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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.