Downward Dog 101: How to Do It and Why It Is Essential

Downward dog is interchangeably called downward-facing dog or in Sanskrit, adho muhka svanasana. Downward dog is an essential part of any yoga practice. For beginners and experts, downward dog can be a difficult pose to master. Downward dog is considered a resting pose and is simple to explain to others.

To get into downward dog, the body and floor form a triangle, with the floor as the base and the body’s hips at the high point. The pose can be achieved from a standing or seated position:

From a standing position:From a seated position:
  • Bend over and put both hands on the floor shoulder-width apart.
  • Walk out until the hands are at the top of the yoga mat.
  • The body should be positioned with the hips high in the sky, and a ninety-degree angle is between the arms and legs.
  • Hold the position for any desired amount of time. Poses should never be too uncomfortable if experiencing extreme pain, stop, and seek help if needed.
  • Reach hands out toward the front of the mat.
  • Place the hands shoulder-width apart. Knees should be on the floor and hip-width apart.
  • Once in a comfortable position, tuck feet to be on the toes
  • Push back and up using the arms and legs to form a triangular shape between the body and floor. Hips are high, head and neck are loose.

Because downward dog is an essential pose in your yoga practice, there is a lot to know about it. We’ll discuss how to do downward dog, modifications, the importance and benefits of downward dog, and yoga.

How Do You Do Downward Dog?

Most yoga is about connecting breath to movement. As you move into or out of a pose, you want to be conscious of your breath. Most people inhale when moving into downward dog and exhale when switching between poses.

Some instructors indicate how long to hold the pose by announcing how many breaths to take. This helps remind you to focus on the breath in addition to the sensations you may be feeling in the body.

Seven steps to holding downward dog:

  1. From a seated position, reach your hands in front of you, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Knees should fall on to the mat underneath the hips.
  3. Feet should be tucked, so the toes are touching the mat.
  4. From here, on an inhale, raise your hips into the sky by pushing through your toes and fingertips.
  5. As you continue to breathe, move in a way that makes you comfortable. Bend, swivel, shift your weight, and then find stillness.
  6. There should be a slight bend in the knees. Heels can be planted on or raised off the mat, depending on how open your muscles are.
  7. Hold the position, close your eyes, if you’re comfortable, and breathe.

Because there are only seven steps, there is a lot of room to make the pose yours. If you are struggling or uncomfortable in downward dog, you may want to consider implementing a modification.

Modifications to Downward Dog

Modifications are common among yogis as not every pose can be achieved right from the beginning of your yoga journey. Many poses take time to master because the body and muscles are adapting to new stretched.

Each pose in yoga has modifications for all bodies to easily and safely achieve the poses. Downward dog is no exception; there are a few modifications you can consider.

Consider modifying downward dog if you have:

  • Tight shoulders: Use yoga blocks change the angle and reduce pressure on the shoulders
  • Tight hamstrings: Bend your knees; your heels do not have to be on the floor
  • Wrists hurting: Spread your fingers wide and press through your fingertips; additionally, turn wrists out forty-five degrees

Other possibilities with downward dog modifications:

  • Need more space: Try all three above techniques together; practice moving your hips forward and backward, bending and stretching your legs until you find a comfortable position
  • Want a challenge: Add a resistance band or strap around your arms and press through your heels

Do not be discouraged for needing a modification. It is very common to make modifications, even for the experts. Your yoga journey is yours and yours alone. Not every day is the same. And the best part of yoga is that you can make each pose your own.

There is no right or wrong way to do yoga. Showing up on your mat, taking time for yourself, and breathing are just as important, if not more important than holding a pose.

Reasons to Avoid Downward Dog

As with any new exercise o workout regimen, you should consult your doctor. This way, you can discuss concerns and potential complications.

Avoid downward dog if:

  • You are pregnant (or consult your doctor first)
  • You are injured or recovering from an injury
  • Something feels off

You know your body best. What feels good one day may feel very different another day, and that is alright. That’s part of yoga. You begin to recognize what your body needs for a stretch and is not serving you at that moment.

If downward dog is not in your practice at this moment due to restrictions, similar poses can be incorporated instead. There is dolphin pose, sometimes called puppy pose, which relieves the stress on your shoulders and arms by distributing your weight into the forearms.

And in any yoga practice, you can move into child’s pose at any time. If downward dog is not in your practice, trying holding child’s pose with the focus on the breath and releasing tension from your muscles.

How to Improve Your Downward Dog

When your practicing at home, it can be difficult to know if you’re doing the pose correctly. However, “correct” is not the ultimate goal of yoga.

You want to do what feels good and makes you happy. If that means you skip downward dog in your practice one day, that’s your prerogative. That being said, many yogis set their intentions toward reaching the perfect pose, so there a few tips to improving your downward dog.

