuberosities [sitting bones], moving them toward the heels, which will cause the pelvis to move into a posterior pelvic tilt and forces the lower back to round.”
Try sitting in staff pose with a neutral spine, either sitting upright or leaning back slightly if needed in order to tip your pelvis forward and draw your lower back in. Now focus exclusively on reaching through your heels: Observe how easy it is to tip your pelvis backward when you do this. Once that happens, your neutral spine is done for.
To reclaim an anterior pelvic tilt and a lumbar curve, many people with tight hamstrings find it helpful to bend their knees. Reif explains that “Bending knees encourages quadriceps control and relaxes the hamstrings, which in turn allows the pelvis to move more freely because of its attachment to the ischial tuberosities. This allows the pelvis to move more anteriorly, which in turn allows the torso and thighs to come closer together while the spine stays in its neutral position.”
Yet “heels down” could be interpreted as a command to straighten the legs and make students feel that they should not bend their knees, which is another way the cue may interfere with neutral spinal alignment.
Heels Down and the Feet
Chanterrwyn points out an additional deficiency in this cue concerning not the spine but the feet and ankles: “The ankles are of course in dorsiflexion in down dog”—dorsiflexion is the movement of the ball of the foot toward the shin—“and driving the heels down uses weight and leverage to force the ankle into further flexion without necessarily engaging the muscles (tibialis anterior, for example) that are responsible for that action.” To Chanterrwyn, “heels down,” instructed without cues to restrain or counter it, sounds like an attempt to get more range of motion in the ankles, rather than to find more strength and control within the range that already exists.
Lastly, like many cues, it’s possible to enact “reach through the heels” in a less-than-optimal way: You could, for instance, reach the heels down by flattening the inner arches and dropping the inner ankles, a position called pronation, which contributes to problems like plantar fasciitis and bunions. Reif says that pronators should be cautious about reaching heels down to avoid causing (or exacerbating) foot problems.
The Reasons Behind the Cue
There he is, in plate 75 of Light on Yoga: B.K.S. Iyengar in downward facing dog, the pose he promises will conjure “lightness in the legs” while “reliev[ing] pain and stiffness in the heels,” his heels on the floor, legs straight as straight can be. “Keep the legs stiff and do not bend the knees but press the heels down,” he directs. “The heels and soles of the feet should rest completely on the floor.”
His downward facing dog looks considerably different than the one we practice today; his head is close to his shins and the top of his forehead is resting on the mat. But despite letting go of Iyengar’s deep—and for many of us, impossible—shoulder stretch, some teachers have hung on to his “heels down,” perhaps in part because of the definiteness of his instruction and the firmness with which his heels are planted.
In addition to the weight of Iyengar’s influence, our tradition of reaching the heels down probably derives from the fact that doing it often feels good: Reaching through the heels opens up the hamstrings and calves—and tightness in the latter can contribute to common problems like plantar fasciitis.
The dorsiflexion of the ankles that “heels down” encourages is also an important action for our ankles, one that facilitates a calf stretch especially important for runners, hikers, and high-heel wearers. Furthermore, dorsiflexion counters the ankle action in the pose that immediately precedes downward dog in the traditional vinyasa: In upward facing dog, the ankles are extended while the feet point and the calves are shortened.
Another virtue of “heels down” is that it brings awareness to our feet, helping us to awaken desensitized feet and ankles, thus creating balance between the upper body and the lower body: Without this cue, it’s possible to feel that weight piling into our shoulders and down into our hands.
For all of these reasons, pressing down through the heels may be beneficial. “Heels down isn’t necessarily outdated,” says Chanterrwyn, for whom its continuing value depends on its context. Ideally, it would be part of an environment of other cues that “encourage students to find the work from within, instead of looking for external validation of achieving heels to mat.”
How to Do It If You’re Gonna Do It
Maintain Spinal Alignment While Reaching Through the Heels
In order to reap the leg-stretching, ankle-dorsiflexing, foot-enlivening benefits mentioned above, without sacrificing spinal alignment, one possibility is to establish a neutral spine first and reach the heels down after—that is, to reach the heels down and straighten the legs only as much as you can while keeping a neutral spine.
