Downward facing dog: A guide for plus size yogis & beginners

Downward facing dog: A guide for plus size yogis & beginners

Adho mukha svanasana. What a mouthful. Even the english translation, downward-facing dog, is a lot to say. Down dog is one of the most widely recognized yoga postures, but it’s also a complicated one. Down dog works the whole body, and can build strength, increase flexibility, relieve back pain, and bring all the benefits of an inversion. It also can be a huge source of frustration to many beginners or yogis in larger bodies.

I’ve had several questions about down dog on the Facebook page, so I decided to put together everything I know about downward-facing dog into one big ol’ post. Ready to tackle this dog? Let’s go!

Get warmed up

Down dog can be straight up painful if you’re not properly warmed up. Here are a few of my favorite warmups before working with downward facing dog:

Let’s set up that dog

Adho mukha svanasana is a complicated posture. Now that you’re warmed up, a good foundation and set up will get you on the right track. Follow these steps to get set up for downward facing dog.

Start on hands and knees. The knees should be directly under the hips, the lower legs pointing straight back from the knees, necks of feet on the floor. Let the hands be shoulder width apart. The wrists should be slightly in front of the shoulders. Let the index fingers point straight ahead at 12 o’clock. Press firmly through the hands, especially through the thumb and index finger.

Take a look at the eyes of your elbows (the insides or creases of the elbows). Let each elbow eye face the opposite corner of the mat.  So your right elbow eye faces the left corner of the mat, and the left elbow eye faces the right corner. You probably will have to rotate your upper arms to accomplish this, but let your hands stay connected to the mat.

An image showing my inner elbow creases pointing to the opposite sides of the mat, with arrows illustrating the direciton

The inside crease (eye) of each elbow points to the opposite corner of the mat. Upper arms are externally rotated, which broadens the collarbones.

To feel this external rotation in your upper arms, come out of the pose for a moment, and bring your arms out to your sides at shoulder height, like an airplane. Let your palms and the eyes of your elbows face the ceiling. Now flip your hands over so your palms face the floor, but the elbow eyes still face the ceiling. This is the rotation of the arms we’re looking for in down dog. Now come back to the mat, and re-setup your hands. Point your elbow eyes to the opposite corners of the mat by externally rotating your upper arms. Notice how that broadens the collarbones and draws the shoulderblades down the back.

Now we’ll prepare to lift up. Engage the lower belly by drawing in the transverse abs – the pit of the abdomen – engage the lower belly and draw it in and up as if you were scooping your lower belly up along your spine. Take several full breaths. Now tuck the toes and start to lift the hips up toward where the ceiling meets the wall.

Pedal a few times through the feet, alternately bending and straightening the legs. Let the arms be long, let the neck be long with the rest of the spine. Keep a gentle bend in the knees and make the spine as long as possible, from the neck all the way to the tailbone. Think about scooping the tailbone toward the heels and bringing length through the sides of the waist.

Image of me, a fat yogi, in downward facing dog

Downward facing dog - adho mukha svanasana

Check in with all the upper body setup – are your hands pressed down, especially through the index and thumb? Are the eyes of your elbows facing the opposite corners of the mat? Are your shoulders away from your ears? Is your collarbone broad?

Hold downward facing dog for 2-3 breaths, then float the knees to the mat and rest in child’s pose or puppy pose for a few breaths. Repeat this setup and take down dog several more times to build strength and flexibility.

Image of me in child's pose and puppy pose

Left: rest in child's pose with wide knees and big toes touching. Right: puppy pose has a more open angle of the knee, easier for those with tender knees. Knees are directly under the hips, feet and lower legs go straight back from the knees.

This setup will get you on the right track, but down dog might still not feel like a blissful place to hang out. If you’re having one of these common problems in down dog, here are some modifications that might help.

