Updated: Jul 21
Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, a.k.a. Downward-Facing Dog is a beneficial yoga posture. It stretches and strengthens many parts of the body, and helps maintain bone density. It is also quite complicated for many of us to do, because so much is going on in the shoulder and arm joints while bearing weight. If you commonly practice Vinyasa yoga, but have never studied alignment, or had individualized work with a qualified instructor, you may be doing this pose in a way that is not constructive. Over time, it could cause an injury.
Knowledge is power. Different bodies will look different in poses. But that doesn't mean "anything goes." Some alignment patterns are harmful. Studying alignment gives us more information so we can make conscious choices about how to work with the body. And that's what yoga is all about --- Higher levels of consciousness.
I can't cover everything there is to know about downdog in one blog post. This post will focus on one common misalignment which can be dangerous: pressing the chest towards the floor.
Before we begin, let's align our minds by focusing on correct pronunciation.
Now let's look at the alignment.
B.K.S. Iyengar wrote Light on Yoga, which became the first extensive book on yoga asana in the West. It was first published in 1966. Iyengar studied yoga from his guru in India in the 1930s.
This is how they originally taught this asana in the 1930s.
We have more information on anatomy and movement now than we did in the 1930s. We now know that this alignment actually strains the shoulders, upper-back and wrists. It can also strain the hamstrings and calves.
Here is a better example of how to work in this pose:
Downdog is not a back bend. It is a neutral spine pose. It is a hinging of the hips that gets you into the shape.
The Purpose of Downdog
Stretching the chest towards the floor can strain the wrists, shoulders, upper back and legs. If you are seeking a sensation of chest or shoulder stretching, there are more balanced and healthy ways to do that. Downdog is not the place to work on chest stretching.
Additionally, some people are already excessively mobile in those joints and they don't need any more stretching. Strengthening and stabilizing would be more beneficial.
Downdog is best for:
lengthening/decompressing the spine
Every muscle is working in this pose to calibrate and stabilize the body. You may notice the work in the arms most clearly.
How to do Downdog Properly
Again, I can't cover everything in one post, but to address this pattern of pressing the chest toward the floor, think instead about pushing the floor away from you and lengthening the spine. Think about making a more diagonal shape with the upper body, rather than a sway back.
Basic Instructions for getting into the pose:
Hands are shoulder's width apart
can be slightly wider if holding the pose. During a vinyasa, shoulder's width apart.
Middle fingers face the front of the mat, wrists straight
Thumb side of the hand connected to the earth as well as the rest of the hand
Take care not to scrunch the shoulders towards the neck.
Upper arm bones are externally rotated, but not extremely. Think about your right elbow crease facing the upper left hand corner of the mat, and the the left elbow crease facing the upper right hand corner of the mat.
The upper arm bones rise up to meet the lower arm bones.
Curl your toes under, lift your knees and think about lengthening your spine as you push the floor away from you.
Shoulder blades stabilize and slightly wrap around the side ribs
The pelvis is not excessively tipping forward or back.
Release your head between your arms.
Relax your gaze or close your eyes
abdominals engaged on the exhale
Feel free to bend your knees to help lengthen the spine
This pose can be challenging to the arms and shoulders, depending on what is going on in the individual. Assuming the shoulders and arms are reasonably flexible and healthy, this is an excellent pose for strengthening and coordinating the core muscles of the shoulders
Stretches the back, but also strengthens the back, as there are eccentric and concentric contractions to hold the spine in neutral
Stretches and strengthens legs
Has some aspects of an inversion, which many find refreshing
Can help maintain healthy bone density. Exercise can sometimes prevent or reverse osteoporosis
Helpful to keep older adults mobile and able to get up and down from the floor
Any pose done unmindfully can have risks. This pose in particular can cause
Shoulder injury (joints, rotator cuff, other muscles that work the scapula)
Elbow injury (hyperextension, annular ligaments)
Back injury (spine or muscle)
Hamstring or calf muscle strain
Contraindications (Meaning don't do this pose at all)
Blood pressure issues
If you take medication for blood pressure and your doctor says it's ok to do yoga, you should be fine.
If you experience dizziness in a class, notify your instructor immediately.
You can skip all poses that put the head below the heart. Hands and knees, cat cow, planks, child’s pose are all good alternatives.
Heart conditions (consult your doctor)
Eye conditions or recent surgeries
Detached retinas, glaucoma, recent cataract surgery--avoid putting your head below your heart.
Hands and knees, cat cow, planks, child’s pose are all good alternatives.
Advanced pregnancy--it’s up to you, mom! This pose it could exacerbate diastasis recti, blood pressure and acid reflux. If none of those complications are present, it is totally fine. I even found an article on it!
Existing injuries of the shoulders, arms, wrists, etc.--talk to your instructor. With some adjustments this pose may still be workable for you. But if it hurts, just don't do it.
That is lesson #1 in Adho Mukha Śvānāsana. Remember, what works in an actual dog's body doesn't necessarily work in our bodies. 😁
Yoga Anatomy, Second Edition by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews.
Back Care Basics: A doctor's Gentle Yoga Program for Back and Neck Pain Relief, by Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D.
Shoulder Alignment Secrets for a More Comfortable Downward-Facing Dog, by Judith Hanson Lasater
Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar.