Down dog

If you are new to Yoga, downward facing dog is really hard.

If you have been practicing for 10 years, it’s still really hard.

I wanted to write about my experience of this pose in detail since there is little time in a flow class to break it down and I see so many beginners struggling with it, as I did and still do!

Adho Mukha Svanasana: downward-facing dog pose

1. Not a rest, sorry

It is tempting to ‘hang out’ in the skeleton during this posture, especially if you are hyper-mobile, but this is not the point.

This posture will start making sense when you actively engage relevant muscle groups evenly and with directional intention throughout the whole body.

But there’s a lot going on, and this is why it remains challenging physically and mentally:

  • Palms pressing firmly into the mat
  • Arms engaged
  • Upper arms rotating outwardly away from the ears
  • Neck relaxed, natural extension of the spine
  • Shoulders pulling down away from the ears, not hunched
  • Chest pressing towards the mat
  • (Above two will increase your shoulder mobility range)
  • Core engaged / belly sucking in (Uddiyana Bandha on)
  • Hips lifting towards the ceiling (lengthening spine & hamstrings)
  • Quads/thighs switched on pulling up away from the knees
  • Knees bent if spine hunches with straight knees
  • Knees locked straight if spine remains straight
  • Heels working towards the mat
  • (Don’t forget to relax the face, this should always be relaxed)

Scan the body working towards the above again and again.

The point isn’t whether your heels touch the mat or if your knees are straight. The point is to maintain integrity of the spine as you work towards straight knees and heels on the floor so that in the process you increase the range of movement in your joints whilst building strength through direction-intentional activation.

Bend knees and lift heels to prioritise a straight spine. Source:

Because even if and when your heels touch the floor and your knees are straight, you will still be doing all those things in that list, generating the same benefits of increased joint mobility and strength.

(The number of bullet points should explain the complexity of the posture.)

2. Stay, dog

Strength comes from holding still and breathing through the temptation to ‘paddle out the legs’ or take a sip of water.

Aim for 3 breaths if you’re a complete beginner, working towards 5. Notice how quickly you build strength with this in your practice.

Across all Yoga postures, this is where you will build the concentration too. Fixed gaze, 5 breaths.

Strength, concentration & relaxation

It’s also an inversion (head is below the heart), which explains its calming impact.

For those who made it down this far or perhaps any teachers, hungry for more, I took the below from Mark Stephens “Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques” since he talks specifically and helpfully about transitioning into this posture from upward-facing dog (which is another thing altogether):

“The transition from Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (up dog) to Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog) is initiated with the exhalation. After feeling the fullness of Urdhva Mukha Svanasana at the crest of the inhale, cue students to feel their belly naturally engaging with their exhale, using the gradual engagement of their abdominal core to help lift their hips up and back. In an effort to find pelvic neutrality in Adho Mukha Svanasana, guide students to create a feeling of their pubic bone leading the way in pulling the hips up and back. Over time this movement involves rolling over the toes of both feet simultaneously. Newer students and those with tender toes or feet can “step” over first one foot and then the other. The arms should remain straight (but not hyperextended) and strong in this transition, with the shoulder blades spiraling out broadly away from the spine. Newer students and those whose strength is very challenged in this transition can bring their knees to the floor, tuck their toes under, and then press to Adho Mukha Svanasana. Experienced students with strong and stable shoulders can build additional strength by first lowering back to Chaturanga and then pressing back to Adho Mukha Svanasana.”

I want to know what you think? What cues help you in this posture and do you have any thoughts or comments? Please leave a comment 🙂

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