Ways to improve your downward dog:

  • Ask a yoga instructor for adjustments next time you’re in class – They may see something you’re not and help you shift into a comfortable position
  • Practice in front of a mirror – Especially if you’re at home, seeing your pose and not just feeling it may provide insight to making adjustments
  • Focus on stretching and lengthening your hamstrings – The key to getting your heels on the floor is open, loose hamstrings, over time you’ll lengthen these muscles, and during practice, your heels will plant with you even knowing
  • Keep a consistent practice – Doing yoga on a regular basis keeps your muscles loose and allows you to notice changes over time

Benefits of Downward Dog

Among the many benefits yoga provides, downward dog has its own unique benefits. Besides the focus on your breath and body, there are four main benefits of yoga.

Benefits of a yoga practice:

  1. Stretching – Your muscles lengthen and strengthen during every practice
  2. Relaxation – Deep breathing, calming sounds, restorative poses and practices all contribute to relaxing your body and mind
  3. Stability From strengthening your muscles, you will become more connected with the earth
  4. Balance – Yoga allows you to find a sense of balance both physically by activating your core and mentally by clearing the mind

Yoga is a practice that connects your mind and body, making you more in tune with what you need from your body and what your body needs from you.

Downward dog is an essential pose to check in with the body and notice how you feel in the moment. There are many benefits to downward dog on its own. Hold this pose once a day or a couple of times a week, and you will notice these benefits almost immediately.

Benefits of downward dog:

  • Reduces stress – This pose is great for checking in with the body; How do you feel? What is working today? What’s not?
  • Strengthens muscles – Since your arms and legs are holding you up in the pose, just by holding the pose your muscles are working
  • Increases circulation Because your head is below your heart in the pose, it increases blood flow to the front body
  • Diminishes body aches, pains and ailments – Digestion, headaches and back pain can be among some of the ailments that are remedied

(Source: Down Dog Yoga)

Other Poses in Yoga to Explore

Becoming familiar with the terminology can be daunting. It takes time to learn new words and phrases. Other than downward dog, there are a few common poses. These poses are most likely to show up in a yoga flow along with downward dog.

Mountain Pose

Stand tall with your back straight and feet planted. Stretch your toes out and have your hands by your sides, palms facing forward. Close your eyes and imagine energy radiating out of your hands into the earth and up from the earth through your feet, grounding you in mountain pose.

Forward Fold

From mountain pose, bend forward until your head is towards the mat. Hands can be on the floor or wrapped around your legs. Bend at the knees, if you need more space, or would like a softer stretch.

“Ragdoll”

  • This begins as a forward fold
  • Instead of planting your hands on the mat, hold on to your elbows
  • Sway side to sway and nod your head ‘yes’ and ‘no’
  • Release tension and move in ways that feel nourishing

Halfway lift

  • Another pose that starts from forward fold
  • Lift your gaze to out in front of your mat
  • Inhale
  • Rise up halfway and bring your shoulder blades together
  • Place hands on shins or thighs
  • Exhale into forward fold

Child’s Pose

Another staple among yoga practices, child’s pose is a resting pose, just like downward dog. At any time in a yoga flow, you can take child’s pose to catch your breath and take a moment of rest.

For child’s pose:

  • Place your knees mat distance apart
  • Send your hips toward the back of your mat to rest on your feet
  • Your stomach will come to rest between your thighs
  • Forehead to the ground, or
  • Place a block under your forehead to bring the floor up to you
  • Arms are active and outstretched in front of you

Tabletop Position

Tabletop position is a great place to start your yoga practice. Many variations allow you to activate the breath and turn on the wrists. Hips and spine also warm up as you shift and move in this position.

To make your way to tabletop position:

  • Place hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart
  • Keep your shins and top of your feet flat on the mat
  • Spread your fingers wide and shift in circular motions over the wrists to warm up
  • Come to stillness when you are ready

Cat-Cow Pose

  • A movement that starts from tabletop position
  • Feel free to close your eyes
  • On an inhale, arch your spine
  • Tuck your chin to your chest
  • On the exhale, drop your stomach
  • Look or face toward the sky
  • Remember to move with your breath
  • Repeat as many times as you want

What’s the Best Way to Learn Downward Dog and Other Poses?

There are many ways to learn yoga and everyone’s journey to the mat is going to be different. Do your research and find what works best for you.

Learn yoga by:

  • Reading
  • Watching videos
  • Taking classes

These three ways are the most common ways to learn yoga and begin your yoga practice.

Reading about Yoga

There are so many printed and digital resources on yoga. Because yoga is such an old practice, there is a lot of historical information available. This is a great learning tool if you understand best by reading.