My wrists/hands hurt

This is a common problem, especially if you are new to yoga, or are not used to bearing weight on your hands. With regular practice, to some degree, your hands will get used to the sensations here. However, down dog can sometimes be painful for those of us in larger bodies (especially if we are well-endowed in the bust area or have a large upper body) because of the sheer weight on the hands and wrists. The trick here is to press firmly into the hands. Press very intentionally into the hands, and especially press into the index finger and thumb. Spread the fingers as wide as you can, with the index finger pointing straight ahead at 12 o’clock. Make the hands as flat as you can against the floor, so there’s no puckering in the hands. Pressing into the thumb and index finger takes weight off your wrists and outer hands and arms and spreads the weight into the upper back, where much larger, stronger muscles can better handle it. If you don’t press into the thumb and index finger, this keeps the weight in the outer forearms, and up to the trapezius muscle and neck, where we tend to hold tension anyway.

If you’re really pressing through the thumb and index finger, but it still feels painful, try placing something under the heels of the hands to open the angle of the wrist. A foam wedge made specifically for this purpose can help, or you could roll up another yoga mat (or a blanket or towel) for the same purpose.

Image of a rolled up blanket placed under the heels of my hands to open the angle of the wrist

Placing a folded blanket or rolled up yoga mat under the heels of the hands will open the angle of the wrists, which can alleviate wrist pain in downward facing dog.

Another possibility is to take elbow dog. If you choose this modification (which actually feels more difficult to some bodies – it does to mine), you REALLY need to draw the shoulders away from the ears and lengthen the neck. Come to your hands and knees and set up for down dog. Now rest on the elbows with your elbows directly under the shoulders and forearms straight out from the elbows. Make an “L” shape with the index finger and thumb and then place a block between your hands. Press firmly into the block as you press your forearms into the floor. Now tuck the toes and lift the hips as in downward facing dog. Let the neck be long with the rest of the spine. If you feel any pinching or pain in the neck or shoulders, this mod is not for you. Try one of the other modifications in this post. (Fun fact: elbow dog is a great way to start building strength for forearm stand or pincha mayurasana.)

Image of me setting up for elbow dog with block between hands, and image of me in elbow dog

Left - set up for elbow dog. Right - elbow dog - note that the spine is long, look back toward the knees to lengthen the neck.

My shoulders and neck hurt

Downward facing dog has many components, but one thing required is upper body strength, since half your weight is in your hands, arms, shoulders, and upper back. If your upper body is weak, you’ll probably compensate by scrunching your shoulders up near your ears. Resist this urge. Draw the shoulders away from the ears to give space to your neck. Double check that the eyes of your elbows are facing their opposite corners on the mat, as we discussed in the setup for down dog. Broaden through the collarbones and chest. If your shoulders tense up, take a break. Rest in child’s pose or puppy pose, or kneel and gently stretch your shoulders (rotate the arms like a windmill or gently shake out the arms) and come back to down dog when you feel ready.

My lower back is rounded/my heels don’t touch the floor

Even though downward facing dog is primarily a shoulder-opener, it feels like a hamstring stretch! If your hamstrings are tight and it’s difficult to straighten the legs or reach the heels toward the floor, your body will probably compensate by rounding your spine. The priority in down dog is a long spine, tailbone to neck, instead of straight legs or heels on the floor. If you find your spine rounding, widen your feet (almost to the width of the mat) and bend your knees softly so you can extend the hips up toward where the ceiling meets the wall. Imagine a large hook on your pubic bone lifting it back and up. Draw the lower belly in and up to protect and support the lower back. Let your neck be long, look back at your belly or between your knees. Press into the thumb and index finger. Are you breathing? Keep breathing.

Image of me in downward facing dog with a rounded spine, and also with a straight spine

Left: my legs are straight, but my spine is very rounded here. Right: bending the knees gives more freedom to lengthen the spine. A long spine is a priority - not straight legs.

I can’t breathe! My boobs are in my face.

Sometimes it’s nice having big tatas, sometimes it can be suffocating (literally)! For any of you who have ever wished for a “yoga snorkel”, maybe this technique will help. This video clip is from my sun salutation modifications for plus size bodies video, but I’ve had several requests for it separately, so here it is:

Some other downward facing dog modifications

If downward facing dog on the floor just doesn’t feel accessible to you, and you’ve tried all the other modifications in this post, then we’re gonna turn that dog 90 degrees – we’re going to the wall! Try this wall dog modification.

Start standing about 3 or 4 feet from a wall, facing the wall. Place your hands on the wall, arms straight out from your shoulders with your index fingers pointing straight up at 12 o’clock. Press through the base of the index finger and the thumb. Stand with your feet hip width apart or wider, nearly the width of your mat. Draw the hips back and start to lower the head and torso.

