Yoga Poses 101: Downward Facing Dog–Find out how to safely do Adho Mukha Svanasana, a basic mild inversion pose that yogis from beginner to advance levels will often use.

Adho Mukha Svanasana, or as my teacher Paul Dallaghan likes to call it Adho Mukha Sukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Happy Doggie), is a pose that you will encounter in most yoga classes, Ashtanga and otherwise. It comes in the sun salutations at the beginning of the Ashtanga sequence, as a resting posture, and then later on as a transitional pose.

Adho= Downward

Mukha= Facing

Svana= Dog

Asana= Pose

It is great for building strength and although it can be labeled as an ‘easy yoga pose’, it can be quite challenging as well! Hopefully, with some guidance, your tail will be wagging in Adho Mukha Sukha Svanasana.

Yoga Poses 101: Downward Facing Dog–Step by Step into Downward Facing Dog

Start in child’s pose with the arms extended in front of you. Spread the fingers and place the hands flat, root down the index knuckle and thumb knuckle. Engage the arms.

Curl the toes and gently begin to lift the hips up. Keep the knees bent and stay on the balls of the feet, send the sitting bones towards the sky. Elongate the spine, and begin to activate the inner legs from the ankles to the inner groins. Feet can be separated by hip width distance apart.

Push away from the mat with strong arms. Spread the collarbone and open the shoulders by rotating them outwards. Let the head hang and free the neck and shoulders, having the shoulders move away from the ears. Feel the armpits begin to lengthen as well.

Slowly begin to straighten the legs, powering through the legs and activating the quadriceps. Begin to move the heels towards the ground; it’s okay if they do not touch.

The most important thing to be aware of is the spine—make sure the spine is long and straight. Knees can be bent if hamstrings are tight.

Keep sending the tailbone and pubic bone back and create traction in the spine.

Your downward dog should look like an equilateral or isosceles triangle, which will create optimal pressure at the pelvic floor and create a full extension of the spine. So make sure the distance from the hands to the feet is neither too short nor too long.

Gazing point/drishti can be between the thighs, between the feet or at the navel, depending on your ability level.

Avoid locking the elbow or knee joints.

Allow the energy to flow freely, engage the pelvic floor, and draw the lower belly in. Ribs are drawn in as if you were wearing a corset. Keep the back flat rather than letting it dip.

Have a sense of ‘ahhh’ in the mouth, jaw relaxed, and let the breath be smooth and audible, breathe with sound.

Keep everything active in this pose—hands and feet, legs, pelvic floor muscles, breath and gaze. Have the face soft and relaxed, heart open, and shoulders broad. Find the sense of ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha’, which is stability and comfort.

Once you have all this, feel free to play around and be a happy doggie. Wag your tail and smile.

Hold for five long, deep breaths and jump forward to the front of the mat or return to rest in child’s pose.

Modifications

If there are difficulties experienced when in Downward Facing Dog pose, try these modifications to reduce stress on the body.

  • Bend the knees, lift the heels, shorten the stance if needed
  • Use a wedge under your hands to support the wrists
  • If there are severe wrist issues, do the pose on your elbows instead
  • Place hands on blocks, or on a chair, to help open the shoulders

Benefits

Regular practice of Downward Facing Dog brings several benefits to the body and wellness.

  • Energises body
  • Stimulates blood circulation
  • Calms the mind
  • Lengthens spine, and releases tension in spine
  • Stretches hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands
  • Improves digestive system
  • Relieves back pain, headache, fatigue, and insomnia
  • Relieves symptoms of menopause
  • As a mild inversion, it calms the nervous system and reduces stress

Variations

Spice up your Adho Mukha Sukha Svanasana with one of these variations.

3 Legged Dog: From downward dog, move the feet until they touch. Inhale as you raise the right leg straight up in the air. Hold for five breaths—engage the standing leg, extend it and come to stand on the ball mound, feel a sense of lengthening—then release and place the leg down, or keep the leg raised and bend the knee to open the hip to get a stretch in the psoas.

Keep your gaze on your foot by looking under your left armpit. Try to stack the hips on top of each other and stay for five long breaths or more, and then try the other leg.

Grab Your Foot & Balance: From downward facing dog, turn the left foot out so it is flat. Inhale as you lift the right leg up. Exhale as you bend the right knee and open the hips. Put your body weight on the right hand, and reach the left hand back to grab the right foot or ankle. Try to balance here by kicking the foot in the hand and holding for five breaths. Try again on the other side. This variation is great for strengthening the core and increasing balance.

Dolphin Plank: From downward facing dog, keep the legs active and the sitting bones up, just drop down to the elbows. Fingers spread and forearms still engaged, lift up out of the shoulders instead of collapsing. Begin to move the shoulders forward and back, this will work to strengthen and open the shoulders. Move back and forth a couple of times, then move as far forward as you can and stay for five to 10 breaths. Release and take child’s pose.

Cautions & Contraindications

As with all practices, there are certain times when Downward Facing Dog should not be done.

  • Diarrhoea
  • Carpel Tunnel Syndrome
  • Arthritis
  • Ear or inner ear infection
  • Pregnant: do not do this pose late-term
  • High blood pressure or a headache

No matter what your downward dog looks like, make sure it feels good for you. Stay active below the navel and the pelvic floor and feel comfortable in the area above the navel. Most importantly, do your best and enjoy your practice!