Downward Dog vs. Mountain Pose: What’s the Difference?

The downward dog and mountain pose are some of the common but confusing poses you’ll encounter in yoga. You must distinguish the two poses to perform them in great form and harness their benefits.

The difference between the downward dog and mountain pose is in the back-hands alignment and head position. In the down dog, the back arches slightly, forearms are almost parallel to the floor, and the head touches the mat. In mountain pose, the back and arms are aligned and the head is above the mat.

It’s safe to say that mountain pose and downward dog each have their own benefits. Mastering each pose plays a crucial role in advancing your yoga journey. So, let’s review the benefits of each and how these improve your physique, health and wellbeing, and fitness level.

Benefits of Mountain Pose

Yoga’s popularity in America is on the rise. In 2016, nearly 37 million Americans, 56% of whom were beginners, practiced some form of yoga.

These numbers indicate that Americans are keen to explore low-impact activities when looking to improve their health and stay fit.

So, let’s talk about the benefits of the mountain pose.

A Transitional Yoga Pose

You probably don’t realize how tight your muscles are until you attempt to get into a mountain pose. So, you might be surprised that simply striking, what yogis call a resting or transitional pose, is wildly challenging.

Mountain pose stretches and strengthens all the muscles in your posterior chain.

Here are some of the muscles that you activate whenever you strike a mountain pose:

  • Hamstrings: Straightening your legs when you’re in an inverted position
  • Hip extensors: When you push your hips towards the ceiling while keeping your back straight.
  • Shoulders: Externally rotating your hands in an inverted position lets your shoulders and arms bear much of the weight.
  • Arms: When supporting, you’re your entire upper body weight with your outstretched hands.
  • Back: The inverted position stretches and elongates the entire chain of muscles in your back.
  • Calves: Pushing your heels to the mat works to stretch and strengthen your calf muscles.

Strengthening these muscles is key to mastering the mountain pose, which is the gateway to other complex poses, including the downward-facing dog.

Beginners often have trouble getting into a full mountain pose because of tight posterior chain muscles. Luckily, the pose comes with several beginner progressions and modifications to let you inch along seamlessly.

Remember, the idea behind every yoga pose is to explore your body’s limits, not to achieve perfection. Therefore, focus on making little incremental progress with each session.

Baby steps will help you master the mountain pose without the risk of an injury or enduring an incredible amount of pain. They also help to cultivate and nurture your love for this delicate and beneficial art.

Counteracts the Effects of Sitting for Long Hours

If you spend the better part of your day in a seated position, it can leave you with a stiff, sore, and painful spine. Sitting for too long exerts pressure on the discs and muscle of your neck and back.

Prolonged sitting results in shortening hip flexors, such as the iliopsoas muscles, while restricting blood flow to the buttock muscles. This weakens the muscles crucial in supporting the spine, which in turn leads to poor posture.

Slouching and hunching over your desk is detrimental to your back health. Slumping overworks the spinal ligaments and puts a massive strain on your back muscles. The muscles stretch beyond their healthy limits to accommodate the unnatural posture.

Worse still, poor sitting postures compress your spinal discs and can lead them to degenerate prematurely, subjecting you to chronic pain.

Frequent and consistent mountain pose practice helps to roll back the adverse effects. Prolong sitting takes a toll on the muscles in the posterior chain. Regular yoga practice lengthens and strengthens all the back muscles, which might help to restore normal functions.

For starters, the pose requires you to lengthen and elongate your spine, which can realign your back and shoulders to correct rounding and slouching. As your muscles grow stronger, you can keep your back straight as you walk and sit.

Striking a proper mountain pose keeps your shoulders open and relaxed, which increases your ability to take long, full breaths.

Improves the Body Functions

With its 360 joints and more than 700 muscles to move the skeleton, the human body is designed to move. Vital body systems such as the nervous and vascular systems need movement to function.

Prolonged sedentary behavior – sitting for more than six hours a day – takes a heavy toll on the body.

Research links prolonged sitting with several health concerns, including obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, poor blood circulation, and pinched nerves.

Incorporating mountain pose into your daily life helps counter most of these adverse effects, mostly by improving your posture. See, sitting, especially slouching, compresses most of your vital body organs, which in turn affects their functions.

Medical practitioners recommend that desk workers stand and walk around for a minute or two. Given that mountain pose is a no-frills yoga pose, you can incorporate it into daily office routine.

