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How to Make Downward Dog Easier (or Challenge Yourself)

How to Make Downward Dog Easier (or Challenge Yourself)

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Everything You Need to Know About Downward Facing Dog. How to modify for beginners or make it more challenging for seasoned yogis.

Downward Dog is one of those poses that is seemingly simple, yet many students struggle to do it.

One of the most common problems students have with Downward Dog is in the mobility of the shoulders, resulting in a downward dog that looks a lot like plank, but with significantly raised hips.    

Another common problem is with the flexibility of the calves and hamstrings, so that the heels do not reach the floor.

There are modifications that can help to alleviate these problems so that the alignment of the body is not sacrificed. 

You may think that your downward dog is fine, especially if you’ve been doing yoga for a while, but it’s worth checking out the common misalignments to make sure you are really doing it safely.

When you consider that yoga injuries on the rise in recent years, you want to avoid becoming a statistic.

On the other hand, once you have mastered it, you may be wondering how you can use the pose to challenge yourself. 

Downward dog is a great pose for both beginners and more advanced yogis if you use the right modifications (for the former) and variations (for the latter).

Basic Pose Information

Sanskrit:

Adho Mukha Svanasana

English:

Downward Facing Dog

Level:

Intermediate

 

Position:

Prone

Type:

Inversion, Forward Fold, Arm Support

Chakras

  • Crown Chakra (Sahasrara Chakra) 
  • Third Eye Chakra (Ajna Chakra)
  • Throat Chakra (Vishuddha Chakra) 
  • Heart Chakra (Anahata Chakra)
  • Solar Plexus (Manipura Chakra) 

Benefits of Downward Dog

Downward Facing Dog is a great pose for both strengthening and stretching the body. It affects the shoulders, the core (back and abs), the arms and hands, legs and feet.

  • Back: Stretches Latissimus Dorsi, helping with Kyphosis (hump).
  • Arms: Strengthens Triceps (eccentric contraction).
  • Upper Back: Strengthens Serratus Anterior which stabilize the scapula (shoulder blades).
  • Shoulders: Strengthens the Deltoid which flexes the shoulder, and Rotator Cuff which stabilizes the shoulder.
  • Legs: Strengthens the Quadriceps (concentric contraction), stretches the Gastrocnemius (calf), and stretches and strengthens the Hamstrings (eccentric contraction).
  • Feet: Strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the feet.
  • Hands: Strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the hands.

To Get into Downward Dog Pose from Plank: (no modifications)

During a flow class, sometimes downward dog is preceded by plank, here is the best way to get into it from there.

  1. Begin in plank, inhale.
  2. Exhale: keep pressing firmly into the hands and maintain the external rotation of the arms (You might have heard instructors cue this as “hiding your armpits”).
  3. Lift the hips, internally rotate the thighs, bringing the femur back into the hip socket.
  4. Press the hips toward the back of the room.
  5. Inhaling,
    • Rise up on all ten toes.
    • Draw the chest (not just your head) deeper between the shoulders.
  6. Exhaling:
    • Bring the heels down toward the mat.
    • If the heels do not touch the mat, it is okay to bend at the knees.

In sun salutations, and as part of a vinyasa, downward dog is usually preceded by cobra. Regardless of whether or not you are modifying cobra or using upward dog instead, you can use these instructions to get to downward facing dog.

Obviously, if you are in upward dog, your knees are already lifted, so just ignore that part.

  1. Begin in cobra, inhale.
  2. Exhaling:
    • Tuck the toes, lift the knees.
    • Press into the hands, straightening the arms if they were bent in cobra.
    • Externally rotate the arms (You might have heard instructors cue this as “hiding your armpits”).
    • Lift the hips, internally rotate the thighs, bringing the femur back into the hip socket.
    • Press the hips toward the back of the room.
  3. Inhaling:
    • Rise up on all ten toes.
    • Draw the chest (not just your head) deeper between the shoulders.
  4. Exhaling:
    • Bring the heels down toward the mat.
    • If the heels do not touch the mat, it is okay to bend at the knees.

mistakes to avoid in downward facing dog. avoid injury by paying attention to these alignments.

Common Misalignments and Possible Injuries

The most important thing you need in any pose in yoga is to do it safely.  

There are many injuries that can result if you have poor alignment in any pose in yoga. 

Here are a few common misalignements and what you need to do to fix them so that you can avoid injuries.

1. Misalignment: Internal rotation of the arms at the shoulder joint.

Misaligned: Internally Rotated Shoulders, notice the armpit and rounded posture of the shoulders.

Proper shoulder alignment for downward facing dog is external rotation
Aligned: Externally Rotated Shoulders, notice that the armpit is more “hidden” and that the shoulders are not rounded.

