Downward Dog: Everything You Need To Know
Downward Dog (or Downward-Facing Dog) is easily the best-known yoga poses out there, which means that just about everyone believes they can do it. After all, it's just a forward bend at the waist with your legs extended and your arms and head facing down. How tough can it be?
Believe it or not, downward dog is one of the more challenging postures to achieve and you can hurt yourself if you aren't doing it properly. Even though it's a pose that many instructors frequently incorporate in their classes, downward dog can be a lot more difficult than you might think. We love this beloved pose, but we also want to ensure that you know everything you need to about downward dog. This way, you can get all the benefits from practicing this pose and avoid the discomfort and potential injury that comes from practicing it incorrectly.
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Downward Dog (aka Adho Mukha Svanasana) is a posture in which the body resembles an inverted V shape. The tailbone is at the top of the V positioned up and back, the shoulders are brought inward, the spine is straight, and the belly brought in with the ribs tight. The legs can either be at a straight position or bent slightly, depending on the variation of the pose you are practicing. The heels must be pushed towards the floor and the hands positioned away from one another.
This pose is designed to focus on the back of the body. You should feel it most along the lower back and glutes, hips, hamstrings, calves, and heels of the feet. The goal is to stretch the spine and achieve length from head to toe. As a result, downward dog can help build strength along the shoulders and back muscles as well as the wrists.
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Like many popular yoga postures, downward dog brings a multitude of benefits for the body, mind, and spirit. However, you won't enjoy the full advantages of these benefits if you are doing the pose improperly. We'll get to that part in a minute, but let's first review the reasons why downward dog should be an essential component of your practice:
- Relieves stiffness in the back and shoulders
- Stretches the shoulders, calves, hamstrings, arches in the feet, and the heels
- Strengthens the arms, wrists, and legs
- Opens the abdomen and ribs
- Provides energy to the body
- Reduces stress and calms the mind
- Fights feelings of depression
- Soothes discomfort from menstrual cramps, headache, back pain, and fatigue
- Helps in the treatment of asthma, high blood pressure, and sciatica
It may look easy, but there are some important things to keep in mind as you move your body into the proper position for downward dog.
Start by getting on your hands and knees. Be sure your knees are placed directly under the hips. Your hands should be located just ahead of the shoulders. Keep your palms spread out with your index fingers parallel to one another. If you prefer, they can be pointing out by a few degrees instead. The heels of your feet should be pointing to the bottom of the floor and your should be toes turned under.
Lift your knees up slightly and let your heels leave the floor. Lengthen your tailbone away from your pelvis, bringing it towards the ceiling. Your thighs should be brought back and your heels stretched so they are either touching the floor or pointed towards it.
Now straighten your knees without holding them rigid in position. Flex the outer sides of your thighs and move the upper portion of your thighs inward.
Firm the outer sides of your arms and push the palm knuckle of each index finger into the floor. Lift the inward sides of the arms from the wrist to shoulder and push your shoulder blades back before you widen and push them to the tailbone.
As for the head, never let it hang, and keep it positioned firmly between the upper areas of the arms. This is where a lot of people make a mistake in the posture and it must be avoided.
The biggest disadvantages of downward dog come from improper positioning. Anyone who fails to do this pose correctly will soon realize the error of their ways as they experience serious pain and discomfort in the neck, back, shoulders, legs, arms, and wrists. A rookie mistake made by a beginner can often lead to injury, but even veterans can be guilty of a misstep here and there.
It's about avoiding tension in the arms and shoulders, keeping the head from hanging loose, and avoiding pulling a muscle in your back or shoulder.
Single-Leg Downward Dog
Begin in standard downward dog with your legs positioned beneath the hips. Wrap your triceps downward and lift your hips up and back while lowering your chest to keep your shoulders aligned between the wrists and hips. Push your left foot down while lifting your right heel up, keeping the right leg firm but mobile. Keep your left heel firmly against your mat and the toes of your right foot down and heel up. Bring your head down, eyes facing down between your arms or at the back of the room. Hold for five breaths, then repeat with the opposite leg.
A great choice for a resting pose, puppy pose (or half down dog) is ideal for stretching the spine, shoulders, and back. It can also be used to target the abdomen. Start on all fours and then walk your hands forward, drawing your ribs inwards towards your back. Do not allow the belly to drop down. Bring your forehead to the floor while preventing the forearms from lifting from the mat.
Push the top of your feet to the ground with your hips positioned directly on the top of the knees. You can draw your body lower if you prefer by allowing your chest to yield towards the mat and leaving the arms at rest with palms facing in.
Much like downward dog, dolphin pose is a great way to open up the body and strengthen muscles. Dolphin pose is also a great alternative for anyone struggling with sore wrists or previous wrist injuries. This posture also begins on all fours. From there, bring your forearms to the mat, keeping them stacked below your shoulders. Narrow the distance between your elbows slightly and turn the palms of your hands out just a bit. Tuck your toes in as you bring your hips up and push back. Bring the forearms in and spread the shoulder blades apart. Finally, remember to push the insides of your wrists towards the mat.
One-Arm Downward Dog
Otherwise known as Single-Arm Downward Dog, this pose starts on all fours with your right arm stretched out ahead of you, palms facing in. Tuck your toes and lift your knees into a traditional downward dog position. Hold and then repeat with the opposite arm.
This pose is especially good for opening up the hips. Start in traditional downward dog, then lift your right leg up and bend, bringing the heel toward the glutes. Remember to keep both shoulders square to the floor while you hold your leg up. A variation of the scorpion dog includes reaching your arm back to grab the arch of the foot that has been lifted back. Hold and repeat with the opposite leg.
Downward dog may appear simple, but in order to be effective it must be practiced correctly. To do that, the posture should be practiced consistently with adequate strength in the wrists, shoulders, and abdomen. Without that strength, you will not be able to properly achieve the pose. Developing this strength can take some time, but never feel discouraged. Remember to focus on keeping your shoulders open as that is one of the most important aspects of getting downward dog right. Once you achieve the pose correctly, downward dog can become an essential part of your yoga practice and you will feel the benefits almost instantaneously.
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