You can't think of a single yoga class without Downward-Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana as it is called in Sanskrit. It is widely considered THE asana and even non-yogis will have heard of this pose. It's not an easy asana, though, and however famous it may be, there is a lot to pay attention to in Downward-Facing Dog alignment.
Let's look at the alignment in Downward-Facing Dog in detail:
1. How Do You Get the Right Alignment In Downward-Facing Dog?
- In a first step, you should determine the distance between your hands and feet. The best starting point for this is Plank pose: Let your heels point upwards and keep the legs engaged so that the legs and the spine form one long line.
- Keep your arms straight and vertical under your shoulders. Spread your fingers and let your index fingers point forward at 12 o’clock so that they are parallel to each other.
- Now is the moment to lift up your buttocks to come into your Downward Dog. Keep the knees gently bent at the beginning. This will give you more space to tilt the pelvis forward.
- Widen your sit bones first before you gently straighten your legs. Inwardly rotate the thighs and push them back.
- Push your buttocks back and upward to create a gentle curve in the spine. The tendency is more towards a long concave shape rather than a round back. Imagine you want to suck in your lumbar spine.
- At the same time, lift your armpits forward and keep your ears between your biceps. Try to suck in your thoracic spine as well.
- It's only now that you push your heels down if this is available to you. This is the last step! Remember that the focus in Adho Mukha Svanasana should not be on putting the heels on the ground but rather on creating a long concave curve with your spine.
- Keep breathing while the whole muscle chain from your heels to your fingers is engaged.
2. What Is Your Body Doing In Downward-Facing Dog?
2.1. What Are the Joints Doing?
Let us first take a look at the movements of your joints in this asana. While the spine is in axial extension, there is a lot going on in the joints of the upper limbs:
- elevation and upward rotation of the scapulae (shoulder blades)
- flexion of the shoulder
- extension of the elbows
- pronation of the forearms
- dorsiflexion of the wrists.
Exploring the movements in the lower joints, we see the nutation of the sacroiliac joint, which means that the sacrum moves separately from the pelvic bones so that the top of the sacrum tilts forward while the bottom of the sacrum (near the coccyx) tilts back.
The hip is flexed, the knees are extended and the ankles are in dorsiflexion so that the toes are pointing towards the shins.
2.2. Which Muscles Are Engaged?
The major players in Downward Dog are the spinal extensors and flexors since they help you to maintain the alignment of the spine.
In addition, there is a number of engaged in the upper limbs to help you maintain your alignment in Downward-Facing Dog:
- The serratus anterior allows the upward rotation and adduction of the scapulae on the rib cage.
- The rotator cuff, which is a combination of the four muscles subscapularis, infraspinatus, teres minor, and supraspinatus, stabilizes the shoulder joint while the deltoids and the biceps flex the shoulder.
- The triceps extends the elbow.
- The pronator quadrutus and teres effect the forearm pronation.
- The intrinsic muscles of the wrists and hands stabilize the hand.
Let us now take a closer look at the lower limbs:
- The adductor magnus is engaged in the internal rotation and adduction of the femur bone.
- For the extension of the knees, rectus femoris, vastus lateralis and medialis are in concentric contraction while the hamstrings are in eccentric contraction.
3. Do You Make These 5 Mistakes In Downward-Facing Dog Alignment?
Since you probably will be practicing this pose in almost every yoga class, it is essential that you have a sound understanding of the correct alignment in Downward-Facing Dog. If you're more of a hands-on person, check out our Inside Yoga Alignment program where you can put the profound explanation yoga expert Young Ho Kim provides you directly into action. There is even a whole video focusing on the right & wrong in Down Dog.
1. Standing Too Narrow
One quite common mistake is that the pose is too narrow, i.e. that the distance between the hands and the feet is too small. This is not a healthy position for the spine.
Neither is this very beneficial from a practical perspective: In Vinyasa flows, you usually transition into Plank from Downward-Facing Dog. So, if your Down Dog is too narrow, you have to shift your feet backward to have a proper alignment in Plank pose.
This is why you should start building your Downward Dog from Plank pose to find the right distance: Let your heels point up, keep your legs and your spine in one line and bring your arms vertical under the shoulders. In this position, your hands and feet have the perfect distance to transition into your Adho Mukha Svanasana.