Possible Cause 1: 

Limited mobility of the shoulders causes the latissimus dorsi to contract to assist in the extension of the shoulders. People who cannot lift their arms straight up next to their ears when sitting or standing, tend to have this problem.

Possible Resulting Injury: 

Impingement of acromion process causing shoulder pain.

Adjustment/Modification:

  1. Back the chest out from between the arms, lessening the shoulder flexion.
  2. Let your back relax.

Possible Cause 2:

Limited mobility in forearm rotation.

Possible Resulting Injury: 

Overarticulation of elbows or wrists causing pain in those joints.

Adjustment/ Modification: 

  1. Try using the back of a chair as a prop
  2. This takes the majority of the weight out of the hand.

2. Misalignment: Weight in the heel of the hands

No, your browser isn’t having trouble loading a picture here. There isn’t one.

There isn’t really a good way to show what the weight in the heel of the hands looks like.  It’s more of something that you can feel, rather than see.


Possible Cause 1:

Weak or imbalanced intrinsic muscles of the hands.

Possible Resulting Injury:

Wrist pain

Adjustment/ Modification:

  1. Transfer the weight to the center of the hand (which is between the first knuckles of the middle and ring finger, not the center of the palm).
  2. Grip the mat with the fingertips, drawing the center of the palm upward.

Possible Cause 2:

Insufficient Activation of the Serratus Anterior.

Possible Resulting Injury: 

Wrist pain, shoulder pain

Adjustment/ Modification: 

  1. Adjust the hands as described above.
  2. Press more firmly into the mat, as to not allow the body to sink into the shoulders.

3. Misalignment: Sinking into the Shoulders

misalignment in downward dog: sinking into the shoulders

Misaligned: Sinking into the shoulder, notice how scrunched up the neck appears.

In properly aligned downward dog, the shoulders are fully activated

Aligned: Shoulders are fully activated, notice how the neck is elongated.

Cause:

Insufficient Activation of the Serratus Anterior.

Possible Resulting Injury: 

Wrist pain, shoulder pain

Adjustment/ Modification: 

  1. Press more firmly into the mat
  2. This lifts the body away from the shoulders

4. Misalignment: Shoulders not Extended (looks more like plank than Downward Dog)

Downward Dog misalignment: shoulders too far forward resulting in a plank-like pose

Misaligned: pitching too far forward, resulting in a plank-like downward dog.

Cause 1:

Insufficient Shoulder Flexibility

Possible Resulting Injury:

This is not likely to result in any injury at all. 

Modification/ Adjustment:

If the cause is, indeed, flexibility, then no adjustment may be needed at all and proper shoulder extension will come with time and practice.

Cause 2:

Lack of Awareness

Possible Resulting Injury:

This is not likely to result in any injury at all.

Adjustment/ Modification: 

  1. Lift up through the hips more.
  2. Focus on pressing the chest toward the thighs.
Many misalignments are caused by poor form in preparatory poses. If you do not have good form in plank, your form in downward dog will suffer.

how to modify downward dog for beginners. how to do down dog is you're not flexible.

Modifications for Downward Facing Dog

If you are a beginner, you probably don’t find downward dog to be very restful, especially if you are not very flexible. 

For you, I have 4 ways to modify the pose to make it easier on you while still reaping its benefits.

1. For Tight Hamstrings: Bend the Knees

Modification for Tight Hamstrings in Downward Facing Dog is to Bend the Knees

How to Use this Modification:

  1. Bend the knees until the upper body is able to come into proper alignment.

Purpose: 

  1. Reduces the stretch factor for the hamstrings.
  2. Reduces the stretch factor for the calves.

2. For Tight Calves: Shorten the Stance

Modification for tight calves in downward facing dog is to shorten the stance

How to Use this Modification:

  1. Walk your feet a little closer to your hands.

Purpose: 

  1. Decreases the angle of ankle dorsiflexion (angle between foot and shin). This will alleviate the stress of stretching the calves without having to bend the knees.
  2. However, it can also increase the stretch of the hamstrings.

3. To Reduce Wrist Strain: Use Blocks

Use blocks in downward facing dog to reduce wrist strain

How to Use this Modification:

  1. Place a block under each hand.

Purpose:

  1. Lifting the upper body away from the floor puts more of the weight in the feet, thus reducing the strain on the wrists.
  2. It also helps to bring the chest deeper between the arms.

4. Use a wall or chair

Using a wall to modify downward dog is great for people with really tight hamstrings, need to take pressure off the upper body, or are pregnant.

How to Use this Modification:

  1. Place your hands on the back of a chair or on a wall.
  2. Your choice how high on the wall or how tall the chair depends on how much modification you need.

