Perfect Your Down Dog

Take any vinyasa flow class and you will do downward facing dog pose seemingly hundreds of times. It is the base and transition pose for many more challenging yoga poses and sequences. It is a pose for active rest, and eventually, a sanctuary–a pose you look forward to hanging out in, to catching your breath in, and giving your muscles a break. To beginners, downward facing dog can be agony (at least it was for me!)–your arms shake, your heels don’t touch the ground, your wrists hurt–but much of this agony can be mitigated through proper form.

Down dog seems easy on the surface: make an inverted V with your body, but that is far from the case. In this post, I will dissect the way to do downward facing dog safely and correctly and show you some solutions for the most common problems students have in down dog.

The Basics

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Here is an example of a correct downward facing dog pose. My heels are pressing toward the ground, my legs are pretty straight, and my wrists, shoulders, and hips are in a (mostly) straight line. My head is relaxed and I am looking downward.

When doing downward facing dog, there are four areas of the body you should bring your attention to: your wrists, shoulders, hips, and feet. Paying attention to these areas will ensure you are in the safest alignment.

Wrists: In order to protect your wrists in downward facing dog pose, you must practice hasta bandha. Hasta bandha means “hand lock” and down dog is the easiest pose to practice hasta bandha in. If you utilize this “lock” correctly, you’ll never suffer from yoga-related wrist pain again, and you’ll guarantee a strong foundation for the rest of your body in this pose. To engage hasta bandha, imagine a suction cup–every part of your hand except for the center of your palm should be pressing into the floor, and the tips of your fingers should grip the floor slightly. In hasta bandha, your thumb, pointer finger, and corresponding parts of your palm bear the most weight. The outer edges of your palm bear slightly less weight and your middle, ring, and pinky fingers bear the least weight. The very middle of your palm bears no weight at all.

Shoulders: The strong foundation you set in your wrists will not do much if that strength does not continue up to your shoulders. To keep your shoulders strong, it is important to keep your shoulders, wrists, and hips in a straight line. If you allow your shoulders to drop below this imaginary line, by “hanging off your joints,” you will lose strength and support in your shoulders and, after years of this, you will start to have chronic shoulder pain as well. To keep your shoulders strong, it is important to externally rotate your arms while in downward facing dog. You can do this by imaging you are trying to make the insides of your elbows face the front of your mat. Doing this engages your latissimus dorsi (“lats”), which is a muscle that wraps from your spine to just below your armpit.

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This photo is an example of “hanging off of the joints.” This is a problem very flexible people will often experience–they sink down into their shoulders, turning downward facing dog into a backbend! Remember to lift out of the shoulders and externally rotate the arms.

Hips & Core: Your hips should form a straight line with your shoulders and wrists. You should actively press against the floor with your hands to help send your hips back and keep your body weight in your legs. You should engage a strong uddiyana bandha (“abdominal lock”) by pressing (don’t hold your breath!) your belly button to your spine. Engaging uddiyana bandha will create space in your abdomen, helping to loosen your hamstrings and making it easier to press your heels into the floor. Uddiyana bandha will also give you stability and strength in the pose–a necessity if you wish to move on to more advanced transitions into and out of downward facing dog!

Feet: Your feet should be at least hip-width distance apart, though a little wider than hip distance is also fine. Your feet should not be touching (have you ever seen a dog stand with its back feet touching?). When your feet touch, this creates a very small point on which to support the lower half of your body. Your arms will have to work harder to hold yourself up and you won’t have a stable jumping-off position as you move on to more advanced poses. You should actively drive your heels towards the floor. Whether your heels touch the floor is not important (it depends on your flexibility); the energy of driving and pressing your heels into the floor is what matters. Doing this will also help keep your weight in your legs and out of your arms.

Troubleshooting

My heels don’t reach the ground: If your heels do not reach the ground, then bend your knees! Oftentimes people think that they must keep their legs straight in downward facing dog, but this is not the case at all! The most important aspect of downward facing dog is keeping your wrists, shoulders, and hips aligned. If your calves and hamstrings are not flexible enough to allow you to do this with straight legs, then simply bend your knees. Bending your knees is also a great way to check in and make sure you’re keeping your weight out of your arms. It is still important to remember to drive your heels towards the floor, even when your knees are bent, to help stretch your calves. Over time, as your flexibility increases, this will lead to you being able to straighten your legs in downward facing dog while maintaining proper form.

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If your calves and hamstrings are tight, bend your knees to help keep your wrists, shoulders, and hips aligned. This will also make the pose more comfortable if you struggle with wrist pain.

I can’t bring my shoulders into a straight line with my wrists and hips: If you struggle to bring your arms overhead in a straight line due to limited flexibility, surgery, injury, etc., then it is okay to bring your shoulders out of alignment with your wrists and hips, by bringing your shoulders forward toward the front of your mat. The important point to remember is to maintain stability in your shoulders by externally rotating your arms. This will automatically help bring your shoulders forward and engage your lats to support your shoulder joints. Over time, you should strive to bring your shoulders into alignment with your wrists and hips, but don’t feel any pressure to make this happen quickly. Your flexibility will develop as you do yoga more, and as your body is ready.

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When injury, surgery, or tight shoulders make it painful or dangerous to align your shoulders with your wrists and hips, bring your shoulders toward the front of your mat. Remember to externally rotate your arms to engage your lats!

My arms hurt/My body feels too heavy: This is probably the most common complaint about downward facing dog from people who are new to doing it. This is due to a combination of simply not yet having the strength to support yourself in this pose and of dumping your weight into your arms. These are interconnected problems. Most people have underdeveloped arm and shoulder strength when they start yoga because upper body strength is just not something people in Western countries need much of from day to day. This leads to straining in poses like downward facing dog as people struggle to hold themselves up. Your strength will improve the more you practice down dog; there is a necessary period of struggle everyone goes through when starting yoga. Remember to actively push against the floor with your hands to both engage your arm muscles and help bring your weight into your legs. Also try to remember to relax! If you notice your shoulders are rising up towards your ears, shake you head from side to side, up and down, take a big exhale, and try to relax. Just learning to relax your shoulders in the pose will go a long ways toward making it your new favorite pose.

 

What do you think? Is downward facing dog a pose you struggled with or continue to struggle with? Have these tips helped you become more comfortable in this pose? Do you have any secret tips for downward facing dog not mentioned here? Let me know in the comments!


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