Want the perfect downward facing dog? These six tips can improve your alignment and help you get more out of this popular pose.
Downward dog is arguably the most iconic yoga pose (who doesn’t know what it looks like?) It’s also a part of almost every routine or session.
There are good reasons for this popularity. Downward dog can be used as a transitioning pose, but also to strengthen and maintain flexibility. Some practitioners also throw it in as a resting pose.
Despite this versatility, many people hate doing downward dog – or at least mildly dislike it. I don’t blame you, as it’s a difficult one to master, especially if you’re new to yoga.
For this reason, I’ve put together six essential tips for improving your alignment and getting more out of your downward dog.
1. Don’t Worry About Your Heels (At Least To Start)
Many people become obsessed with keeping their heels on the floor and legs straight when performing downward dog. This is a good target, but don’t feel that you’re failing the pose if you can’t do this right away. Pressing your heels to the floor can also cause back pain and make the position uncomfortable.
Instead, focus on warming up your calves and hamstrings. If you can’t straighten your legs fully because your hamstrings are too tight, don’t force your heels down as you’ll be putting a lot of pressure on your back. Instead, practice with bent knees and heels off the ground so your spine is kept in a healthy position.
In fact, if you only try one tip to make downward dog more enjoyable and safe, make it this one.
2. Keep Your Hands Shoulder-Width Apart
One of the most important alignment tips is to place your hands approximately shoulder distance apart. This keeps your shoulders, arms and hands in a line.
You should also spread the fingers of your hand so that the pressure is evenly distributed. This will make holding the pose much more comfortable.
If you feel like there’s a lot of pressure at the base of your fingers, try to shift your hands so your weight isn’t focused on one area of the hand. At the same time, “activate” your arm muscles by slightly pulling your two thumbs together.
3. Align Your Spine, Neck and Head
The neck and spine are delicate parts of the body, so you need to have proper alignment during every yoga pose – including downward dog. This helps prevent injury and makes the pose more enjoyable to hold.
In downward dog, the neck and head should follow in a line from the spine. This means the neck should not hang forward when in downward dog. It also shouldn’t be crunched up by tilting the head back.
Always keep in mind that the neck is an extension of the spine. If it’s at an unnatural angle, you may be increasing the chances of injury. This doesn’t mean that the muscles should be held rigid, but the alignment should be correct.
4. Relax the Shoulders
When you’re concentrating on getting proper alignment, it can be easy to tense up as you try to maintain the right position. Once you’ve found the correct alignment, however, it’s important to remember to relax.
A great way to do this is to gently turn the head from one side to the other. You should also take deep breaths and gently move the shoulders down and away from the ears. This allows the neck muscles to relax and provides a conscious “cue” that it’s now time to get comfortable.
When I first started yoga, I would often realise that I had been crunching up my shoulders throughout an entire pose. This would make my upper back and neck tense, and limited my enjoyment. Don’t make the same mistake!
5. Engage the Core Muscles
Activating the stomach muscles is a great way to relieve pressure on other areas of the body. It’ll also help with many yoga poses and other athletic activities – so it’s a great technique to practice.
When in the downward dog position tighten the core muscles and slightly draw the ribs inwards. This keeps the core active and should relieve pressure on the legs and shoulders.
6. Make Sure You’re Comfortable
Downward dog is a relatively simple pose, but there are a lot of technical details to remember. It’s easy to get caught up in the details and make the experience stressful rather than enjoyable. The same can be said about yoga for losing weight programs, such as Yoga Burn, which can sometimes emphasise results over in-the-moment enjoyment (see here).
For this reason, make sure that the pose is comfortable and relaxing for you.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore instructions from your tutor or practice poor alignment. But once you’ve got into a position that’s comfortable, take a few deep breaths and relax.
Also, remember to breathe deeply. When you feel like you need a break, bend the knees and move into child’s pose.
Downward dog looks like a simple position – but it can be challenging. Don’t expect to master it immediately. You’ll need to practice – preferably with a professional tutor – until you can do it.
Whatever type of yoga you’re doing, lengthening the muscles takes time. This isn’t always a linear process, so don’t expect continuous progress. Instead, have patience and enjoy each time you perform the pose.
With that said, a few tweaks to your alignment can make a big difference to your enjoyment. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t progress as quickly as you would like though – everyone’s body is different.
It’s important to point out that these tips are meant for healthy people without any existing injuries or conditions. If you have an injury to any part of your body, you may need to adapt the pose to avoid making it worse. This is why having an in-person yoga instructor is so important when you’re learning.
I hope this article has helped you improve your downward dog. Do you have any questions about the contents of this page? What do you think of downward dog as a yoga position? And do you think I’ve missed a tip that’s helped your yoga practice? Let me know in the comments.