Purpose:

  1. Like using blocks, this lifts the upper body away from the floor even more so. This puts significantly more of the body’s weight in the feet, thus reducing the strain on the wrists, or alleviating it completely.
  2. It also allows gravity to do more of the work in bringing the chest between the arms, allowing the arms, shoulders, and back to relax more, creating more shoulder mobility.
  3. This is also a really great prenatal yoga pose.

5 ways to advance downward dog to a challenge. Build more strength and flexibility with these variations.

Variations to Challenge Yourself in Downward Dog

If you’ve been doing yoga for a while, you may be looking for some new ways to challenge yourself. 

Here are 5 ways that you can advance your yoga practice with variations on down dog.

Three-Legged Downward Dog

This variation of down dog is very commonly used in vinyasa.  It isn’t often held, so it is often misaligned. 

misaligned 3 legged downward dog. The hip should be square to the ground, not turned out to the side

Misalignment: Externally rotated hip aka open hips. Notice the toes are pointed out to the side.

proper alignment of 3 legged downward dog: hips squared to the ground, not turned out to the side

Aligned: The hips should be squared to the mat (internally rotated hips). Notice the toes are turned pointed back.

How to Do this Variation:

  1. Lift one leg off the mat.
  2. Reach the leg as high as you can as straight as you can.
  3. Keep the hip square to the floor as in photo 1. The toes should not point out to the side as in photo 1.

Purpose:

  1. Increase the strength of the gluteus maximus, hamstrings.
  2. Stretches the quads and other hip flexors.

Balancing Downward Dog (variation 1)

challenge yourself with balancing downward dog. The first stage of this pose is just to lift one hand off the mat.

Challenge yourself with this version of down dog. Variation 1 is the first step in achieving the full balancing pose. Once you master this pose (on both sides), move onto variation 2.

How to Do this Variation:

  1. Bring the weight into one hand.
  2. Once you feel stable, lift the opposite hand off the mat.

Benefits:

  1. Increase strength of the supporting arm and shoulder.
  2. The abdominal muscles are also more active in helping you maintain balance as you keep your hips square to the floor.

Balancing Downward Dog (variation 2)

variation 2 of balancing downward dog is somewhat more challenging than variation 1.

This version of the balance pose is a combination of 3 legged dog and variation 1, making it much more challenging.

How to Do this Variation:

  1. Bring the weight into one hand.
  2. Once you feel stable, lift the opposite hand off the mat.
  3. If you feel stable here, lift the foot opposite of the raised hand off the mat.

Note: When you first try this pose, you may find that you tend more toward balancing plank. The more you practice, the better you will be able to maintain the downward dog form.

Benefits:

  1. Increase strength of the supporting arm and shoulder.
  2. The abdominal muscles are also more active in helping you maintain balance as you keep your hips square to the floor.
  3. It challenges the stability of the supporting ankle and foot.

Balancing Downward Dog (variation 3)

balancing downward dog variation 3 is the 3rd step in achieving the full expression of the pose

Variation 3 of balancing dog begins to venture into backbending land. If you don’t have a strong core and flexible back, I recommend working on those in less precarious poses before attempting this.

Safety first.

How to Do this Variation:

  1. Bring the weight into one hand.
  2. Once you feel stable, lift the opposite hand off the mat.
  3. Once stable, lift the foot opposite of the raised hand off the mat.
  4. If you feel stable with opposing foot and hand off the mat, bend the knee of the lifted leg.
  5. Reaching back with the raised hand, grasp the instep of your foot.

Benefits:

  1. Increase strength of the supporting arm and shoulder.
  2. The abdominal muscles are also more active in helping you maintain balance as you keep your hips square to the floor.
  3. It challenges the stability of the supporting ankle and foot.
  4. Increases the flexibility of the hip flexors and quads of the upper leg.
  5. Increases the flexibility of the shoulder of the reaching arm.
  6. Increases strength of the back.
  7. Increases flexibility of the back.

Balancing Downward Dog (variation 4)

balancing down dog version 4 is the full expression of the balance pose

How to Do this Variation:

  1. Bring the weight into one hand.
  2. Once you feel stable, lift the opposite hand off the mat.
  3. Once stable, lift the foot opposite of the raised hand off the mat.
  4. If you feel stable with opposing foot and hand off the mat, bend the knee of the lifted leg.
  5. Reaching back with the raised hand, grasp the instep of your foot.
  6. Press the inset of the foot into the hand.

Benefits:

  1. Increase strength of the supporting arm and shoulder.
  2. The abdominal muscles are also more active in helping you maintain balance as you keep your hips square to the floor.
  3. It challenges the stability of the supporting ankle and foot.
  4. Increases the flexibility of the hip flexors and quads of the upper leg.
  5. Increases the flexibility of the shoulder of the reaching arm.
  6. Increases strength of the back.
  7. Increases flexibility of the back.

As you can see, these are the same benefits as variation 3, however, each of these is increased in variation 4. 

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