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How to Do a Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose

Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on August 05, 2022

Downward-facing dog is a central pose in many different yoga poses, especially sun salutations. Its Sanskrit name is Adho mukha shwanasana, which means downward face posture. It doesn't require any special equipment and can be done anywhere you have some room to stretch out. Downward-facing dog is a strengthening and stretching exercise. It can be adapted for any fitness level, so you can include it in your yoga routine whether you're a beginner or an expert.  

What Is a Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose?

Downward-facing dog is the foundational yoga pose for all other arm balance postures. It also provides stretching and strengthening benefits on its own. This pose involves your entire body since you're balanced on your hands and feet. In the more advanced version of downward-facing dog, your heels are on the floor. This position provides a deep stretch in your arms and hamstrings.  

Doing the downward-facing dog pose regularly can help relieve shoulder and neck pain by stretching tight shoulder and chest muscles that you can get when you spend a lot of time in a hunched posture. Over time, you can improve your posture and increase your flexibility by incorporating downward-facing dog into your exercise routine. 

What Muscles Does a Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose Work?

Downward-facing dog involves your entire body, so it works many different muscles. It increases the flexibility in your latissimus dorsi muscles, which are the side body muscles that run from your lower spine up to your arms, as well as the pectoralis minor (upper chest muscle), rhomboids (shoulder muscles), posterior deltoids (rear shoulder muscles), and teres major (shoulder joint muscle). 

Since you also use your lower body in downward-facing dog, it works your hip flexors, calf muscles, Achilles tendons, and feet. Downward-facing dog helps strengthen your entire body.  

How to Do a Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose

To properly perform a downward-facing dog yoga pose, follow these step-by-step instructions: 

  • Get on your yoga mat on your hands and knees. Your knees should be directly under your hips, and your hands should be under your shoulders. 
  • As you exhale, straighten your legs to lift your hips into an upside-down V-shape. Your legs should be as straight as comfortably possible. 
  • Press your hands into your mat and draw your shoulder blades inward as you take a deep breath. Your feet should be parallel and hip distance apart. 
  • Relax your head to release the tension in your neck. Keep your neck and spine elongated and your shoulders broad. 
  • Your legs should be as straight as possible, and your heels should be as close to the ground as possible.
  • Keep your spine straight, even if you need to bend your knees some. 
  • Take several full, deep breaths while you hold the posture. 
  • When you're ready to exit the pose, bend each knee to return to your hands and knees. 

Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose Adaptations

Downward-facing dog can be modified to make it easier or harder: 

  • If your hamstrings or calves are tight, start with bent knees. This can take some of the stress off of your back and help prevent back pain. You can alternate straightening your legs to help stretch your hamstrings. 
  • If you want a deeper stretch, lift your heels slightly and then pull your pubic bone up. Resettle your feet, heels first, while pulling your knees toward your chest as much as possible. 
  • Place a resistance band above your elbows to add an extra upper body workout. As you hold the pose, push against the resistance band by expanding your shoulder blades. 

Benefits of Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose

A regular yoga practice that includes downward-facing dog has many health benefits, including: 

  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced anxiety 
  • Improved mood
  • Improved sense of well-being
  • Improved balance and flexibility
  • Improved strength
  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and high blood pressure
  • Management of low back and neck pain

The downward-facing dog yoga pose specifically provides the following benefits: 

  • Stretches your spine
  • Increases your chest capacity by stretching your chest muscles 
  • Increases upper body strength, particularly in your upper arms and shoulders 
  • Increases total body strength, including hip flexors and calf muscles 
  • Increases blood circulation in your brain 
  • Promotes calmness and relieves anxiety 
  • Relieves headache and stress
  • Helps with insomnia 

Downward-Facing Dog Yoga Pose Mistakes to Avoid

Although downward-facing dog is a great pose for relieving back pain, there are some mistakes that can lead to increased back pain with downward-facing dog. Be careful to avoid hyperextending your joints. Keep your elbows in line by pressing your inner upper arms away from each other. You should also make sure your neck and head are in line with your spine to avoid neck strain.

Another common mistake in downward-facing dog is tucking in your buttocks while your legs are straight. This causes your back to take on an unnatural shape and increases the stress on your hamstrings. You're at risk of pulling a muscle in this position. 

To avoid these mistakes, pay attention to the following details while you're doing downward-facing dog. 

  • Pay attention to the space between your hands and feet. If they feel too close together, move your feet back some. 
  • Bend your knees instead of tucking in your buttocks if you need more room to tilt your hips forward. 
  • Concentrate on pulling your chest toward your hamstrings to avoid rounding your spine. 

If you have any of the following risk factors, you should talk with your doctor before you do downward-facing dog yoga pose: 

  • Uncontrolled blood pressure
  • Herniated disk
  • Risk of blood clots
  • Eye conditions like glaucoma 
  • Pregnancy, although yoga is generally safe during pregnancy
  • Severe balance problems
  • Severe osteoporosis 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

The Art of Living: "Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Shwanasana)."

Mayo Clinic: "Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity."

Yoga Alignment Guide: "Adho Mukha Svanasana - Downward Facing Dog Pose."

Yoga Journal: "Downward-Facing Dog."

U.S. Masters Swimming: "Three Yoga Poses to Relieve Discomfort in Your Neck and Shoulders."

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