Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Shvanasana) has many benefits, but it is great for strengthening the arms, legs and core. It is also a hand balancing pose, inversion and posterior hip opener. One thing to remember is the goal is to ELONGATE THE SPINE – to create space – NOT to get your heels to the ground. Trying to get the heels to the ground often negates the ability to lengthen the spine and creates all kinds of havoc around the shoulders and in the wrists.
So, keep in mind, lengthening the spine is MORE important than straightening the legs and placing the heels on the mat.
In this pose you want to balance your weight between your upper body and your lower body. It’s a great pose to strengthen both areas.
“I remember thinking I’d never find rest in downward facing dog, but guess what? After taking my time, learning the technique and consistent practice, I now find it to be restful.” Laura M., student of Jacci.
Downward Facing Dog pose is a staple in most yoga classes. Some will say it is a beginner’s pose – I would suggest it’s not. It is a very challenging pose and not accessible to everyone. The good thing is, there are many modifications you can do to receive the same benefits.
Start by figuring out which version works for you and then begin to fine tune. Working with a teacher either in a class or privately can be very helpful when learning new poses and how to find the right one for you.
You will want to think about a few things when considering which version of the pose to explore. First off, your hands and wrists – how do they do with weight bearing? If your answer is not well, you might try a forearm down dog (or dolphin pose) or the puppy dog version.
How about your hamstrings? Are they tight? You’ll want to practice with your knees very bent and/or take a wider stance rather than a one-to-two fists distance apart stance and definitely NOT a feet touching stance.
Tight shoulders? Again, the forearm version or puppy dog might be best.
Low back issues? Puppydog is a good place to start.
Traditional Version – Instruction
To come into the posture:
- Come onto your hands and knees. Place your hands a little wider than you normally do and spread your fingers.
- Exhale and press into all the edges of your hands engaging your arms, shoulders and upper back muscles. Raise your hips up and back and keep the knees bent.
- Play with moving your heels up and down and then let your heels rest to the ground or keep your knees bent. Press into your pointer finger and base of the thumb while rolling your shoulders back and down.
- Elongate the sides of your body.
- Reach down through the inner and outer sides of your ankles to straighten the knees.
- To come out of the posture, exhale as you bend your knees and lower them to the mat.
Knees Bent Version
If you have tight hamstrings (the backs of your thighs), bending your knees in the classic downdog postures is the way to go. This version can take the “sting” out of your hamstrings and allow you to elongate your spine. This will also help remove some pressure from the wrists or forearms. You can also place a rolled blanket or towel under your heels to help lengthen the back side of your legs
This version is good if you have hand or wrist issues. You can keep the knees bent or straighten the legs whichever works for you.
Puppy Dog takes the strength work out of the arms but still provides a good stretch for the upper back and shoulders. In addition, you still receive the inversion benefits. This is also good for releasing the lower back. If your head doesn’t rest comfortably on the floor, fold a towel and place it under your forehead.
Down Dog on a Chair
Another version of the pose that is good for wrist or hand issues as well as tight hamstrings is down dog on the chair.
Whichever version you choose, consider keeping your abdominal wall drawn in lightly, knees slightly bent and elbows slightly bent. Spend 3-4 breaths in the pose and then rest. Work up to 6-10 breaths and see how it feels.