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Downward-Facing Dog Pose

One of yoga's most widely recognized poses, Adho Mukha Svanasana strengthens the core and improves circulation, while providing a delicious, full-body stretch.


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Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) is a foundational yoga posture that you’ll likely practice countless times throughout your yoga lifetime.

Because this pose is equal parts strengthening and stretching, practicing Down Dog can help to build better balance and flexibility throughout your whole body. Just be sure to practice it with care and attention: If you have stiff shoulders or hamstrings, the pose may feel challenging. If you’re flexible, you want to be cautious to avoid collapsing in your lower back and shoulders.

“As you find the alignment of this pose, see if you can find alertness and relaxation in the rest of your life,” says Natasha Rizopoulos, a senior teacher and teacher trainer with Down Under School of Yoga. “Too often in our daily lives these two qualities exist in opposition. On the yoga mat, however, we can learn to inhabit them simultaneously.”

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Sanskrit

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

adho = downward

mukha = face

svana = dog

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Downward-Facing Dog Pose basics

Pose type: Inversion

Targets: Lower Body

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

Learn more about finding alignment and balancing effort with ease in this pose in Downward-Facing Dog: The Complete Guide for Students and Teachers. Access expert insights from top teachers—including anatomy know-how, variations, and more—when you become a member. It’s a resource you’ll return to again and again.

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How to

A woman demonstrates how to practice Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) in yoga
(Photo: Christopher Dougherty)
  1. Come onto your hands and knees, with your hands a tiny bit in front of your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Spread your palms, rooting down through all four corners of your hands, and turn your toes under.
  2. Exhale and lift your knees from the floor, at first keeping your knees slightly bent and your heels lifted off the floor. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of your pelvis, lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling, and draw your inner legs from your inner ankles up through your groins.
  3. On an exhalation, push your top thighs back and stretch your heels toward the floor. Straighten your knees without locking them.
  4. Firm your outer arms and press the bases of your index fingers actively into the floor. Lift along your inner arms from the wrists to the tops of the shoulders. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then widen them and draw them toward your tailbone. Keep your head between your upper arms.
  5. Stay in the pose for 10 or more breaths, then bend your knees on an exhalation and lower yourself into Child’s Pose
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Beginner’s tip

To stretch the backs of your legs more, lift slightly up onto the balls of your feet, pulling your heels a half-inch or so away from the floor. Draw your inner groin deep into the pelvis, lifting actively from the inner heels, then lengthen your heels back onto the floor.

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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Teacher tips

These cues will help protect your students from injury and help them have the best experience of the pose:

  • Be mindful of hyperextension of any of the joints in this pose. Protect your elbows by pressing your inner upper arms away from each other until your biceps engage.
  • For healthy neck placement, bring your ears in line with your upper arms to align your neck and head along the same line as your spine.
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Downward-Facing Dog variations

Photo: Andrew Clark

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: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

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: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Downward-Facing Dog with heels against a wall

If you have tight hamstrings, bring your heels against a wall and keep a slight bend in your knees. Press through your heels into the wall.

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Why we love this pose

“I’ve had two mind-blowing revelations while practicing this pose. The first was when the teacher ever-so-gently put her thumb and forefinger between my shoulder blades and opened them. Such a small adjustment opened my shoulder blades and moved my hunched shoulders away from my ears,” says Tamara Jeffries, Yoga Journal‘s senior editor. “The second revelation was while watching a video of Laruga Glaser doing an Ashtanga series. I realized that the power of the pose came from her pelvis, hips, and torso, rather than her arms and legs: She entered the pose by lifting her hips, not pushing through the arms. Now I lift into the pose, rather than push up into it. It makes a world of difference in how I approach my Dog.”

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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)

Learn more about finding alignment and balancing effort with ease in this pose in Downward-Facing Dog: The Complete Guide for Students and Teachers. Access expert insights from top teachers—including anatomy know-how, variations, and more—when you become a member. It’s a resource you’ll return to again and again.

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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.