Try practicing, or having your students practice, finding a neutral spine in tabletop by tilting the pelvis anteriorly and curving the lower back slightly inward (support that curve by drawing the belly in with every exhale), perhaps in view of a mirror. Aim to keep this same spinal shape in plank. Then aspire to keep your neutral spine while hinging into downward facing dog from plank without moving your feet forward or your hands back.
Despite our best intentions, we might lose our neutral spines en route and have to re-establish them in downward facing dog. Try this cue: Bend your knees and lift your tailbone toward the ceiling enough so that your lower back draws in gently. Keeping this shape, straighten your legs by reaching your heels for the earth only as much as you can without letting your lower back flatten.
This sequencing of cues gives students permission to bend their knees, something those with tight hamstrings might appreciate. (And note that heels down could certainly coexist with bent knees: “Bend your knees and continue to reach through your heels” is an addendum to the cue that may assist students in continuing to bring their attention to their feet and stretch their calves.)
More flexible yogis who may not feel a stretch in their hamstrings or calves in downward dog may feel one if they maintain an anterior pelvic tilt while straightening their legs. (I know I personally feel downward dog in my legs much more vividly when I manage to keep this tilt—then I can’t quite ground my heels, and the pose becomes work again.)
Chanterrwyn, who thinks “heels down” is best paired with an opposing action, tends to cue this way: “Reach down through your heels as you lift up through your sit bones (or hips).”
Make the Most of the Actions of the Feet
Because ankle dorsiflexion is valuable, but so is being able to control that action, Chanterrwyn also supplements “heels down” with more subtle instructions in order to get students to dorsiflex their feet actively. “Cultivate the action of reaching your shins to your feet while folding the tops of your feet to your shins,” he advises students in downward dog, explaining that this movement is the one you make when lifting your foot off the gas pedal.
Another instruction to emphasize dorsiflexion—one that also enhances awareness in the feet—is, “Shift weight to the back of your toe mounds/balls of feet and reach forward with all ten toes.”
“I try to caution against the glorification of more and more range, and instead encourage students to develop strength and balance within their joints,” Chanterrwyn explains. “More passive range of motion without the strength to control it is like having a car that can go over 100 mph, but the steering and brakes fail to work when you drive about 60 mph.”
As far as reaching through the heels potentially causing pronation, those who pronate and/or have PF or bunions may benefit from nuancing the cue: “Press down through your heels only as much as you can while keeping your inner arches and inner ankles lifted.” (And, since straight legs stretch the gastrocnemius more than the soleus, two muscles whose tightness is implicated in PF, Reif recommends bending one knee and then the other—“walking the dog”—to stretch the soleus.)
Final “Heels Down” Thoughts: Limits and Applications
On the whole, “heels down” and “reach through the heels” can be useful cues for animating the legs and feet, especially when prefaced with attention to spinal alignment and combined with mindful ankle action through nuanced cues like those offered by Chanterrwyn. Pronators may find the cue most helpful when supplemented with the actions of “lifting the inner ankles,” and Reif’s suggestion to “walk the dog.”
A well-situated “heels down” also feels conclusive to me: the feet the end of a story that starts with the hands and the arms and peaks with the hips, the last in a chain of directions that together make the V shape of downward dog.
If “reach through the heels” still deserves to be applied with some restraint, it is for this reason: There is only so much time. Class is only so long, we hold downward facing dog for only so many breaths, and sometimes there is something more important for teachers to say or students to do. Heels down can be off base, a red herring that takes awareness away from places in our bodies that could use more attention. Would it be more useful to spend the limited time we have in downward dog on the spine or on common “trouble zones” like the neck, shoulders, or even the directions of the knees and toes?
But even as we place some limits on how and when we focus on the heels in downward dog, we could consider expanding our heel awareness in other poses, poses in which perhaps the spine, knees, shoulders, and neck are less apt to go off track, or where it is easier to wrangle them back into place because it is easier to see the teacher or the mirror. For instance, in poses like tabletop, cobra, camel, staff, or dancer, reaching through the heels—and then through the balls of the feet, and even through the tips of the toes—can help bring awareness and vitality to our often overlooked feet and thus, to our entire practice.
Photography: Andrea Killam