Downward Facing Dog is one of the most common yoga poses, but it's also one of the hardest to get right. Despite it's ubiquity, it's by no means a beginner pose, and if your alignment is off, you could very easily hurt yourself.
So let’s break it down.
Benefits of Downward Dog
Downward Dog is one of many yoga poses that simultaneously builds strength and increases flexibility.
- Strengthens the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, glutes and legs.
- Stretches the arms, shoulders, spine, hamstrings and calves.
And when done correctly, as you lengthen your spine, you create space between the vertebrae, which can help to alleviate lower back pain.
Warming Up for Downward Dog
Downward Dog is a fairly intense pose, so it's important that you warm up and loosen your joints before you get into it.
- Sit cross-legged with a straight spine. You may feel more comfortable sitting on a cushion or a block. The crucial thing is that your spine is straight.
- Roll your shoulders up back and down 3 or 4 times. And roll them forwards. Take it slow. Breathing in and out through your nose.
- Then drop your head to the right. And to the left. Moving from side to side with your breath. Keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed.
- Interlace your fingers and begin to circle your wrists a few times to the right. And to the left. Taking it slow and staying focussed throughout.
- Now come forward onto all fours for Cat Cow—knees are hip-width apart. Inhale, drop your belly, arch your spine and look up. Exhale, round your back, tuck your chin to your chest and draw your abs in. 3 more times. Moving with your breath. Loosening up the spine and shoulders.
- Finally, draw circles with your hips 3 or 4 times one way. And the other.
Common Mistakes in Downward Dog
If you struggle with this pose, you’re not alone. The main issue is that Downward Dog is billed as a calf and hamstring stretch in which your heels are supposed to come flat to the mat. The problem with this is that if your calves and hamstrings are tight, it’s not possible to get your heels flat unless you bring your hands and feet closer together.
However, when you do this, you flex your spine and your lower back starts to round. There’s also a tendency to bunch up around the neck and shoulders which can cause a pinching sensation. So although you may be stretching the backs of your legs, you’re not in a good position and you therefore don’t get the benefits of the pose.
Preparing for Downward Dog: Puppy Pose
As it's difficult to tell whether or not your lower back is rounding in Downward Dog, first come into a pose on the mat in which your upper body is in the same alignment, without having to support your weight. One of the added benefits of coming into this pose first is that it also starts to open up the shoulders in preparation for Downward Dog.
- Come to all fours towards the back of your mat—knees are hip-width apart, toes point straight back.
- Then walk your hands forwards as far as you can and rest your forehead on the mat.
- Draw your hips back as you reach your fingertips forward, to feel a nice long stretch in the arms, shoulders, lats and spine.
- Then rotate your upper arms outward to feel a broadening across your upper back. Draw your abs in.
This is how your spine should look and feel in Downward Dog and because you don’t have to support the weight of your body, as you draw your hips back, you can drop a little deeper into the pose to open up your arms and shoulders. Move gently from side to side to get into the tight spots.
As you draw your hips back, try to keep them roughly above your knees so that you're not dropping back into Extended Child’s pose (see below) and losing spinal extension at your lower back. Breathe in and out through your nose.
HOW NOT TO DO PUPPY POSE
Notice how your spine feels, and the position of your hips. Commit this to memory. And come back up to all fours.
How To Do Downward Dog
Now you're ready to come into Downward Dog.
- Check that your knees are hip-width apart and walk your hands forward about a foot in front of your shoulders.
- Spread your fingers wide and press your hands evenly into the mat. Middle fingers point straight ahead. Then grip the mat and draw your hands towards each other to keep your wrists and shoulders strong and stable.
- Tuck your toes and lift your hips all the way up as you drop your chest back towards your thighs. Keep your knees bent. Check that your feet are hip-width apart and that your toes and knees point straight ahead.
- Straighten your arms as much as you can. Lift the weight up out of your wrists by drawing your shoulders up and back. And then outwardly rotate your upper arms to feel a broadening across your upper back.
- Keep drawing your hips up and back.
- Shake your head to release any tension in your neck and shoulders.
- Stay here for just a couple of breaths. Walking out your feet a few times to stretch the backs of your legs.
- When you’re ready, bend both knees and drop back down to all fours to rest in Child’s pose. Arms by your sides.
Checking the Distance Between your Feet and Hands
How do you know if your feet are the correct distance from your hands?
If anything, they’re going to be too close together. So from Downward Dog, come forward into Plank and your stance should be just a little shorter than this. In the video below, you'll see that I walk my feet forward just a few centimetres. As you push back into Downward Dog, keep your knees bent and adjust your position so that you feel the length in your spine and space between the vertebrae.
When you do this pose correctly, you can see that even if your heels don’t come down to the mat, you're getting the benefits without putting yourself at risk of injury.
Please let me know if you have any questions about the alignment of this ubiquitous yet troublesome pose, and which other poses you're struggling with.
Photo credit: @samuel_costin