Welcome to the ultimate guide to mastering downward dog, the iconic yoga pose that strengthens the entire body and helps calm the mind. Whether you’re new to yoga or want to perfect your technique, this step-by-step guide will walk you through the proper execution, modifications, and variations to achieve the perfect downward-facing dog.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the effects of downward dog, from stretching and strengthening muscles to improving posture and releasing tension.
Here, you’ll learn to find proper alignment, target the right muscles, and avoid common mistakes. Whether you have tight hamstrings or sore wrists, we’ll give you tips and modifications tailored to your needs.
From beginners to advanced yogis, this guide is for anyone who wants to deepen their practice and understand the intricacies of downward dog.
What Is Downward Dog?
When you think of yoga, you probably have the image of a downward-facing dog. Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most popular yoga poses, perhaps even the most famous.
The dog looking down reflects the entirety of yoga practice in a single pose: it requires strength and flexibility, teaches to appreciate precise alignment, and gives qualities such as stability, presence, and spaciousness that can be cultivated outside of yoga class.
Although it is a popular posture, it is not simple and involves many details to pay attention to. It can be both a strengthening pose and a resting pose. In addition, it often serves as a transitional pose in a yoga flow and is also incorporated into sun salutations.
The down dog has many physical and energetic benefits: The pose helps strengthen the muscles around the center of the body, as well as stretching and lengthening the entire back of the body.
Energetically, it has an activating effect and counteracts fatigue. At the same time, the deep breathing in the posture calms the mind. The position is grounding as the hands and feet contact the floor.
Downward-facing dog is often considered strenuous at first, as some people’s backs of the legs are shortened, and the weight is therefore shifted too much onto the arms.
Is the Downward Dog Suitable for Beginners?
The posture is suitable for beginners but can be challenging.
It requires precise alignment and strength in the wrists, shoulders, and core. However, whether you are doing yoga for the first time or have previous experience, the benefits of the downward dog are genuinely limitless.
Which Yoga Classes Practice Downward Dog?
Exercises to stretch the back of the legs are suitable as preparation, such as the standing forward bend Uttanasana.
The low lunge, from which you can come directly into the downward-facing dog.
Or an exercise to mobilize the spine, such as the quadruped stand in cat-cow.
What Are the Benefits of Downward Dog?
Downward dog stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, and arches of the feet and hands while strengthening the arms and legs.
In particular, people who work long hours in a sedentary position or have cardiovascular problems can benefit from the following effects of downward-facing dog:
1. Relieves Back Pain
Down dog reduced functional disability, pain intensity, and depression in adults suffering from chronic low back pain in one study.
It also showed that the yogis took fewer pain medications than the control group (Williams et al. 20091).
2. Strengthens Muscles
Researchers have developed specific training programs by selecting yoga poses that target particular trunk muscles to counteract lower back pain and loss of power.
Among these, Adho Mukha Svanasana is particularly effective for strengthening the external oblique abdominal muscle (Ni et al. 20142).
The pose is one of the best exercises to strengthen your core, a group of trunk and hip muscles surrounding the spine, abdominal organs, and hips (Rathore et al. 20173).
3. Improves Posture
In a world dominated by office work and computers, posture problems are commonplace.
According to researchers, the practice of specific asanas, such as the downward dog, is an effective tool for the prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders associated with the following conditions (Gandolfi et al. 20234):
- Poor posture
- Forward head
- Chronic neck tension (and associated headaches)
- Depressed chest
- Compressive disorders on wrists and shoulders as carpal tunnel
- Impingement syndromes
- Outlet syndrome
- Subacromial pain syndrome
- Spinal disc pathologies
4. Promotes Flexibility and Balance
A 10-week yoga practice that included the downward dog improved agility, balance, and body measurements in male college athletes and increased their athletic performance (Polsgrove et al. 20165).
Furthermore, older people can also improve their flexibility with this yoga posture.
A yoga program developed for a study included poses in standing, sitting, and lying down, such as the down dog. The practice improved mobility, postural control, and gait speed in older people (Kelley et al. 20146).
5. Supports Breast Cancer Patients
About one-third of breast cancer survivors continue to suffer from persistent fatigue months or years after the successful completion of treatment.
