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Downward Dog: How-To, Benefits and Variations

Undoubtedly the most well-known modern yoga posture is the Downward Facing Dog or Adhu Mukha Svanasana. This posture deserves the fame 100%. It is such an all-star pose that is easy enough for beginners to attempt and technical enough for advanced yogis to continually appreciate. 

All yoga postures are fantastically beneficial for various parts of the human body, but no other yoga pose compares to the full body reward that is provided by the Downward Dog variations. From muscles in the hands, through the arms, shoulders and back to the muscles in the hamstrings, calves and even feet – Adhu Mukha Svanasana targets it all.

Five Step How-To

Step 1: Start by lying flat on your stomach. Place your hands firmly on the ground next to both of your sides so that the tips of your fingers are in line with the center of your chest.

Step 2: Push your upper body up through your hands and shoulders so that you come up to your knees, palms still on the ground. Push your shoulders away from your ears and your elbows internally rotated and not locked.

Step 3: Tuck your toes and slowly push your hips up to the sky, straightening your knees and elbows.

Step 4: Depending on your experience level, try to press your heels into the floor so that your feet are flat against your mat – this is pretty advanced, so if you’re not there yet, don’t force it and keep trying at your body’s own pace to get there.

Step 5: Keep your back straight and knees slightly bent rather than the other way around. Your lower back should be straight. Try and lengthen your spine away from the crown of your head by pushing your hips to the sky. Support your body by spreading all the fingers and pressing firmly into the ground with your thumb and index finger. Pull your lower abdominals and ribs into the spine and voila!

Downward dog how-to on the beach
Five Step How-To

What Benefits Do You Reap?

Before we dig into the specific body-part-benefits, let’s go over the general reward of this great posture. Transitioning into this pose either from lying face down, from another posture or doing any Downward Dog variations, gets your whole body moving. 

This pose promotes movement of upper and lower body muscles, major joints and even organs. That’s right, your organs also benefit from this posture. So, next time you’re feeling bloated or constipated, pop in by Dr. Down Dog.

Downward Dog energizes, calms, strengthens and lengthens all at the same time. It’s an inverted posture, so it gets your heart and arms above your head – something people don’t tend to do often. Because of this almost upside down sensation, it can clear your head. 

Emotionally of course, but also physically with regards to nasal congestion, stuffy sinuses and combined with yogic breathing (pranayama), help asthma symptoms.

This versatile posture also promotes strong bones and ligaments around the shoulders. It gently engages the shoulder joints that not only strengthens the muscles, but also prevents things like Osteoporosis.

If you work long hours at a desk or spend a lot of time staring down at your phone, this pose can counter the negative effects and bad posture this causes. Whilst in this asana, you almost act as your own rack – pushing your shoulders and toes away from your spine. This provides such deep stretching in the back, by doing this posture correctly and frequently enough, it can decrease severe neck and back pain.

Unlike the butterfly pose (Baddha Konasana) that focuses just on flexibility and relaxing deep into the hip flexors, or Low Plank (Chaturanga Dandasana) that strengthens the wrists, arms, shoulders and core – Downward Dog focuses on both strength and flexibility at the same time.

This posture provides the perfect full body-mind balance and release. Now let’s take a look at the key areas:

Neck, Shoulders and Arms

Downward Dog help to ease pain and discomfort in the neck and shoulders that are caused by openings in the cervical vertebrae. This occurs because of bad posture. This pose counters these effects and builds strength in the shoulders and arms.

Make sure your upper arms and palms are slightly externally rotated. This pose also strengthens and stretches the wrists and can help prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Back, Spine and Core

The lengthening sensation of the spine and tight back muscles are very therapeutic. It pumps more oxygen to the cells and aids strengthening of the back muscles. This process can heal back pain and rectify bad posture. 

Because it is a strength asana and forces you to really engage your core and obliques, it promotes toning of the tummy and waistline. Make sure you pull your abdominals inward and upward and that your sides are lengthened.  This is great for metabolism and constipation.

Hamstrings, Calves and Feet

This posture does wonders for tight and stiff hamstrings. By pressing the heels to the floor and lifting the hips to the ceiling, it forces you to engage your quads and open your hamstrings. 

You can adjust the amount of stretching by how much you bend your knees. It really helps to lengthen, strengthen and tone the back-leg muscles, including the calves. By stretching and strengthening ankle and calf muscles, you protect your feet and joints from injuries.

This posture also strengthens tiny foot muscles that equip you to move easily across different terrains.  It also helps improve weight-transfer reactions for quick recoveries when falling or tripping.

Blood Flow 

Since this is a considerably basic, beginner inversion (unlike the more advanced headstand or handstand), you still get all the benefits of inversion postures. These postures cause blood to rush to the brain, which increases energy levels, focus and attention span. 

It’s also great for relieving tension in the neck and shoulders. Bonus: the increased blood flow to the face provides a better, brighter complexion and a dewy glow – not just after a long yoga session – but also in general.

Downward Dog Variations

There are many ways you can transition to Downward Dog from other postures and not to mention the various Sun Salutations. For this article, we’ll only touch lightly upon the different ways you can hold Downward Dog, without too much movement. These Downward Dog variations provide all the current benefits with some added rewards.

First, Three-Legged Dog. This posture is great to get all the benefits mentioned above, with an increased, and more intense, stretch in the hip flexors and hamstrings. It also cultivates better balance and more flexibility. 

All you must do is shift all your weight to your hands and the leg that remains grounded and slowly lift your other leg to the sky. Try and make a straight line from your hands to the lifted leg’s foot. 

Your hips must be squared (imagine pulling the grounded leg’s hip forward and pulling the lifted leg’s hip back). Keep pushing your shoulders away from your ears and press that grounded foot’s heel into the floor as far as you can. Remember to breathe deeply and engage your core whilst you hold for 10 – 30 seconds.

Three-Legged Dog
Three-Legged Dog

The other variation is the Downward Dog Scorpion Kick. From Three-Legged Dog, twist your hips slightly to the ‘open’ side (the lifted leg’s hip must rotate outward.) Keep your shoulders squared and twist from your waist. 

Bend the lifted leg’s knee and reach your foot to your head while pressing into the floor firmly with both palms and the other leg’s heel. This variation gives a nice spinal twist and opens the hip flexors. It also increases mind-body balance and flexibility. Focus on your breath and hold for 10 – 30 seconds.

Downward Dog Scorpion Kick
Downward Dog Scorpion Kick

Final Words

It doesn’t matter at what stage you are in your yoga journey; this pose is great for anyone starting out, someone growing intermediate skills or a highly advanced yogi. I believe the reason that Downward Dog is one of the most well-known yoga positions, is because it does what no other position can do. It provides full-body benefits and focuses on strength building and flexibly at the same time.

Isabel Ludick
Isabel is an avid yoga practitioner, who loves travelling, living life to the fullest, and cats. She loves living healthy and inspiring others to be the best they can be. When she's not performing her asanas or writing, you can find her at exquisite wine tastings around the world.