Where to read about yoga:

  • Online – From blogs to health sites, yoga has become a sensation, so there are a lot of resources online
  • In print – Books on yoga are very common; many have step-by-step descriptions with pictures of poses; these very often weave in the history and explain the importance of each pose
  • Check out your local library – Most libraries have endless resources and there may be an in-house expert that can point you toward the best reading options

Reading is a great way to understand the “why” behind yoga practices and postures. It also familiarizes you with the history and origins of yoga, which is vital to being a yogi.

Yoga Videos

If you want to start your yoga journey from the comfort of your own home, online yoga videos may be for you. The upside to this option is you can find many resources for free.

Where to find yoga videos:

  • YouTube – Established instructors have free videos available for all levels and class lengths
  • Instagram – With the advent of IGTV live and recorded yoga flows are available for free from all different types of gyms, studios and trainers
  • TikTok – This short format platform expresses tips, tricks and explanations you may not find in a longer video

In addition to all the free videos out there, you can purchase yoga DVDs or even audio CDs. There are also many fitness apps that have yoga flows for you to try out. If you are a visual learner this is a great option for you!

Another great reason to use online videos is that you see diverse instructors. Many times, yoga studios are filled with slim, white women, which is just fine for some. But everyone does yoga! Online you can seek out an instructor that looks like you.

Yoga Classes

These are great because instructors can help adjust your poses and talk you through difficult movements. It is easier to make adjustments in person than over a screen.

If you like exercise classes, yoga classes may be for you:

  • Ask at your local gym – Gyms can also offer hybrid yoga classes that incorporate Pilates or other workouts into the practice for a dynamic workout
  • Seek out a yoga studio – Trained instructors with all the equipment you need
  • Check out your community center – A lot of places offer free classes for the community

Yoga classes are the best place to learn. A live instructor can provide individualized guidance and support if a pose is uncomfortable or difficult.

Yoga classes can be very intimidating. Don’t let that stop you from going! Instructors are prepared for all skill levels, and any flow can be modified to fit your needs. If you need a modification, take the modification. That being said, some classes are geared toward practiced yogis; if you are concerned, talk with the instructor before signing up.

Types of Yoga that Use Downward Dog

There are many different types of yoga. Finding the style you like best will be important to create a practice you want to revisit on a regular basis. Once you become more comfortable with your practice, you may even want to incorporate different styles together.

Vinyasa yoga’s key elements:

  • Focuses on movement and breath
  • Very athletic
  • Utilizes yoga flows – a series of poses done in quick succession
  • Level of difficulty: Intermediate to Expert

Yin yoga broken down:

  • Great for new yogis
  • Mediative and relaxed practice
  • Slow pace
  • Holds poses for long periods of time
  • Focus on breath
  • Level of difficulty: Beginner

Bikram yoga’s advantages:

  • Also known as hot yoga
  • High temperature and high humidity room
  • Usually practice involves 26 poses, performed twice
  • Focus on alignment and posture
  • Level of difficulty: Intermediate to Expert

Restorative yoga as your practice:

  • Uses blankets, bolsters, and pillows
  • Focuses on rest and relaxation
  • Allows for deep restorative poses because of props
  • Level of difficulty: Beginner

Ashtanga yoga run down:

  • Utilizes yoga flows
  • Yogis are expected to know the flows
  • Usually a series of sun salutations followed by other poses
  • Level of difficulty: Expert

Hatha yoga’s perks:

  • Great for beginners
  • Slow pacing
  • Movements are paced with breath
  • Level of difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate

Beyond the six types of yoga mentioned in this post, there are many more specialized practices. These six are among the most common. You’ll easily find classes in these six styles online or at the gym.

(Source: Types of Yoga)

What Type of Yoga is Right for You?

Depending on your goals for your yoga practice, each class can offer you something different. Whether you want a tough workout or a relaxing practice, yoga has something for everyone.

The best beginner practices:

  • Hatha
  • Restorative
  • Yin

The best for a full body workout:

  • Vinyasa
  • Ashtanga
  • Bikram

The best for meditation:

  • Yin
  • Restorative

The best for stretching:

  • Hatha
  • Yin

Six Top Products to Start Your Yoga Practice

When you begin a yoga journey, the products can be daunting. Finding the right stuff can take time. To save you time, the table below charts three price points for all the products you’ll need for yoga.

