A wrist strengthening version of Downward Facing Dog

7 Awesome Ways to Practice Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Leah Sugerman, E-RYT 500, YACEP
Updated: 
September 29, 2021

Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is probably the most ubiquitous pose in the yogic repertoire. In countless styles and traditions of the practice, Downward Facing Dog Pose is used as a neutralizer, resting pose, or as a foundational aspect of various flows.

Every time we practice it, we typically address it with the standard, traditional cues of alignment: feet hips-distance apart, hands shoulder-width apart, spine elongated, heels reaching toward the floor, etc.

But because this is a posture that we visit so often in our practice, it might be beneficial to switch up the way we practice it. Variability offers both our skeletal muscles and our connective tissues the ability to increase our capacity to withstand load and to stretch and strengthen our tissues from various angles and positions. 

But beyond just that, variability also challenges our brains to try new things, lay down new neural pathways. This can, in turn, affect our nervous systems. The more we are able to adapt to variability, the “safer” our nervous system feels, and the better we are able to adapt and react to unpredictable life events, such as a sudden fall.

How to Practice Yoga’s Downward Facing Dog Pose 7 Different Ways

Intentionally bias different parts of your body to add variability to your practice with these simple variations of Downward Facing Dog.

1. Spinal Elongation Focus

Practicing Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana to create elongation in the spine

This very traditional alignment of Downward Facing Dog Pose is just as valid as any other. Working with spinal elongation in this shape, you’re able to find axial extension of your entire vertebral column.

  1. Start on all fours in Tabletop Pose (Bharmanasana) with your shoulders aligned roughly over your wrists and your hips aligned roughly over your knees.

  2. Walk your hands forward about the distance of your own hand.

  3. Spread your fingers wide and evenly spaced between them. Root down firmly into the perimeter of your palms and gently grip at the mat with your fingertips.

  4. Tuck your toes underneath and activate your core by cinching in around your waistline. This should be a subtle action, however, and should not interfere with your inhalations. Make sure to relax a bit on your inhalations.

  5. Press down into your palms and lift your knees off the floor.

  6. Stretch your sit bones toward the sky as you stretch and lengthen your whole back body.

  7. Keep a soft or generous bend in your knees as you tilt your pelvis forward so that your tailbone reaches more skyward.

  8. Press down evenly into both hands and lift your sit bones farther toward the ceiling to create more space between each bone of your spine. 

  9. Hold for a few long, deep breaths.

2. Spinal Extension and Shoulder Flexion Focus in Downward Facing Dog

Combining spinal extension and shoulder flexion in Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana

This variation works with spinal extension and increased shoulder flexion to create somewhat of a backbending shape in Downward Facing Dog Pose.  

  1. Find your traditional spinal elongation-focused Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  2. Root down evenly into both hands and tilt your pelvis forward as far as you can to reach your tailbone toward the sky. You may wish to bend your knees more deeply to make this more accessible.

  3. Integrate your shoulders strongly by actively pressing the floor away from you, plugging your upper arm bones in toward your shoulder sockets, energetically squeezing your upper arms toward each other, and subtly broadening your chest. Keep this activation in your shoulders so that you do not end up just “lying” into your joints. 

  4. Cinch in around your waistline as if tightening a corset, but make sure to relax this action on your inhalations so that you can breathe fully. Maintain this stability as you melt your chest toward your thighs. Hold for a few long, deep breaths.

3. Spinal Flexion, Toward Shoulder Extension Focus

A variation of Downward Facing Dog with spinal flexion and shoulder extension

You can also practice the opposite variation of Downward Facing Dog Pose by creating spinal flexion that will shift your weight forward to help strengthen and stabilize your shoulder joints. This will create a semi-forward fold shape in your spine.

  1. Find your traditional spinal elongation-focused Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  2. Bend your knees deeply and rise to the balls of your feet.

  3. Root down evenly into both hands and tilt your pelvis backward to tuck your tailbone under and flatten your lower back.

  4. Draw your navel firmly toward your spine and round one vertebra at a time to create almost a Cat Pose (Marjaryasana) shape in your spine. This will likely cause your weight to shift forward slightly into your upper body so that your arms and shoulders will be bearing more weight. You’ll be almost in a half Downward Facing Dog Pose, half Plank Pose (Phalakasana) shape in your body, creating lots of strengthening in your upper body and core.

