Downward-facing Dog Pose is a staple in Hatha and vinyasa-style yoga classes. Its focus is on flexion of the hips and shoulders, on lengthening the back of the body from head to toe.
The pose is named after the stretching movement made by dogs (and also cats) when they press their front paws into the floor and stretch their hips away. Its counterpart is Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, upward facing dog.
Functions of the Pose
Extension of the spine
As the hips pull away from the hands, the entire spine is lengthened. Adho Mukha Svanasana can be very relieving to a tired back, but it also can bring awareness to the areas in the spine which are stiff, and to those which tend to collapse and need more support from the front body.
Shoulder and hip flexion
Shoulder flexion opens the chest to improve posture and increase space for breath. Hip flexion can lengthen hamstrings to relieve or prevent low back pain and strengthen the core.
Finding the Pose
- Begin on hands and knees. Bring your wrists directly under your shoulders and spread your fingers wide. Be sure the weight in your hands is evenly spread through the base of the fingers.
- On an exhale, lift your knees away from the floor as your press your hips up and back to lengthen the spine.
- Maintain the length and natural curves of the spine. Bend the knees and lift the heels as needed to prevent rounding in the lower back. Firm the abdomen to prevent collapse in the mid and upper back.
Tips & Modifications
Students will often assume that legs need to be straight in this pose, but the emphasis really ought to be placed on the line of the back. It can help to practice the pose with knees bent first to feel the flexion of the hips and the length of the lower back, then slowly begin to straighten the legs and lower the heels while keeping the hips flexed.
Many students will not be able to bring their shoulders into the full flexion of downward facing dog, and the inability to press their weight back will place a great deal of weight on the shoulders, as well as keeping the spine somewhat rounded. These students may be more comfortable with their hands a bit wider than their shoulders. Downward dog at the wall or puppy pose are variants which may be more appropriate.
Downward-facing dog pose can place a great deal of stress on the shoulders, wrists and hands for students with poor alignment or who are simply not used to bearing weight in the hands. Weight should be directed back toward the hips and feet. As with all poses in which the arms bear weight, fingers should be spread wide, with weight evenly distributed on the base knuckles (the proximal ends of the proximal phalanges), even, and perhaps especially, on the base of the thumb and index finger.
- Spinal extensors and flexors (including the muscles of the core) maintain the long line of the spine from head to tailbone.
- The serratus anterior, rotator cuff, deltoid, biceps and triceps brachii stabilize the arm in flexion while bearing the weight of the body along with muscles of the forearm and hand.
- The muscles of the hip (external rotators and gluteal muscles), along with the inner thighs, stabilize the legs. The hamstrings and gastrocemius/soleus muscles are lengthened.
- Strengthens the hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. Downward dog prepares the body for other arm-balancing positions (such as crow, handstand, and even plank).
- The hip flexion component of the pose lengthens the hamstrings and the spine, while strengthening the core, abdominal muscles and quadriceps.
- Downward facing dog pose is also a half-inversion, and inversions promote better digestive function, immune system function, circulation, and relaxation.
Students with low back pain, sciatica or who are recovering from a back injury or surgery should take care when entering this pose or any pose which requires flexion of the hip. There should be no pain, no pinching, burning or tingling sensation in the back or legs. There are other poses which utilize shoulder flexion without hip flexion, and these may be more appropriate for this group.
Likewise, students with carpal tunnel syndrome or rotator cuff injury may not be able to safely bear weight on the hands. Puppy pose may be a good modification, or dolphin if the shoulders feel comfortable in full flexion.
Adho Mukha Svanasana is a mild forward bending pose, and often follows backward bending postures (such as locust, cobra, upward facing dog, or camel). It is also utilized as a resting position between other standing asana in vinyasa classes, partly because it enables the student to step forward to the next pose more easily.
Additional variations include lifting one leg into extension (so that the leg continues the line of the spine), and also twisting with the leg lifted and knee bent, or twisting with an arm reaching back to the opposite leg.