The inverted V-shape position will stretch all the tight muscles in your posterior chain to keep them in great shape. It’ll also massage your internal organs, which is crucial in improving their ability to function correctly.

Reverses the Aging Effect

Yoga practitioners report feeling and looking younger after practicing the art for a little while. To the uninitiated, that might seem like new-age speak, but there’s a scientific explanation behind this phenomenon.

One theory posits that humans age rapidly due to oxidative damage to body cells and tissues. Our bodies use oxygen to metabolize food into energy, a process that produces free radicals, which are harmful oxygen by-products.

The free radicals cause oxidative damage to the cells’ biomolecules such as the DNA, altering the cell’s normal functions and processes. Oxidative damage is cumulative as the level of oxidative markers in your body increases with age.

Surprisingly, learning to breathe correctly helps to battle and lower the number of free radicals in your body. And that’s where mountain pose can be of great help.

The mountain pose strengthens your back, shoulder, and neck muscles, which is crucial in improving your posture. Rounded shoulders and text neck cause your chest muscles to tighten, limiting your ability to take full breaths.

With time, rapid shallow breaths weaken your respiratory system and create tension in your upper body that can undermine your health. It impairs the intercostal muscles forcing the muscles in your neck and collarbone to kick in, which leads to dysfunctional breathing.

Shallow breaths deprive your body of much-needed oxygen, which speeds up the harmful free radicals’ accumulation in the body.

As you continue to practice the mountain pose, your intercostal muscle will get stronger, and you will improve your ability to breathe deeply.

Restoring your ability to take long, deep breaths to ensure that your body gets all the oxygen it needs to eliminate free radicals. In turn, that reduces the amount of oxidative damage to the cells.

Benefits of the Downward Facing Dog

Over 50% of the yoga practitioners in the US are beginners, and sadly, only 2% of them progress to become advanced practitioners. It means that a considerable chunk of people are missing out on the benefits of advanced poses such as the downward dog.

A downward-facing dog is an advanced form of the mountain pose, and with it comes a host of other health and fitness benefits. In any case, the advanced pose builds on the gains from the beginner version.

Here’s a video explaining the differences between the two similar poses:

So, let’s look at the benefits of the downward-facing dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit.

Builds, Tones & Strengthens Muscles

Downward dog is a complex and deceptively challenging pose that calls for lots of strength. The posture uses the entire body, so you’ll feel its effects from head to toe, which makes it the perfect way to tone and build your muscles.

Unsurprisingly, most people associate strength training with lifting weights, which often casts doubt on yoga’s ability to achieve this goal.

Well, to build muscle and strength, you need to apply the principle of progressive overload. That entails subjecting your body to an increasing amount of stress to cause the microtears that build muscle and strength.

While perfecting your downward dog won’t get you bulging muscles, it’ll do you one better. Yoga uses three proven mechanisms to stimulate muscle growth – progressive overload, metabolic stress, and mechanical damage.

Here’s a video explaining these concepts in detail:

Consistent yoga practice rewards you with excellent muscle tone and definition, incredible strength, and none of the bulk.

Inverted poses such as a downward dog build muscle strength by flexing the smaller muscle groups alongside the major muscles.

Down dog builds upper body strength by forcing you to bear much of your body weight on the arms. To achieve this feat:

  • You need to rotate your arms externally away from your head and neck, which works the shoulders.
  • You also need to squeeze the triceps and press your hands into the floor.

Since the inverted position taxes some rarely used muscles, it forces you to recruit the anterior and posterior chains to maintain a proper form. That gets all your muscles in your body, working together in harmony and in a balanced way.

Furthermore, you only need to increase the motion range in a downward dog to achieve progressive overload. For instance, touching your forehead to the mat produces more tension in your arms, shoulder, and back muscles.

Builds Your Mental Resilience

Being comfortable in the downward dog pose is a labor of love, consistency, and dedication. As a beginner, you’ll need to overcome a myriad of tight muscles wrought by a lifetime of bad habits to strike this pose.

Since yoga as a form of fitness aims to help your body to move naturally, it entails making little incremental progress and corrections over a long time. Focusing all your efforts on feeling and being in the moment lets you make the most of each yoga session.

