Downward Facing Dog 101

Downward Facing Dog (also known as adho-mukha svanasana) is probably one of the most famous yoga poses in Western culture. This standing pose is a great strength builder for shoulder muscles, abdominals, spinal erectors, hamstrings and ankle muscles when used strategically. This pose is also a slight inversion because students are technically somewhat upside down.

Downward facing dog involves the mechanical relationships between shoulders, trunk, hips and knees. The relationships of the students’ joint structure, lever lengths, and current neuromuscular control are some of the factors that dictate the outcome of the pose. As students grow in their practice they should be working to increase their strength. This is practiced through careful monitoring of their daily ability and constant attention to the various modifications that they might need along the way.

The individual student’s goal of this pose is much deeper than achieving a specific pre-determined position. Progress should not measured by changes in joint range. Poses are an exercise in control and self-study; the real learning that the student may be experiencing may not even be visible!

Before beginning downward facing dog, students should evaluate their range of motion in the involved joints. Take a close look at shoulders, hips, trunk, knees, and ankle mobility in a bilateral comparison. One method for evaluating these these joints is to sit on the floor in dandasana, or staff pose, with hands and feet placed on the floor. In a seated pose, we see the relationship of the ankle, knee, hip, and trunk without having to turn upside down.

Range of motion is different every single day. Students should check in with themselves before asking their body to enter an inverted pose like Downward Dog. This is a great practice that leads to ongoing self study and self-acceptance, leading to contentment / santosa. Evaluation is a good warm up to a challenging yoga practice. Taking a moment to perform personal evaluation steps also serves as great way to start a vinyasa style flow class. This particular pose can also be used as a progressive therapeutic posture for a specific goal for the individual practitioner or group class.

upright trunk extension with hip flexion and knee extension

photo by Megan Resch

If sitting on the floor is already a challenge, students will certainly need modifications to the traditional downward facing dog pose. Instruct students to sit on a blanket, bolster or block to decrease the amount of hip flexion or to enable knee extension. Except for the position of the shoulders and the body’s relationship to the force of gravity, Downward Dog is the same pose at the hip as Staff pose. Not to mention the added challenges of the influence of ground forces and friction!

Here, a modification may involve increased knee and hip flexion, in order to extend the trunk and decrease stress on the hip. These changes may help a student working towards a goal of a “straightened” (extended) trunk position and full knee extension if his or her structure allows.

modified downward facing dog

photo by Megan Resch

The common goal of downward dog pose is achieving a 90 degree angle at the hip. Many students think that this can be achieved by keeping hip muscles stretched out and flexible. In reality, the ability to attain this position is a combination of joint structure and muscle participation / strength. If your student can’t achieve 90 degrees of flexion at the hip, then the traditional posture of downward dog will need to be modified.

There are many reasons why individuals have varied expressions of downward dog:

  • limited trunk extension
  • the geographical position of the hip joint anatomically
  • hip flexor muscles are unable to generate enough tension to achieve the desired position
  • history of previous injury
  • the influence of the shoulder on the trunk and pelvic position

In these cases, you can help students be more comfortable in the pose by giving cues to flex at the knees to allow for hip flexion will decrease tension in muscles that cross the hip and knee.

Traditional, Downward Facing Dog*:

Downward Facing Dog Skeleton

(The common goal of yoga is to be at the end of the available range for each joint position listed.)

  • Dorsiflex at the ankle
  • Full extension of the knees
  • Flexion of the hips
  • Extension of the wrist with palmar aspect of hands against the ground. (Pronation)
  • Trunk extension with engagement from the trunk flexor muscles
  • Flexion / Upward rotation of the Shoulders
  • Extension at the elbows

Example Modifications for Downward-Facing Dog:

  1. Flexing at the knee to lower stress to the hip
  2. Limiting shoulder flexion by shifting the body forward for upper extremity issues
  3. Place an object under wrist or foot/ heel to accommodate current available joint ranges.
  4. Using a prop such as a yoga block inside upper thigh to allow for increased muscular participation in hip adduction and internal rotation

Challenging Variations for Downward-Facing Dog:

  • Lift leg up (hip extension)(3 Legged Dog)
  • Externally rotate the extended hip
  • Adding plantar flexion at the ankle joint
  • Varying overall distance from foot to hand.
  • Placing hands and feet on a frictionless surface.

You can learn more about why and when you should modify specific yoga poses on our blog. If you’re interested in learning more about how yoga works with the human body or are interested in understanding more about biomechanics and how they relate strength and range of motion, consider joining us for our Teacher Training Program. We offer RYS 200 Level and RYS 300 Level courses. Check the Events Calendar for more information about elective courses and full certification programs.