  5. Hold for a few long, deep breaths. 

4. Wrist-Strengthening Focus in Downward Facing Dog

A wrist strengthening version of Downward Facing Dog

This variation builds lots of heat in your arms by strongly loading and activating the muscles of your forearms.

  1. Find your traditional spinal elongation-focused Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  2. Strongly activate your core by three-dimensionally “corseting” your waistline.

  3. Shift your weight into your left hand and lift your right palm off the floor by “tenting” your right fingertips. Energetically draw your fingertips in toward the center of your hand, suctioning in toward the center of your palm.

  4. Stabilize your weight on your right fingertips and repeat the same actions to “tent” your left fingertips. 

  5. Equally distribute your weight between both of your “tented” hands.

  6. Hold for a few long, deep breaths.

5. Ankle Dorsiflexion Focus

Ankle dorsiflexion and Downward Facing Dog

This variation emphasizes ankle dorsiflexion, which will deeply stretch the muscles running along the back of your calves and strengthen the musculature across the front of your shins. 

  1. Find your traditional spinal elongation-focused Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  2. Straighten your legs as much as you comfortably can and release the weight of your heels toward the floor. Either let your heels touch the mat or roll up a blanket underneath your heels so that they are supported and in contact with something.

  3. Lift your toes off the floor and actively draw your toes back toward your shins.

  4. Hold for a few long, deep breaths.

6. Core Strengthening and Lengthening Focus

 A core strengthening version of Downward Facing Dog Pose

This asymmetrical variation of Downward Facing Dog Pose emphasizes one side of the body over the other, strengthening and lengthening the core (specifically the obliques and quadratus lumborum) to help stabilize the body in this shape. Because it pours your body weight toward one side of the body, it helps to strengthen and stabilize in the same way that Side Plank Pose (Vasisthasana) does. 

  1. Find your traditional spinal elongation-focused Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  2. Pour your weight into your right hand and your right foot. 

  3. Lean your hips and torso toward the right side of your mat and create a C-shape in your spine as you compress one side of your torso and simultaneously elongate the opposite side.

  4. Hold for a few long, deep breaths and then switch sides.

7. Balance Focus in Downward Facing Dog

A Downward Facing Dog variation that focuses on improving balance

Stimulate both the right and left hemispheres of your brain by dividing your body into halves to challenge your balance in this variation of Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  1. Find your traditional spinal elongation-focused Downward Facing Dog Pose.

  2. Strongly activate your core by drawing in around your whole waistline and hugging your navel toward your spine.

  3. Lean your weight into your left hand and foot and sweep your right leg toward the sky.

  4. Energetically press out through the heel and the ball of your right foot. Internally rotate your thigh so that your toes point toward the floor and both of your frontal hip points face in the same direction toward the mat.

  5. Shift your weight into your right hand and rise to your left fingertips. When you feel stable, lift your left hand off the floor and reach it toward the back of your mat in line with your left hip. 

  6. Send energy out through your right foot and your left hand as they both reach in the same direction.

  7. Find stability in this balanced Downward Facing Dog Pose shape.

  8. Hold for a few long, deep breaths and then switch sides.

Add Variety to Your Yoga Practice

In yoga and in life, there are no inherently dangerous positions for the body. Alignment in any position only becomes injurious when our tissues are unable to meet the load demands placed on them. 

Luckily, because we are constantly evolving, growing, living organisms, our tissues can adapt to various loads in order to build up strength and the capacity to withstand. So variability in our practice offers us the ability to gradually and safely introduce new loads to our tissues from various directions and angles.

The more variability we have in our practice, the more functional it becomes so that our bodies are able to meet the demands placed on them by everyday life. So rather than practicing Downward Facing Dog Pose in the same way over and over and over again, try to switch things up. 

Get creative and playful in your practice to prepare your body for the demands of real-life—and you just may get a bit stronger and more mobile in your yoga practice in the process.

 

Susi Hately, Yoga Therapist, Yoga U Presenter, Yoga for Plantar Fasciitis

 

Leah SugermanLeah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she has trained in countless schools and traditions of the practice. She teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on breath, alignment, and anatomical integrity. Leah teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings, both internationally and online. For more information, visit www.leahsugerman.com.