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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Downward Dog Pose – Everything You Need to Know

Downward Dog Pose – Everything You Need to Know

Reading Time: 4 minutes 45 seconds


DATE: 2022-11-03

Downward dog is one of the most classic and well-known poses in yoga. Hands flat on the ground, feet on the mat, and hips up, it provides an excellent overall stretch while also relaxing the mind and strengthening specific muscles. 

From beginners to advanced yogis, downward facing dog pose has something for everyone, but it must be done correctly. Learn the fundamentals of this pose and variations you can try to make it more challenging and for added benefits. 

About Downward Dog Pose

Adho Mukha Svanasana—downward dog or downward facing dog—is a foundational asana, or yoga pose. The asanas make up just one part of yoga but are fundamental to how most modern westerners practice. 

Moving through and holding the poses while focusing on the breath connects the mind and body. Practicing yoga poses can improve aspects of physical health, like flexibility and strength, while also improving mental focus and clarity. 

Downward dog is used commonly in popular yoga sequences. If you have taken any yoga class at all, you have probably done it. Downward dog is easy enough to use with beginners but has enough benefits and is so fundamental to other poses that advanced practitioners use it regularly too. 

Downward dog can be a useful pose and stretch by itself. Practitioners also use it as a transition between poses and as a resting pose during a difficult sequence. 

What Are the Benefits of Downward Dog? 

This pose is much more than just a transition for sequences. It also has a lot of benefits in its own right: 

Downward Dog Pose Lengthens the Spine 

The gravity of the day compresses the spine, and our modern lifestyle adds to it. Sitting at a desk, hunching your shoulders over a phone or monitor all contribute to a compressed spine that can be uncomfortable. A minute or two in downward dog stretches it out again.  

It Provides a Full-Body Stretch

The spine stretch you get with downward dog feels great, but add to that a stretch across your back, down your arms, through the glutes, and down the hamstring muscles and calf muscles. It hits nearly everything. 

Strengthen Your Arms and Shoulders 

This is a particularly useful pose for building upper body strength, although your legs do some work too. Your arms and shoulders bear the brunt of this pose. You’ll also get some improved strength in your wrists and right down to your fingers. 

It Strengthens the Core

While it doesn’t seem like your core is doing much in downward dog, it is. Studies show it strengthens the external oblique abdominals. These are the big muscles running down the sides of your torso that help hold you in this position. 

Here are some additional yoga poses to build core strength and balance. 

Improve Circulation

Downward dog is a type of inversion pose, meaning your heart is elevated over your head. Inversions are great for improving circulation throughout the body. Good circulation benefits your overall health, ensuring blood and oxygen keeps flowing to all the tissues and organs in the body. 

Try adding downward dog and these other yoga poses to the end of a workout to cool wind down. 

Downward Dog Drains Tension and Wakes You Up

This is the real reason most people love doing downward dog. Hold this pose for any amount of time, and you will begin to feel the stress melt away. The stretch releases tension in the back and neck that builds up throughout the day, especially if you work at a desk and hunched over a computer. 

The improved blood flow also loosens up the body and helps you think more clearly. It’s a great stretch to do during an afternoon slump at your desk to help you feel less tense and re-invigorated. 

How to Do Downward Dog Correctly

Downward dog seems, and in some ways is, a simple pose. Simplicity does not always mean easy, though. In terms of skill level and flexibility, downward dog is a lot easier, and therefore more accessible than more advanced poses. 

Even so, you can do it incorrectly and fail to get all the many benefits of this pose. Master it on your own and then help your clients get proper alignment with these step-by-step instructions: 

  • Start on hands and knees on a yoga mat. Position your hands just a little ahead of your shoulders and knees under your hips. 

  • Spread your fingers wide and press the edges of the hands and fingertips against the mat. Picture your hands like a suction cup. 

  • Tuck your toes under as you straighten your legs and lift your hips up. Press your heels into the ground as much as your flexibility allows. 

  • Your body should look like an upside down V with arms, back, and legs straight, hips up high, and head hanging between your arms. 

  • Keep the feet at shoulder-width with toes pointed forward. 

  • In this position focus on engaging your quads to take some pressure off the arms. Also focus on rotating the upper arms outward to open up the chest and pulling your shoulders down, away from your neck. 

Variations and Modifications

You can modify downward dog for beginners or anyone with limitations. You can also vary it for more advanced clients needing an additional challenge. 

Modifications for Beginners

An easy start to downward dog is sometimes called puppy pose. Keep the knees on the mat while lifting the hips and stretching the arms and spine. This is a great restful pose for any skill level. 

Beginners can start practicing the full pose with hands on a chair, bench, or other low and stable surface. This makes it a little easier on the shoulders and arms for anyone who needs to build some strength to be able to do the full pose. 

It is also perfectly acceptable to bend at the knees a little. Beginners—or anyone with very tight hamstrings or tight calves—might struggle to fully lengthen the legs. More important is lengthening the spine and arms. Let the knees bend as you build flexibility. 

Once clients have mastered the traditional downward dog, they can try more difficult variations: 

  • Single leg downward dog. In standard pose, lift one leg off the floor. Try to keep the hips aligned and lift the leg up until it makes a straight line with the spine and arms. This works each leg a little harder. 

  • Single arm downward dog. Achieve the same effect for upper body strength by doing the pose on one arm at a time. Stretch one arm out in front of you as you get into the standard pose. 

  • Scorpion kick. This tough move further lengthens the spine, works the abs, and opens the hip flexors. From single leg downward dog, bend the knee of the lifted leg and rotate the hip outward, opening it up.  

Whether you are a yoga teacher or not, you can master individual poses and help your clients benefit from them. Downward dog is a great place to start. 

Add yoga instruction and coaching to your service list with the ISSA’s Certified Yoga Instructor course. Learn at your own pace and work toward yoga certification.

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Ni, M., Mooney, K., Harriell, K., Balachandran, A., & Signorile, J. (2014). Core muscle function during specific yoga poses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22(2), 235–243. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2014.01.007 

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