Maintain the natural curves in your spine (don’t try to “flatten out” your back and don’t let your lower back become rounded) and keep your legs straight. If this doesn’t feel possible, then move closer to the wall and move your hands up the wall so your arms straighten.

If you feel a stretch here, then this is a good place to start. Gently draw your lower belly in and up, and practice deep, full breaths for 2-3 minutes in this position. If you don’t feel a stretch, step further back from the wall and move your hands lower. Once you can do this and your torso is parallel to the ground with your legs straight and your spine maintaining natural curves, then you’re ready to move on.

Image of me in wall dog - step one and two

Left: start here for wall dog. Right: eventually draw the hips back and bring the head and torso parallel to the ground.

Move your hands to a table, back of a sturdy chair, or a couch. Concentrate on drawing the hips back and pressing through the thumb and index finger. Be sure that your lower back isn’t rounding and that your shoulders remain away from your ears.

Practice with differing heights, eventually being able to move your hands onto blocks, and finally the floor.

Left: image of me with hands on a chair in a modified down dog. Right: image of me in down dog with hands on blocks instead of the floor.

Left: a modified down dog with hands on a sturdy chair. Right: modified down dog with hands on blocks. Bring the floor up closer to you with either of these modifications!

 Tell me about your dog

Was there anything you found helpful in this post? A new modification you’re going to try? Are you still having trouble with down dog? Tell me in the comments! Also – don’t forget to check out my video about sun salutation modifications for plus size yogis.

About Amber

I'm Amber and this is my blog about yoga, body acceptance, and making friends with yourself in the process! Like what you're reading? Subscribe via RSS or receive posts by email. Want to be the first to know when I do something awesome like teach a class or publish an eBook? Then the email newsletter is for you. Or, just follow me on Twitter.

Comments

  1. You are a goddess. Thank you for these tips – I don’t think I have ever paid attention to the direction of my elbows before, I have a feeling that will help a lot!

  2. This was quite helpful. Thank you!

  3. thanks Amber–I’ve tried using the boob strap, but I never really got it–but this is very helpful for my Big Yoga students! Great post.

  4. Stacey Hanrahan says:

    haha boob snorkel and I thought I was the only one who thought of that. I find rabbit pose a very difficult strangulation by boob pose.

  5. Darlyne says:

    Thanks for all the great modification tips! Really helpful!

  6. So well thought out and written. A friend sent it to me cause I’ve been hating DD as a beginner. Now I love it!

  7. Great suggestions. I love the DD wall position. This would be great for a quick stretch at the office.

  8. I’m definitely going to try pushing into my hands, thumb and index finger next time. I am sure I didn’t do that and maybe it will help! I just tried my first yoga class yesterday and knew I needed some modifications to stick with it! I love your site! Could you tell us where you get your cute plus sized yoga clothes? Thank you!

    • Amy,
      Thanks for the note! let me know how the hand trick goes! And keep me posted on your yoga practice, I’d love to know how you’re doing!

      I buy all my pants from Athleta now (their 2x fits me pretty well and I am usually a 22-24 in bottoms). Lululemon size 12s fit me (don’t ask how, man that fabric is from the future) but Athleta is a comparable quality and I would like to support a company who makes plus sizes. I usually wear tshirts from Old Navy. I like workout tops in theory, but haven’t found any that don’t ride up or move around, so I wear a tshirt with a “maternity shirt” under it that I got from Target. It’s very long (meant to cover a pregnant belly) and so it stays put when I’m upside down or if my tshirt goes up.

      I wear sports bras from Moving Comfort (the Maia bra). I also just found this site which has super cute clothes, but haven’t placed an order yet: http://shop.cultofca.com/

      I hope that helps!

      Amber

      • Thanks so much Amber! I appreciate the info! I think the hand trick did work! I think part of the problem was that in the beginner yoga class, we hold the positions longer, while the teacher explains how to do them, and that was bothering my wrists, but when I did it in a regular class at a quicker pace with your hand position suggestion, it worked great! Still hurt, but muscle pain instead of joint pain. :) Thanks for the info on the clothes too. That’s great to know about Athleta pants, I’m the same size as you, so I’m going to give them a try!

