Yoga How-To: Downward Dog

Downward Dog is a super-versatile pose. It’s extremely beneficial done on it’s own, but it also serves as the perfect transition between standing and on-the-ground poses. It’s the center of a Sun Salutation — a staple yoga sequence.

Downward Dog lengthens the hamstrings and the spine, strengthens the inner thighs, stretches the calves and the backs of the ankles, tones the arms, shoulders, and upper back, and even offers the opportunity to work the muscles in our hands.

No wonder they always make you do it during yoga classes!

Spending quality time practicing this pose is essential to reap all of its benefits. There are so many aspects to its technique — plenty of which I’m still working on.

Maybe those yoga teachers can “relax into” this pose, but for most of us it’s a lot more of a challenge. Be patient with yourself; don’t rush to get your heels touching the floor. Take time getting to know the pose and refining little parts of your form.

Check out the “Most Important Tips” and “Master the Pose” sections for advice on creating absolutely excellent technique. Work on one tip at a time until you do it automatically during the pose. Then move on to another.

Once you’ve got the form down this pose will do wonders for your body and mood. Try it out!

Basic Instructions + Video

Step 1: Start on your hands and knees in Table Pose. Your wrists should be directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.

Step 2:  Note the length and feeling of your spine. Spread your fingers out to maximize the width of your hands’ contact with the ground. Press the hands into the floor. Imagine you’re squeezing out all the air between your hands and the floor. Curl your toes so you’re ready to start Downward Dog.

Step 3: Inhale while still in Table, then exhale as you move into Downward Dog. Keep pressing into your hands, and begin pressing into the balls of your feet, while you lift your butt & hips to bring your body into the shape of the letter “A”. Start off with the knees well bent. Engage the arms to support yourself through the hands, and engage your legs to press your butt backward.

Step 4: Hold and let your breath flow through your whole body. Use the pose to elongate your spine. Lengthen your legs and reach your heels back so there’s a comfortable stretch, but don’t totally straighten your legs or lock your knees. When ready to end the posture, take a final inhale and then return to your knees as you exhale.

Most Important Tips:

Tip #1:

Focus first on making your spine comfortable and long before anything else. Lengthen your legs and hamstrings to bring your heels down as far as they go comfortably, but make that a second priority to lengthening the back.

It’s much better to have your spine feeling great with your knees bent, rather than over-straining your back and hamstrings to reach your heels down.

Many people think that the sole measure of how well they’re doing is how far they can bring their heels down. This causes them to over-straighten their legs and sacrifice good back posture in an attempt to put their heels on the floor.

Think of putting your heels on the floor as a long-term goal. Start by lengthening the spine.

Tip #2:

Keep your head and neck in line with the spine. Look between your legs. The vertebrae in your neck are a part of your spine, so ideally your neck and spine make one straight line. It’s OK if it isn’t perfect; what’s important is that your head isn’t completely hanging loose or tensed up backward. A healthy medium is good.

Tip #3:

Call your attention to how your hands feel on the floor. Spreading out the hands and maximizing their contact with the floor is a massive help in this pose.

It’s also a way of strengthening the muscles of the hands, arms, and shoulders. Stretching the fingers out and pushing into the ground gives you a better base of support from which to engage your upper body.

Master the Pose

Here are some more pointers for an outstanding Downward Dog:

Again, never completely straighten the legs. Straighten them somewhat to reach the heels back toward the floor, but make sure you don’t lock your knees. Even once you’ve mastered the pose you should have a micro-bend in your knees to protect yourself from injury.

Internally rotate your forearms while externally rotating your upper arms. This is really tricky; kind of like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. It’s what I’m working on now.

Externally rotating the upper arms opens your chest and spreads your shoulders out. This gives your neck space and allows your upper back to participate more in the pose. Internally rotating the forearms gives them a good workout and aligns them to best serve as support.

Rotate your thighs inward, but don’t go bow-legged. Do it just enough so that you have to engage the inner thighs and you feel the outer thighs become firm. This strengthens the inner thigh, a weak spot in a lot of people, and makes for good alignment in the legs.

Don’t walk your feet closer to your hands or vice-versa. Keep the extension in your spine.

If you really feel that you need to adjust the positioning of your hands and feet then go back down and start over. But it’s easy to get OCD about this and keep adjusting mid-pose when it may not be necessary.

The real benefits of a pose come from holding and breathing, so stay in position and see how it feels unless you feel close to injury. You can always do it different next time.

Don’t Make Yourself Go Crazy!

I just dumped a lot of advice on you. That might make doing Yoga seem more complicated than it should be. Just do the pose, pay attention to the sensations your body gives you, and work on one aspect of technique at a time. Don’t worry about applying all this advice now!

It’s better to master one thing and then move on to the next, rather than worry about doing everything perfectly all the time. Every pose is always a work in progress.

Do the Yoga and let yourself progress at whatever pace comes naturally. Use this post as a reference. Come back to it in two weeks or two months, or whenever you feel ready to work on the next part of your technique.

And, finally:

**** WARNING: I don’t know you, or any injuries or conditions you may have. This is not medical advice. You should exercise caution and good judgment when doing any exercise. Consult a medical professional for any modification you may need due to any condition. Also, have fun 🙂

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