In a clinical trial, a 12-week yoga program that used a variation of downward dog with a chair measurably reduced these fatigue symptoms (Bower et al. 20117).
Another study by the same researcher showed positive changes in stress, endurance, fatigue, and depressive symptoms in breast cancer patients (Bower et al. 20128).
Lymphedema is a common complication that occurs with breast cancer treatment. Swelling of the arms and fatigue are its primary symptoms.
Researchers showed that Adho Mukha Svanasana can be effective against it. Moreover, it reduces pain, depression, and fatigue in breast cancer patients.
Thus, the yoga intervention could also improve the quality of life and mood (Saraswathi et al. 20219).
6. Reduces Blood Pressure and Body Weight
Yoga helps with weight loss. A recent study supports this.
In this study, 64 participants realized a significant decrease in body mass index systolic and diastolic blood pressure through yoga practice.
The downward dog was the most effective yoga pose for lowering blood pressure. Forward bends are generally the best yoga poses for people with hypertension (Chauhan et al. 201710).
7. Improves Blood Lipids and Inflammation
In a Swedish study, 38 women and 6 men participated in an intensive 6-week yoga program that included several variations of downward-facing dog.
After completion, researchers found positive effects on blood lipids and an anti-inflammatory effect in participants (Papp et al. 201611).
How to Do Downward Dog for Beginners
- Begin in a quadruped stance with hips over knees and shoulders over wrists.
- Press into the outer edges of the palm, the base of the fingers, and the fingertips. The middle finger points forward and the fingers are spread evenly (Hasta Bandha).
- Stand on the tips of your toes and draw your belly button toward your spine.
- Release your knees from the mat and push up through your hands, pushing your pelvis far back until the position looks like an inverted V from the side.
- Keep your knees bent first to make your spine as long as possible. The heels sink towards the mat, but you do not have to touch it. You can also alternate stepping with your heels toward the floor as you do this and slowly loll into the position.
- Extend out from the arms, keeping the elbows slightly bent. Forearms rotate toward each other.
- The head is in line with the spine, so the ears are between the upper arms. The gaze goes straight down onto the mat.
- Hold the position for five deep breaths.
- To come out of the posture, bring the knees back to the floor and go into the child’s pose, or transition into a low lunge by placing one foot between your hands.
- Heels not down: A common mistake, especially among beginners, is not pushing the heels toward the floor. They don’t have to touch the ground, but the weight should be evenly distributed between the ball of the foot and the heels.
- Incorrect spacing: Also, pay attention to the distance between your feet. They should not be too far apart (close to the edge of the mat) or too close together. For correct execution, the feet are hip-width open, the outer edges of the feet parallel to the edge of the yoga mat. The arms should not be too close together but should be shoulder-width apart.
- Inwards rotation of upper arms: People often rotate the upper arms inwards. However, they should have a slight outwards rotation to create more space between the shoulder blades.
- Round back: When your tailbone tilts backward (e.g., with legs extended), the entire pelvis tilts backward, and the back rounds out. The tailbone and ischial tuberosity (sit bones) should be the highest point and aligned upward, not backward, to create length in the spine.
- Banana back: If you are very mobile (hyperflexible), try not to let the rib cage sink towards the floor so that no hollow back is created in the spine (also known as banana back). Pull the ribs in to keep the back flat.
- Overextend elbows: Never fully extend the elbows to protect the joints.
- Tense or hanging neck: Keep the neck relaxed and in a natural extension of the spine so that your ears are between your upper arms. Some people tend to look too far back between their feet, causing their heads to hang. Keep your gaze straight down.
Expert Tips to Improve
- The primary goal is a spinal extension. When you notice that your back is round, bend your knees slightly (significantly if you have shortened legs)
- The heels pull towards the floor but do not have to touch it.
- Determine the correct distance between your feet and hands by standing in front of them in a plank position. For optimal spacing, the shoulders should be just above the wrists.
- Rotate the biceps slightly outward so that the elbows point backward. The forearms rotate somewhat towards each other. By turning your arms, you create more space between your shoulder blades.
- Lower your chest towards the floor (unless you are hyperflexed).
- If you have very tight shoulders, place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.
Variations and Modifications
- Walking dog: As a preparation or dynamic variation, you can alternately lower your heels to the floor, bending one leg and extending the other. The balls of the feet remain on the ground at all times.