  9. Bless you Amber! I have a problem because I have very long legs and doing downward facing dog makes me feel like a T-Rex. Thanks for the suggestions and next time I see my yoga teacher I’m going to patiently explain to her why I can’t get my heels on the floor. And my boobs don’t help much either so this helps out a lot!

    Namaste!

  10. Thank you so much for this website! I took yoga in college several years ago and was completely miserable because of downward facing dog. My instructor tried to help me at the beginning of the semester, but she never said to do any of these modifications, and finally just said it probably had to do with my being so badly out of shape, and not to do it. Unfortunately, at that point it was too late in the semester to drop the class, so I was stuck with an awful class that hurt and had to force myself to go so my GPA wouldn’t suffer because I was fat.

    Today, I started the yoga DVD for P90X, and what did I find? Downward facing dog. Determined to try to make this program work, I hopped online, found your site, and tried opening the elbows and keeping the shoulders down. And started to cry. I could actually hold the pose without the awful pain!

    Thank you so much for writing this post!!

  11. I thought I invented that strap thing! I only need to use it in shoulderstand, but I just wanted to second how helpful it is, it changed my feelings about shoulderstand completely…

  12. Dear Amber,

    What a fabulous post and a GREAT site!! I am a yoga teacher and a lot of my students (mostly male) don’t use their hands. I came online to search for where the energy might be getting stuck (like wrists, neck, etc.) and came upon this post. Wonderful. You are so knowledgable about anatomy. Beautiful site. AND I think it’s great that plus-size women have such a great resource as well. All bodies are perfect in yoga and I love that you embrace that. Too many magazine models have “perfect” skinny bodies and I am all for debunking that myth.

  13. I’m not into ladies, but I culd happily kiss u right now. I asked three different instructors how to tame my H cups during inversions, like my nemesis downward dog, and was told “I’ve never had a student with this issue before”3 times. I thought I was the only one! Ordering my yoga strap tonight. When matched with my panache bra, maybe it will tame the twins.

  14. I’m so happy I stumbled upon your site today! I’m definitely going to try some of the suggested modifications – down dog has always been a challenging pose for me. I think the biggest problem for me may have been that I was too focused on my legs, rather than on my back…it’s amazing what a simple shift in focus does for you! I think I’ll also start incorporating a wall dog into the stretches I do throughout the day at work. I’ve subscribed to you on Facebook now, and I’m looking forward to seeing more posts!

  15. I am returning to yoga after a long hiatus following the pregnancy and birth of twins a year ago. I’ve never been very proficient or flexible and was far from mastering this position before, but now I actually have pain in my tailbone when I attempt the downward dog position.

    Any thoughts about what might be causing this? I often have tailbone pain after sitting for extended periods–such as in the car or at my (desk) job–but this is the first time I’ve experienced it during exercise.

    Thank you! :-)

    • Sharon, I have the same problem. I broke my tailbone two years ago and have chronic pain from it. You likely bruised yours as a result of your pregnancy. It could even be out of alignment. You should get a proper diagnosis before trying to treat it. I use a Tush Cush (bought it on Amazon) when sitting and driving to take the pressure off the tailbone. It helps. I bring it to yoga class, too. Lots of pelvic muscles tighten as a result of the tailbone pain, called coxxydynia. I find pigeon pose to be a good release for that. There is a website called coxxydynia.org that has some helpful tips. I wish you luck in getting relief. It’s a real pain in the a**.

  16. This site was… how do I say it? Relevant!
    ! Finally I have found something which helped me. Many thanks!

  17. In addition, classic coach handbag also provides classical OP ARTOP ART designs from the line of ALEXANDRA.
    With golden zippers and a subtle watered down black hue, it’d be great to wear with bright colored dresses.

  18. It helps me so much to see a round body doing the poses correctly! Try as I might, I just can’t shift the weight into my fingers during dog. I’m going to try a rolled mat under the heels of my hand next time!

  19. anne hooper says:

    I am slightly overwight but 56 years old and have accumulated several injuries over the years. I found some very helpful hints and encouragement with this site. I will be revisiting it and recommending it. well done and thankyou.