 The Budget BuyThe Mid-Range OptionThe Splurge
Yoga Mat

 

Create a soft and safe place for your practice

BalanceFrom Non-Slip Exercise Yoga Mat with Carrying Strap

 

  • Multiple color options
  • ¼-inch thickness
  • 68 inches x 24 inches
  • Moisture resistant for easy washing
WWWW Non-Slip Yoga Mat

 

  • Extra-long – 72 inches x 24 inches
  • ¼-inch thickness
  • Multiple color options
  • Eco-friendly material
  • Tear-resistant
IUGA Pro Non-Slip Yoga Mat

 

  • Lightweight
  • Odorless
  • Extra-long – 72 inches by 26 inches
  • 5 mm thickness
  • Absorbs sweat to reduce sliding
Yoga Blocks

 

Bring the floor to you

BalanceFrom High-Density Yoga Blocks

 

  • Multiple colors
  • 9 x 6 x 4 inches
  • Slip-resistant
  • Made of foam that is easy to clean
Cork Yoga Blocks

 

  • Eco-friendly
  • 9 x 6 x 3 inches
  • Sturdy and anti-slip
  • Moisture-proof
  • Rounded edges
Volcano Cork Yoga Blocks

 

  • 100 % cork – no foam core
  • Rounded edges
  • 9 x 6 x 4 inches
  • Machine washable
  • Non-slip
  • Odor resistant
Yoga Strap

 

Give you more space in your stretch

Clever Yoga Yoga Strap

 

  • Multiple Colors
  • Cotton
  • Machine washable
  • Multiple lengths
  • D-ring
Tumaz Yoga Strap

 

  • Multiple lengths
  • Multiple Colors
  • 2.5 mm thickness
  • Polyester cotton
  • D-ring
Manduka Align Yoga Strap

 

  • 1.75 inches wide
  • Multiple lengths
  • Cotton
  • Non-slip buckle
  • Multiple colors
Yoga Wheel

 

Stretch and open your back

Exerz Yoga Wheel

 

  • 33 cm diameter, 14 cm wide
  • Foam padded
  • Plastic inner frame
REEHUT Yoga Wheel

 

  • 12.6-inch diameter
  • Plastic inner frame
  • Withstand 330 lbs.
  • Foam padded
UpCircleSeven Yoga Wheel

 

  • Multiple colors
  • Withstands 550 lbs.
  • Padded for comfort
  • Sweat-resistant
  • Frame that doesn’t flex
Yoga Bolster

 

Provide spine support and decrease strain for holding poses longer

Yoga Meditation Back Bolster

 

  • Multiple colors
  • Polyester cotton cover
  • Machine washable cover
  • Fiberfill
  • Smaller size than other bolsters
Retrospec Sequoia Yoga Bolster

 

  • Machine washable cover – 100% cotton
  • Multiple color options
  • Round or rectangular options
  • Built-in handle
AJNA Yoga Bolster Pillow

 

  • 100% vegan materials
  • Eco-suede cover
  • Built-in handle
  • Multiple colors
  • Foam filling for firmer, long-lasting support
  • Dry cleaning cover recommended, but also machine washable

Household Alternatives to Use in Your Practice

If you want to save some money or wait to invest in products for your yoga practice, you can use things you may already have around the house.

Instead of a yoga mat, try a blanket or towel:

  • Be careful of sliding on wooden or tile floors
  • Chose a soft, small weave to avoid discomfort in your hands, knees and feet

Instead of a yoga block, try a large book:

  • Again, be careful of sliding
  • Don’t attempt to use the spine or sides of the book – this may give out mid pose
  • Only place the book flat on its cover to be safe

Instead of a yoga strap, try a long towel:

  • A thin, long towel with an easy grip
  • Roll into a long cylinder to use

Instead of a yoga wheel, try a small ottoman or box:

  • For a back opener, a sturdy box or low, soft piece of furniture may do the trick
  • Try placing a pillow or blanket over the object for additional padding
  • Make sure your alternative is secure, to avoid slipping or sliding

Instead of a yoga bolster, try a few pillows:

  • Use pillows from your bedroom or living room
  • Find a denser fill for more support

Yoga should be accessible to all, so using what you have around your house as an alternative to spending a lot of money upfront is important. Try out different options, and as you expand your yoga practice, consider purchasing yoga products for a more seamless, comfortable practice.

In Conclusion

Downward dog is a key pose in many yoga practices. It allows yogis to focus on their bodies and take stock of what feels good and what is tight. Because yoga practices are so dynamic, your downward dog may look a little different from other yogis.

From learning how to do downward dog to rounding out your yoga practice with further exploration and props, you can find the yoga practice that best fits your lifestyle and goals.

Don’t compare your practices or flows to others. Everyone has a different range of mobility and flexibility. The beauty of yoga is that you can make it what you want!

Sita

Mother of three and Yogi of 20+ years and 200 Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. I am also a Certified Thai massage therapist and I have taught Gymnastics for more than 10 years. In the last couple of years, I've been a big promotor of intermittent fasting.

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