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Downward-Facing Dog Pose: The Complete Guide

One of yoga's most widely recognized poses, Adho Mukha Svanasana strengthens your core and provides a delicious, full-body stretch.


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Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) is one of yoga’s most widely recognized poses. This foundational pose opens and strengthens the shoulders and chest, lengthen the hamstrings, and improves circulation with a full-body stretch.

“Adho Mukha Svanasana was the first asana I fell in love with, and it remains my desert island pose,” says Natasha Rizopoulos, a senior teacher and teacher trainer with Down Under School of Yoga. “When you’re tired, staying in this pose for a spell will restore your energy. It can also help strengthen and shape your legs, ease shoulder stiffness, and slow your heartbeat. I find it the perfect microcosm of yoga practice: It requires both strength and flexibility; it teaches you to appreciate alignment, and thus prepares you for doing inversions, backbends, and forward bends; and it offers philosophical lessons, such as the cultivation of stability and spaciousness, that will carry over into the rest of your life.”

“Downward Dog is the perfect pose to observe and correct your body’s imbalances,” adds Annie Carpenter, founder of SmartFLOW Yoga. “For some people, this pose is about stretching and opening; for others, it’s learning to stabilize your joints with muscular effort.” In this way, Downward Dog cultivates full-body strength and flexibility with intention and ease.

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Downward-Facing Dog Pose basics

Sanskrit: Adho Mukha Svanasana (AH-doh MOO-kah shvah-NAHS-anna)

adho = downward

mukha = face

svana = dog

Pose type: Inversion

Target area: Lower Body

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Benefits

Downward-Facing Dog Pose can help you recover after sports and activities like running. It improves posture, circulation, and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting.

Other Down Dog perks:

  • Strengthens your core, the front of your thighs (quadriceps), chest, shoulders, arms, wrists, and upper back
  • Stretches the muscles along your spine, the back of your thighs (hamstrings), your buttocks (glutes), the palm sides of your wrists, and your feet
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Step-by-step instructions

  1. Set up on all fours with your hands about 3 inches ahead of your shoulders and shoulder-width apart.
  2. Align your wrist creases so they are parallel to the front edge of the mat, then root down evenly through your entire hands.
  3. Roll your inner upper arms toward the wall in front of you as you draw your outer upper arms into your midline.
  4. Inhale and tuck your toes under; exhale and press your hips back and up.
  5. Glance back at your feet to make sure they are hip-width apart and parallel.
  6. Bring your gaze toward your thighs or your navel.
  7. Allow your shoulder blades to move out and up, away from your spine and toward your outer armpits (upward rotation) in order to maintain spaciousness at the base of your neck.
  8. If your hamstrings are tight or if your lower back feels rounded, bend your knees as much as needed to straighten your back.
  9. With each exhalation, root down firmly through your hands; with each subsequent inhalation, send your hips back and up.
  10. To exit the pose, either move through a vinyasa or fully bend your knees and come into Child’s Pose.
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Explore the pose

Be mindful!

  • Watch your hand placement. Spread your fingers wide and check to make sure the creases of your wrists are parallel to the front edge of your mat. Press your hands into the mat as if you were trying to push it away from you.
  • If you have tight shoulders, place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders and angle your hands slightly outward.
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Downward-Facing Dog variations

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Bent-Knee Downward-Facing Dog Pose

If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees in this pose. This can also help if your back is rounded in the position, and/or you have low back pain.

Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Downward-Facing Dog against a wall

Bring your hands to the wall and walk your feet back so your hips bend at 90 degrees. Your hands can be straight across from your hips or, if it’s comfortable, they can come higher on the wall.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Downward-Facing Dog on a chair

If your arms and shoulders are tight, hold onto the seat or back of a chair. Bend your knees as needed.

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Preparatory and counter poses

Warm up for Adho Muka Svanasana with spinal stretches such as Cat and Cow Pose, and hamstring stretches such as Standing Forward Bend. Almost any pose can follow Downward-Facing Dog, although if you find it challenging, let yourself drop into a comfortable pose such as Child’s Pose afterward.

Preparatory poses

Cat Pose

Cow Pose

Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Puppy Pose

Plank Pose

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Counter poses

Child’s Pose (Balasana)

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Your body in Downward-Facing Dog Pose | Anatomy

Adho Mukha Svanasana is part arm balance, part inversion, and part restorative pose. It actively stretches and strengthens various regions of the body, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

 

Downward-Facing Dog Pose: Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Straighten your elbows in this pose by contracting the triceps. This will press the body back. Extend your knees by activating the quadriceps; this stretches and relaxes the hamstrings. Press the mounds at the base of your index fingers into the mat by engaging your forearms. Turning your palms down (internal rotation) and externally rotating your shoulders creates a “wringing” effect up and down your arms, stabilizing them.

Draw the tops of your feet toward the fronts of your shins to dorsiflex your ankles. This cue activates the tibialis anterior. Activating the tibialis anterior also produces reciprocal inhibition of the gastrocnemius/soleus complex, relaxing those muscles and allowing your heels to drop toward the mat.

Downward-Facing Dog Pose: Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Contract the quadratus lumborum and erector spinae muscles to extend the lumbar spine and the psoas to flex your hips. These muscles also tilt the pelvis forward into anteversion. Arching your lower back, tilting your pelvis forward, and flexing your hips draws the origin of the hamstrings, the ischial tuberosities or sitting bones, upward. This stretches the hamstrings. Also, activate the quadriceps to produce reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings, relaxing them.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses by Ray Long.

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About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.