Your legs are burning. That standing posture is almost over; the sequence is nearly done. You take a deep breath and realize Downward Dog is next. “It’ll be a nice break,” you think.
Yeah, we’ve all been there. Only thing is, downward dog should not be a resting pose, at least not for beginners.
In fact, we suggest treating Downward Dog like any other strength-building posture, especially beginners who may need to be extra mindful about engaging the necessary muscles to protect their lower backs!
Next time you need to rest, we suggest going into Child’s Pose instead. If you have the energy, follow the tips below for an active and safe Downward Dog.
Here are some of the reasons why Downward Dog is good for you:
- Stretches the entire back of the body, from the head and neck to the ankles, calves, hamstrings and feet
- Strengthens the shoulder girdle and upper back
- As an inversion, it increases blood circulation throughout the body
- Strengthens the hands, while stretching and stabilizing the wrists
- Decreases back pain/discomfort by creating space and expansion in the spinal vertebrae
In order to do the Downward dog correctly, here are the steps:
- Begin on all fours, supported by hands, knees and feet.
- Place hands directly under your shoulders with palms flat against the ground and fingers facing away from the knees. The middle fingers will be pointing toward the top of the mat.
- Make sure your knees are under your hips, hip-width apart, and your feet are directly behind your knees (also hip-width apart).
- Curl your toes under, and press your heels toward the ground as you lift your knees away from the ground. Straighten your legs as much as you comfortably can.
- Press your palms into the ground to shift your tailbone back toward your heels, bringing your chest toward your knees and continuing to press your heels toward the ground.
- Be sure to maintain a neutral pelvis (i.e.,don’t stick out your tailbone or curl it under excessively). Draw your belly button in toward your spine, engaging your core to support your spine.
- Engage the front of your thighs as if you are trying to lift your knees.
- Stretch your spine out as long as you can, allowing the muscles that support your spine to soften into the stretch.
- Release your neck, allowing your head to rest softly with gravity.
As you inhale, press your hands and heels down and lift your tailbone higher toward the sky. As you exhale, soften more deeply into the stretch.
Do This, Not That! Common mistakes beginners make:
- Too much weight in the hands: One common mistake when going into Downward Dog is to put too much of the weight of the pose in the hands. This shifts the pose forward more than is necessary or desired. Use the hands against the ground to shift the tailbone toward the back of the room, distributing your weight more evenly between your hands and feet.
- Making the pose too short: Oftentimes, beginners have a tendency to place the feet too close to the hands, shortening the pose. This is especially true for those with tight calves, ankles and feet as it decreases the stretch in these areas, making it more possible for the heels to reach the ground. It is preferable, however, to elongate the pose and use one of the modifications below to accommodate the lack of flexibility. A good rule of thumb is when you are able to shift from Downward Dog to Plank with little or no adjustments to your foot placement, and you have a good distance between your hands and feet. (*Note: Plank pose requires a flat body elevated on straight arms with flat palms and curled toes. It is called Plank because the whole body is flat like a plank of wood.)
- Bringing the shoulder blades too close together: It’s common in Downward Dog to pinch the shoulder blades together. This creates unnecessary strain and discomfort in the upper back and shoulder girdle. Instead, actively shift the shoulder blades away from each other, flattening the space between them to create a more stable and aligned upper back.
- Collapsing the shoulders: If there is weakness in the shoulders or arms, the shoulders can sometimes collapse down toward the head as if shrugging. This can agitate the muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper back creating tension and discomfort. Pressing your palms more actively into the ground can help elongate the spine and lift the shoulders away from the head, creating more space and stability here. If you still find there is too much weakness to hold the shoulder girdle in alignment, look to the section below for options on how to modify Downward Dog for your comfort and safety.
- Torquing the neck: Many people try to lift the head and look forward during Downward Dog. This compacts the vertebrae of the back of the neck, creating tension and discomfort. Allow your head to relax and drop down toward the ground, extending the neck and softening the gaze.
- Excessively rounding or arching the back: Depending on postural patterns, some beginners will tend to round the back during Downward Dog. Others tend to arch the back. These are both common mistakes. The correct form is to have a straight back with an elongated spine, ensuring the proper distance between hands and feet; and even weight distribution in the pose can help with this.
