Downward Dog. Downward Facing Dog. Down Dog. Adho Mukha Svanasana. However you choose to say it, one thing is for certain: Downward Dog pose is at the core of our yoga practice and it’s one of the most important postures to embrace. And for a good reason too.
Probably one of the most iconic yoga poses you’ll ever come across, particularly in the West, Downward Facing Dog is used throughout our yoga practice by complete beginners and advanced yogis alike. It’s such an accessible pose that is available to just about anyone regardless of age or ability and it welcomes you with open arms, without judgment and with complete and total serenity.
At it’s core, Downward Dog is as much a transitional pose as it is a muscle-strengthening pose. It can help bridge the gap between postures such as Plank pose and Cobra (Bhujangasana) or Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) in a single smooth and elegant movement while also stretching and strengthening key muscles in the arms, back and legs. Additionally, Downward Dog is most often used during sun salutations at the beginning of practice as well as in between postures to rest and catch your breath after vigorous or challenging poses, which is why you may hear it referred to as a restful and relaxing pose from time to time.
There are a myriad of benefits and tips to help you get even more excited about practicing Downward Dog and those listed below are just a few of them!
Benefits of Downward Facing Dog Pose:
- Builds amazing upper body strength. Also creates stronger hands, wrists, shoulders, hamstrings and calves
- Incredibly useful for improving back pain by stretching and strengthening the entire back, particularly the lower back
- Helps strengthen abdominal muscles when you engage your core (pulling your navel into your spine) which ultimately helps support your spine, as above
- Increased oxygen and blood flow to the brain! You may not realise this but Downward Dog is an inversion and as such the head is lower than the heart which helps send all sorts of lovely goodness to your grey matter
- Helps increase lean muscle mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat and by building more lean muscle throughout your body you’re helping to create a longer, leaner you. (For additional tips & yoga poses for weight loss check out my previous blog post on the topic)
- Can decrease anxiety by stretching the neck and cervical spine, allowing your head to relax between your shoulders
- Downward Dog is invigorating and revitalizing and also helps calm and refresh the mind due to increased oxygen and circulation throughout your entire body
- Helps increase bone density, which is particularly good for aging women as it can help prevent or delay the onset of osteoporosis
- Helps improve digestion when you engage your core as there is a bit of abdominal compression going on, particularly in the liver, spleen and kidneys
- Helps prepare you for arm balances and more advanced inversions by building strength in hands, wrists and arms
Tips for Improving Your Downward Facing Dog Posture:
- Each time you get into your Downward Dog pose, pay attention to your alignment as though it’s your first time (even if it isn’t). In it’s final position your body should resemble an inverted ‘V’ rather than a tabletop so bear this in mind as you get into position.
- Hands should be shoulder distance apart, palms are facing down, fingers spread wide and use your middle finger as a guide as it should be pointing straight forward. Use all four corners of your palm as you plant them firmly on your mat. Your hands (and your feet) will form the all-important foundation for this posture so it’s crucial you are fully aware of your body’s alignment from the moment you begin.
- Feet should be hip distance apart, spreading your toes and using the ball of your foot to extend your heel behind you, taking it down towards the mat. If needed knees may be bent slightly to relieve pressure in tight hamstrings although if possible try to straighten them to improve the stretch.
- Arms should be actively engaged in this posture, shoulders and upper arms rotating outwards. Engage the muscles in your arms and imagine pushing the front of your mat away from you. The inner elbows should be facing up towards the sky. I once read a tip that has helped me remember this bit of advice: visualise hiding your arm pits from your neighbour
- Your head should be between your upper arms and your eyes gazing up towards your navel
- Lengthen your spine. Draw your tailbone and hips up towards the sky and then back towards your heels (this is really important!). Your heels will probably be a little off the mat, which is perfectly fine. If your heels touch the mat too easily try increasing the distance between your hands and feet
- Imagine your sternum (breast bone) getting closer to the mat with every breath
- And last but most certainly not least – BREATHE! Don’t forget to focus on slow, deep, steady inhales and exhales to create a flow of energy through the body to truly maximise the benefits of Downward Facing Dog
Photo credit for featured image showing muscles used during downward dog: The Key Muscles of Yoga by Ray Long, MD, FRCSC