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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Turple

Domesticating your Downward Dog

Downward Dog. Many of us, even those who don't practice yoga, have heard these words, and know it's some kind of variation of a common canine stretch. Downward Dog is one of the most practiced poses in Hatha yoga classes and is usually an integral part of Sun Salutations, with some exceptions. It's a pose students tend to love or hate. It's rare that I find a student who's indifferent to it.


I suspect that's because this pose targets many areas of the body that can be habitually tense: shoulders, back, hamstrings, calves, wrists. If you're just beginning to practice yoga, Downward Dog can feel a bit like torture. But with regular practice over time, yogis and yoginis tend to soften up to and in this pose and for some it becomes a favorite. It really is a full-body pose and can feel absolutely amazing as a morning, afternoon or evening stretch, and there are variations of this pose that can make it more accessible and more challenging.


Here's how to understand and domesticate your Downward Dog. When in proper alignment, it looks something like this:

Like an upside down V. There's a fairly straight line from the wrists to the hips, and from the hips to the heels. To further refine your Downward Dog, you can try this:

  1. press your palms down into your mat like you're trying to press your mat away from you

  2. draw your chest back towards your legs

  3. draw your hip creases back and up, lengthening the sides of your waist

  4. draw your navel gently in towards your spine

  5. if the legs are fairly straight, press your thigh bones back (this may feel like you're pressing back through the backs of your knees) and draw your heels slightly wider than your toes. *You can also bend your knees in this pose, in which case skip #5 and #6.

  6. let the heels drop down comfortably towards the mat

  7. pivot your armpits to face down towards the mat, creating some space between the shoulders and ears - also try to press down into the mounds of your index fingers and thumbs as a balancing, counter movement to stabilize the arms

  8. relax the back of the neck

  9. gaze between your thighs or up towards your navel


Some common misalignments:

The Rounded Back:



This is often due to tightness in the shoulders and/or hamstrings. One of the best ways to straighten out that line from wrist to hip is to bend the knees (as deeply as you'd like). This action releases the hamstrings, allowing the hips to more easily be drawn back and up and provides more access to the shoulders.


It's opposite - the Concave Back:



This tends to occur with students who have very flexible shoulders and hamstrings with very little tension. Drawing the chest further towards the mat may be perceived as an action that "deepens" this pose. However, it should be avoided. It's essentially an "easy" way of doing the pose that puts more strain on the shoulders, chest, hips, back and legs. If your shoulders are very flexy, you'll want to engage the abdominals and draw the front ribs away from the mat to support the front of the body and lessen strain on the joints.


A common modification, also known as Dolphin Pose, is a great way to loosen stiff shoulders and ease pressure on sensitive wrists:

  1. press your forearms down into the mat like you're pressing your mat away from you

  2. draw your chest back towards your legs

  3. draw your hip creases back and up, lengthening the sides of your waist

  4. draw your navel gently in towards your spine

  5. if the legs are fairly straight, press your thigh bones back (this may feel like you're pressing back through the backs of your knees) and draw your heels slightly wider than your toes. *You can also bend your knees in this pose, in which case skip #5 and #6.

  6. let the heels drop down comfortably towards the mat

  7. relax the back of the neck

  8. gaze between your thighs or up towards your navel


Lastly, the position of your hands can contribute to the comfort and ease of this pose:


  1. the hands can be shoulder-width or slightly wider

  2. spread your fingers

  3. point the tip of your index fingers towards the front of your mat - when you do this, your palms will be slightly turned out (which also creates space between shoulders and ears). This is also an ideal hand position for Table Pose, Plank Pose and Cobra Pose.

  4. press into the mounds of your index fingers and thumbs (more so than the other fingers)

Your hands play a key role in this pose so be aware of their positioning and keep them active.


Getting comfortable in Downward Dog can take months or even years so be patient. With a regular practice over time, this may just become one of your favorite poses.

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