  20. I am so thankful i found this post! DD is such an essential pose and just starting out, every single time i do a yoga class or video i am tortured by DD.. Not because i am plus size, but i have lupus and therefore my joints are arthritic. I cant put much weight on my wrists at all, so i was so stoked to see these modifications. I think trying the towel trick and pressing thru thumb and forefinger are really going to work for me! Thank you thank you thank you!!

  21. Adrienne says:

    Wow! THANK YOU. I love the wall dog. I was having so much pain in my wrists doing the traditional down dog I couldn’t do it for fear of injury. I also like the elbow dog. GREAT site!

  22. Thank you for the suggestions! I will try some of them to see if I can do down dog your way. Due to an elbow injury I am no longer able to fully straighten my left arm (about a 5 degree deficit, small but noticeable) and cannot fully bear weight on that arm when doing poses such as down dog. I have tried using blocks or folded towels to support that side only, but it takes so much time to set up for each pose that I lose the flow of moving from one to another. Do you have any tips that might help?

  23. always i used to read smaller content which also clear their motive, and that is also happening with
    this post which I am reading at this time.

  24. What a great post! Your pictures are beautiful. I’ve been really enjoying yoga but DD was too painful. I’m going to try your ideas tomorrow morning.

  25. You are beautiful and inspiring!!!

  26. OMG! Where were you 10 years ago before I had my breast reduction? I really dig your website, perhaps one of the best I have seen. Loving yourself regardless of shape, size or ability is #1 lesson I will begin incorporating into my lessons. Thanks!

  27. I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to have found this site! I love everything from the body positive attitude to the clear, concise explanations and modifications. You are PERFECTION, woman!

  28. Thanks! You rock!! I will be sharing this post and your site with my yoga teacher trainer friends :)

  29. Short and chunky says:

    I use to be a size 4, but life happened and I gained major weight. I’m currently 168 lbs and only 5 feet. I was told that I’m obese and should watch my diet. I’ve been doing some Jillian Michaels workout and a great friend told me about yoga to help with relaxation along with flexibility. I must say, the first day of yoga was frustrating. I’m working out in a new heavy weight body, and my hands were aching. I couldn’t even finish the day one yoga video because I just couldn’t bear the pain on my hands and wrists. I must say, you are a goddess and a life saver. I’m so glad to have run across this, that way I can go back to feeling healthy and fit once again. Thank you!!!!!

  30. That was probably the best description of posture options I have ever read and the pictures really helped too. Thank you!

  31. Hi Amber
    I’m have a difficult time getting back into yoga because of my right wrist. I have something called flexor tendinitis and it limits how far back I can bend my wrist. I can do downward facing dog and plank for one day but then I have to take more than a week off to rest it. I’ve tried putting a towel under my palms during downward dog but it always gets in the way of my sequence. Are there exercises to strengthen and stretch it? I used to see an Active Release Technique chiropractor but it’s expensive. Ice does not help

  32. Thank you for the tips! I will definetely use them for my next (and first) yoga class as a teacher (excited and a bit nervous). And thank you for a very inspirering blog. You’ve got a wonderful spirit and it’s so inspirering to see that yoga is for everybody.
    /Luna

Trackbacks

  1. […] for more on this posture? Check out this cool post on Body Positive Yoga:  Downward facing dog: A guide for plus size yogis & beginners, or this article by Gwen Lawrence (she teaches yoga to NFL stars, so she knows a thing or two!).   […]

  2. […] I cam across Amber from Body Positive Yoga recently and I thought I would share some of her material with you.  The above video was referenced in an article on Downward Facing Dog for plus sized people. […]

  3. […] There’s a text tutorial at this link. For some additional explanation and troubleshooting, Amber at Body Positive Yoga has a guide for beginners and plus size yogis. […]

  4. […] or you can unintentionally tense up your shoulders and neck in the process of doing it. There are several modifications to the pose one can do to make it a little easier. I shake my head a few times in the pose just to […]

  5. […] I started looking around online last night and found a great post on a blog called Body Positive Yoga. […]

  6. […] File Name : Downward facing dog modifications for beginners & plus Source : bodypositiveyoga.com Download : Downward facing dog modifications for beginners & plus […]

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