- Ignoring the hands and feet: There is a lot that goes on in Downward Dog and it’s easy to forget about the hands and feet once in the pose. But these are the foundational points of the pose, and play a very important role in the alignment. Make sure your hands are shoulder’s width apart; going wider or more narrow can negatively affect your shoulders and the amount of work your arms are doing. Place the feet hip’s width apart. This stance can affect your hips and legs during the pose. If possible, press the entire palm of the hands and soles of the feet into the ground to elevate the seat toward the sky. (If your wrists or ankles don’t allow full contact with the ground, see below for how to modify.)
Props and Modifications
You should consider a modification if you experience the following:
- Wrist pain, discomfort or limitation (including chronic injuries)
- Straining or limitation in the backs of the legs or ankles
- Excessive tension, restriction or injury in the shoulder girdle or back (including disc injury and disease)
Wrist pain, discomfort or limitation (including chronic injuries):
Downward Dog can be modified for sensitive or injured wrists by dropping the elbows to the floor and clasping the hands. (This is a variation of Dolphin Pose.) This can increase the shoulder stretch, however, so proceed with caution.
For sensitive wrists, holding a block can be helpful. Hold a block in each hand so that you are gripping the longest and narrowest side with your fingers on one edge and thumb on the other. When beginning the pose, simply place the blocks on the floor under your shoulders with a soft grip. Make sure to keep your weight evenly distributed in the middle of each block for stability.
Straining or limitation in the backs of the legs or ankles:
- Bending the knees can accommodate overly-tight hamstrings (i.e., the back of the thighs) in this pose. This is especially helpful for runners and athletes.
- Additionally, elevating the heels off the ground can make this pose more accessible for those with overly-tight hamstrings, calves, ankles or feet.
- Placing a rolled blanket, towel, or even a book beneath the heels of the feet can take the strain off of too-tight calves and ankles during Downward Dog.
Excessive tension, restriction or injury in the shoulder girdle or back (including disc injury and disease):
To alleviate the intensity of the stretch to the back, Downward Dog can be practiced against a wall. Begin by facing a wall, standing about 4 feet away from it. (You can adjust the distance between you and the wall as needed.) Place your hands on the wall, palms flat, directly in front of your shoulders. Slowly walk your hands down the wall as you bend at the hips, bringing your upper body parallel to the ground. Your lower body should still be perpendicular to the ground, making an upside-down “L” shape. Keep your feet directly under your hips and let your head rest forward. Actively press your hands and feet into the wall and ground, respectively, extending your tailbone behind you.
Alternatively, you can practice this on the back of a chair or a railing. Make sure the height of the chair back or railing are at least as tall as your belly button for maximum safety.
Answers To Commonly Asked Questions
- What muscles does Downward Dog work?
- Should your heels touch the ground in Downward Dog?
- When is Downward Dog contraindicated?
What muscles does Downward Dog work?
- Downward Dog features active hands and feet as the base of the pose. The shoulders are active and strong, acting as a support beam for the pose. There is also engagement in the muscles of the front of the body, particularly the core and quadriceps (front of the thighs). The muscles of the back of the body are receiving a deep stretch during this pose, particularly the calves, hamstrings, low back and neck.
Should your heels touch the ground in Downward Dog?
- The fullest expression of this pose has the heels touching the ground. However, if your hamstrings, calves, ankles or feet are overly tight, it can be helpful to modify the pose by raising the heels off the floor. The heels can either be elevated or resting on a support such as a rolled towel/blanket or a book.
When is Downward Dog contraindicated?
- Third trimester pregnancy or high-risk pregnancy
- Menstruation (there are different schools of thought here, but inversions are often contraindicated during menstruation as these poses disrupt the natural gravitational flow of the blood)
- Overly tight or injured wrists/hands, including advanced carpal tunnel syndrome
- Circulatory System abnormalities, such as heart diseases or blood pressure deviations
- Diseases/injuries of the eyes or ears, such as detached retina or vertigo