Fundamental Yoga Pose 1: Downward Facing Dog

Name: Downward Dog

Sanskrit name: Adho Mukha Shvanasana

Let's talk about downward dog. It's such a common shape in the yogic world that, for many of us, it serves as a symbol of the practice. But don't let its ubiquity fool you! This essential pose is full of subtle complexities. Read on to experience the hidden depths of this posture and get the most out of your next flow.

Getting into the pose

Begin on your hands and knees with your knees under your hips and your hands just slightly in front of your shoulders. Tuck your toes under, keep your arms straight and slowly begin to straighten your legs, pushing your hips up and back so that you come into an upside down V shape. Hug the lower ribs in by engaging the abdominal muscles. Allow the pelvis to tilt so that your tailbone points up towards the sky and shift your weight back into your legs.

Move slowly as you feel out the posture. If you can straighten your legs, great! Ground down through your heels, turn the toes inward just a bit to initiate a slight internal rotation of the thigh bones and let your belly sink down towards the tops of the thighs. If your legs don't straighten all the way, that's great too! It is more important to maintain a straight spine than straight legs, so if you feel your spine rounding, bend those knees as generously as you need.

Now move your awareness up to your arms. Spread the fingers and press each knuckle firmly into the mat, placing extra pressure on the area between your index finger and thumb. Very little pressure should be placed in the center of the palm. This type of hand engagement is called Hasta Bandha or "hand lock" and is essential for protecting your wrists from chronic pain.  Rotate your arms outwards so that your elbow creases open towards the top of the mat. This should create some space between the shoulders. Relax your neck, allowing your gaze to fall between your ankles.

Take a deep breath and check in with your body. Are you scrunching your shoulders up towards your ears? Try sending your breath there to ease the tension and create more space in the neck. Is your rib cage sticking out? Pull it in by engaging your abdominal muscles. Keep your spine and neck long and as always, don't forget to breathe deeply.

Now get a little weird! Wiggle around a bit to feel out the posture.Bend one knee at a time while pressing the opposite heel into the ground (this is called "pedaling it out"), or lift both heels off the ground a few times by pointing the feet and toes. This is the time to find your version downward dog, have fun with it!

Why we do it

Down dog is a wonderful pose for stretching out the entire back bodyfrom the ankles, calves and hamstrings all the way up the spine to the shoulders. The deep upper body stretch can help improve posture by opening up muscles in the chest that tighten when we spend too much time sitting with our shoulders hunched over. 

Down dog also helps us build strength in the arms, core and the small stabilizing muscles in the feet that help prevent injury when walking and running. Because it is an inverted pose (head below the heart) it improves blood flow too. Perhaps most importantly, downward facing dog helps us to strengthen the connection between our mind and body by teaching us to maintain awareness from our feet all the way to the tips of our fingers. 

When to modify

Downward facing dog can be a tricky pose, particularly for people experiencing pain in their wrists and shoulders or tightness in the back body. Signs that it is time to try out a modified version of a pose include:

  • Pain or discomfort
  • Inability to maintain deep, even breathing
  • Inability to maintain proper form (rounding spine)


If you're experiencing wrist and shoulder pain: One of the best ways to alleviate upper body pain while in downward dog is to raise your hands up onto a block or chair. This shifts your weight back onto your feet and takes pressure off your wrists and shoulders. When in this modification, remember to keep length in the neck and spine. If needed, bend your legs to create space in the back body.

If your back is rounding: Bend those legs! It's perfectly okay to bend the knees in downward dog- it will give your body the space it needs to straighten and lengthen the spine.

If you need a rest: Child's pose is a great alternative pose for those times when you just need to take a break mid flow! This is a non weight bearing pose that will still give you a nice stretch in the shoulders and help create space in the spine.

Some more alternative poses to try out

  • Dolphin pose/ ardha pincha mayurasana
  • Puppy posture/ uttana shishosana
  • Child's pose/ balasana