- Three-legged dog (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Shvanasana): Try the three-legged dog variation by lifting one leg and extending it backward. Keep the hips and shoulders aligned parallel to the front. Hold four breaths, then bring the leg back to the floor and repeat on the other side.
- Down dog against a wall: Support yourself against the wall with your hands shoulder distance apart, and walk your feet back until your hips form a 90-degree angle. Hands are either directly opposite the hips or slightly higher on the wall. The gaze goes straight down to the floor.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The downward dog is one of the most famous yoga poses that strengthens the body and stretches the back of the body in equal measure. The pose relieves back pain, counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting, improves posture, and combats fatigue.
When practicing the posture by itself, hold it for 4-8 breaths. You only hold it for one breath as a transitional posture in a vinyasa flow.
If your tailbone tilts too far back, your back will round. Bend your knees slightly to find length in your spine. The goal of the pose is not to get your heels to the floor but to stretch your spine.
Extend out from your arms and push your tailbone up until the posture looks like an inverted V from the side. Keep your knees slightly bent to create more length in your spine. The head is in line with the spine, so the ears are between the upper arms.
You should not do down dog if you have injuries or pain in your wrists, shoulders, neck, lower back, elevated blood pressure, or headaches. Also, people with carpal tunnel syndrome should only practice posture with caution.
The downward dog lengthens the spine and can relieve and prevent pain, especially in the lower back.
1Williams, K., Abildso, C., Steinberg, L., Doyle, E., Epstein, B., Smith, D., Hobbs, G., Gross, R., Kelley, G., & Cooper, L. (2009). Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Efficacy of Iyengar Yoga Therapy on Chronic Low Back Pain. Spine, 34(19), 2066. https://doi.org/10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181b315cc
2Ni, 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
3Rathore, M., Trivedi, S., Abraham, J., & Sinha, M. B. (2017). Anatomical Correlation of Core Muscle Activation in Different Yogic Postures. International Journal of Yoga, 10(2), 59-66. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.205515
4Gandolfi, M. G., Zamparini, F., Spinelli, A., & Prati, C. (2023). Āsana for Neck, Shoulders, and Wrists to Prevent Musculoskeletal Disorders among Dental Professionals: In-Office Yóga Protocol. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk8010026
5Polsgrove, M. J., Eggleston, B. M., & Lockyer, R. J. (2016). Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. International Journal of Yoga, 9(1), 27-34. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.171710
6Kelley, K. K., Aaron, D., Hynds, K., Machado, E., & Wolff, M. (2014). The Effects of a Therapeutic Yoga Program on Postural Control, Mobility, and Gait Speed in Community-Dwelling Older Adults. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(12), 949-954. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2014.0156
7Bower, J. E., Garet, D., & Sternlieb, B. (2011). Yoga for Persistent Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors: Results of a Pilot Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM, 2011. https://doi.org/10.1155/2011/623168
8Bower, J. E., Garet, D., Sternlieb, B., Ganz, P. A., Irwin, M. R., Olmstead, R., & Greendale, G. (2012). Yoga for persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Cancer, 118(15), 3766. https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.26702
9Saraswathi, V., Latha, S., Niraimathi, K., & Vidhubala, E. (2021). Managing Lymphedema, Increasing Range of Motion, and Quality of Life through Yoga Therapy among Breast Cancer Survivors: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Yoga, 14(1), 3-17. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_73_19
10Chauhan, A., Semwal, D. K., Mishra, S. P., & Semwal, R. B. (2017). Yoga Practice Improves the Body Mass Index and Blood Pressure: A Randomized Controlled Trial. International Journal of Yoga, 10(2), 103-106. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_46_16
11Papp, M. E., Lindfors, P., Nygren-Bonnier, M., Gullstrand, L., & Wändell, P. E. (2015). Effects of High-Intensity Hatha Yoga on Cardiovascular Fitness, Adipocytokines, and Apolipoproteins in Healthy Students: A Randomized Controlled Study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 22(1), 81-87. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2015.0082
Stephan is a writer and a true man of science, holding multiple diplomas and master's degrees in different research areas. His greatest passion is closing the gap between the conventional perception of health and the latest scientific evidence – always following the data.