To overcome tight muscles in your arms, back, hips, and legs, you need to put in plenty of practice, which can help beef up your mental fortitude. You need to steel yourself and overcome any discomfort you experience.

Each yoga session becomes a test of your strength and determination without pushing yourself over the edge. It’s all about pushing your body to its limit without enduring the pain:

  • Aim to straighten the legs a bit more.
  • Push your shoulders a little lower.
  • Open your chest a little more.
  • Lengthen your spine a bit further with each session.

Once you’ve worked on improving your downward dog’s components, you’ll need to hold the now improved pose for a little bit longer. Then repeat several times during each session to lock in the gains.

The forced stillness, focus, and concentration you need to hold a downward dog pose help to declutter the mind. By encouraging self-reflection, the pose reinforces your ability to set and achieve goals as well as your sense of self-control.

The path to a perfect downward dog improves your mental toughness because it allows you to be more reflective and calmer in the face of a challenge. Along the way, you learn to manage your stress while building your confidence and self-belief.

If you keep at it, you’ll eventually get to holding the downward dog with a slightly arched back, forehead on the mat, and fully extended arms and legs.

Improves Mental Health and Wellbeing

A growing body of research supports yoga’s ability to improve mental health and wellbeing. Yoga relieves stress, increases body awareness, reduces muscle tension and inflammation, and calms the central nervous system.

Yoga is more effective in raising your mood and easing anxiety compared to other forms of exercise. It does so by increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a chemical that regulates nerve activity on the brain.

Reduced GABA activity in the brain is associated with anxiety disorders, and doctors often prescribe drugs to increase GABA levels to decrease anxiety.

Therefore, the downward dog, among other poses, can help you overcome crippling anxiety without resorting to prescription drugs. Research suggests that yoga stimulates the parts of the brain that produces antidepressant neurotransmitters like GABA.

Research shows yoga’s ability to improve stress-related nervous system imbalance and reduce stress lies in the relaxation response that accompanies the mind and body practice.

The deep breathing that accompanies the downward dog is likely to cause the body to relax at the nerve and cellular level. The yoga pose alters the firing patterns in your nerves and chemical composition of your body’s fluids to elicit a relaxation response.

To execute the downward dog, you must focus all your attention on getting the correct body posture and proper body alignment. It would be best if you held the pose for some time while breathing deeply.

Relaxing into the pose causes the body to turn off the nerve arousing chemicals such as adrenaline, which relaxes your brain, heart, and muscles.

If you can hold the downward dog effortlessly, you induce a biochemical relaxation which oxygenates your blood to restore acidity/alkaline balance. It also lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, and motor activity.

Lowers the Risk of Osteoporosis

Downward dog is a full-body exercise with a low risk of injury that boosts your physical fitness and improves your health.

As is the case with most yoga poses, downward dog uses eccentric contractions to build strength and increase flexibility in your joints and muscles. In yoga, the muscles stretch as they contract, but they bunch up as they contract weight training, which gives them a bulging look.

You may not achieve the bulging look when practicing yoga because the muscle fibers don’t heal closely together. However, a downward dog places a considerable amount of stress on your bones. The pressure is enough to activate osteoblasts that are crucial to improving bone density and preventing bone loss.

Osteoblasts replenish your bones cells, making them denser, stronger, and healthier. Strong bones lower your chances of suffering a fracture from simple slips and fall as you go about your life. Coupling healthy bones with strong muscles give you functional strength and strong joints, which eliminates most physical limitations.

As a low impact exercise, a downward dog will help you improve your bone health and build muscles while safeguarding your joints.

The low impact exercises can explain yoga’s popularity with women and the elderly population, a high-risk osteoporosis group. In the US, 72% of yoga practitioners are women, and almost 40% of American yogis are over 50 years old.

Conclusion

Technically, three are four main differences between the mountain pose and the downward-facing dog:

  • Level: Down dog is an advanced form of mountain pose.
  • Hands: The hands are almost parallel to the floor in a downward dog but remain in a vertical inclination while in the mountain pose.
  • Back: The back is slightly arched in the down dog but remains in perfect alignment with the arms in mountain pose.
  • Head: The forehead should be lower than the arms, if possible, touching the mat in the down dog. The head stays between the hands and off the floor in the mountain pose.

Mastering both poses is crucial in advancing your yoga journey and harnessing the myriad of benefits of practicing gentle yoga art.

Sources

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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