2. Inwardly Rotating the Arms
Another misalignment that you see quite often is that the upper arms are inwardly rotated. Since this can bear the risk of shoulder impingement, you should aim at rotating your upper arms externally. To make this outward rotation of the arms easier, let your index fingers instead of the middle fingers point forward.
3. Collapsing the Shoulders
Furthermore, you want to prevent your shoulders from collapsing when you perform Downward Dog. This usually happens when the shoulders are drawn away from the ears. Lift your shoulders up towards your ears instead and bring your ears next to your biceps by pushing the ground away.
Some students that are hypermobile in the shoulder joint may even tend to let the chest sink down, which leads to compression in the shoulder joint. This can also be avoided by pushing the ground away to create length and lift the shoulders.
4. Flexing the Neck
While you don't want to put too much tension on your neck by hyperextending it, you should also avoid flexing the neck muscles too much. This usually happens when you tuck in the chin with the intention to look at your navel.
Instead, lift your chin up to create a slight concave curve in the neck and keep your ears between your biceps.
5. Tucking the Tailbone
If you tuck your tailbone with straight legs in Downward-Facing Dog, your pelvis moves backwards, i.e. up. As a result, your lower back is rounded in a convex shape. Besides, this puts too much stress on your hamstrings.
Instead, bend your knees slightly to tilt the pelvis forward. Lift the armpits up so that the lumbar spine will move slightly inward and create a concave shape. Maintain this lumbar curve when you straighten your legs. This alignment is not only healthier for your spine, it also is a much more intense – but safer – hamstring stretch.
If you're looking for answers to general other common alignment questions in yoga, check out our free ebook. It will give you a basic understanding of alignment principles that can be applied to any pose and will make a huge difference to your yoga practice.
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4. How Do You Build Downward-Facing Dog Into Your Practice?
Beginners may start with bent knees in order to maintain a straight spine. With practice, the knees can gradually be straightened. It is also possible to keep the heels off the ground if they do not touch the floor due to tight calf muscles or achilles tendons. Note that not being able to put the heels on the ground may also be due to bone compression, i.e. the individual skeletal alignment.
It is always a good idea to prepare your body for your yoga practice since this will make it easier to move into poses such as Downward-Facing Dog. Check out Duncan Wong's video to get some inspiration for your warm-up for Adho Mukha Svanasana.
A great preparatory pose for Downward Dog is Plank pose as it helps to find the correct distance between the hands and the feet.
Child's pose is a great counterpose to relax the spine and the limbs after the whole body has been engaged in Down Dog.
Besides, there are numerous variations of Downward-Facing Dog, with the most common one probably being Three-Legged Dog where one leg is stretched into the air while the hips are kept parallel to the floor. Another variation is Revolved Downward-Facing Dog, where the hand reaches diagonally underneath the body to get hold of the opposite foot or calf.
Adho Mukha Svanasana is also part of the typical Vinyasa, i.e. the transitional movement from Chaturanga to Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) to Downward-Facing Dog, which is often practiced in yoga flow classes. There is a huge variety of flowing yoga programs available on TINT, one of which is Kristin McGee's Yoga Flow.
Memorizing all these alignment principles and constantly implementing them throughout your practice is not always easy. This is why we created a free ebook where we have summarized the most important alignment principles as a reference guide for you. Among other things, you will learn in this ebook how to align yourself in Downward-Facing Dog without risking injury such as shoulder impingement.
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5. What Are the Benefits of Downward-Facing Dog?
This pose strengthens the entire body - the upper body, the arms, the shoulders, the abdomen and the legs. It also stretches the back of the body, the ankles, the calves and hamstrings as well as the whole spine.
With practice, the alignment in Downward-Facing Dog will eventually help you to reset your spine between strong backbends and forward bends and may help to reconnect with the breath in vigorous Vinyasa or Ashtanga classes. It is also a great posture to transition from one asana into another.
Adho Mukha Savasana also is an integral part of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) where it may even be practiced several times in each set.
So, roll out your mat and practice some rounds of (un)classical Surya Namaskar with David Lurey in this video and apply your newly acquired knowledge straight away!
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