This iconic yoga pose is not as easy as the yogi’s make it look. There are plenty of reasons why your beginner yoga body may not adopt this pose so quickly. When I first started yoga, I recall the feeling of effort and struggle in downward dog (DD), and I dreaded it each class. For me, it was the tightness in my shoulders and posterior leg muscles, and lack of awareness on how to properly engage my muscles and modify in this pose, which caused the strain. It took me a few years before I found comfort in DD, and looking back, it was a combination of experiences, awareness, and practices which helped me. So for those of you struggling with DD, here are five tips which might help you progress in this pose:
Tip 1 – Know how you look in the pose
I realize part of the challenge is that some of us aren’t aware of what we are doing in DD, and we have no idea that our alignment is creating an inefficiency. The picture below (left) shows the most typical alignment I see in beginners, or in students who get stuck due to the lack of range of motion (ROM) in their shoulders, hips, and legs. Typically, the back is rounded, the shoulders have not reached full flexion, and the head is in front of the shoulder line. The picture on the right utilizes alignment arrows to highlight how the upper body is shifted forward from the triangular frame.
Now I am the first to preach that we don’t want to get too caught up in “perfect alignment” since it can make us lose sight of our body’s safety and comfort for the sake of outward appearances. However, in the case of DD, learning what you look like in the pose can tell you a lot about how to direct your efforts for more comfort. It is well worth your while to take a look in the mirror, or even better, take a picture of yourself in the pose, and if your DD looks anything like the picture above, please keep reading the next few tips to establish greater ease and comfort in this pose.
Tip 2 – Check your shoulder ROM
In order to create the straight line of the upper body in DD, it requires full ROM in the shoulder flexion. It’s good to first know if you are restricted in shoulder flexion, and you can assess this by simply reaching your arms overhead (without letting your back arch) and noting if you can get your upper arm in line with your ears. It makes sense that if you can’t do it standing then you won’t be too successful in DD. Below, the picture on the left shows standing flexion with restricted ROM and picture on right shows full ROM.
If you find your shoulders are tight, you may need a little extra practice stretching into this motion, and a convenient way to do this is to do puppy pose (picture below), where you can deepen your shoulder flexion. This pose serves as a great warm up for DD as well.
Also, for tight shoulders, the spacing position of our hands in DD should be noted. When kneeling on all fours (table top pose), before entering DD, ensure that you position your hands forward from the shoulder line. You can also play around with the distance between the hands; try placing them slightly wider than shoulder width if that provides you with more comfort and ROM.
Tip 3 – Let go of perfectly straight legs and heels down
If you have tight hamstrings and calves, it is going to be very difficult for you to get straight legs and heels down. If you fight against this tightness, it means something else will need to give in the alignment, and often the back gets rounded and the body’s alignment shifts forward to compensate. I strongly suggest letting go of the goal to have straight legs and flat feet. Instead, bend the knees and keep the heels lifted. Put your focus more on tilting the sit bones of the bottom up and lengthening through the spine. In fact, I advise always mastering the bent-knee down dog first, and then progressing towards straightening the legs and later to the heels. Some people need to stay with the bent-knee DD their whole lives, and that’s okay!
A side note about the legs in DD, sometimes it’s nice to use this posture as a purposeful way to stretch the calves, and when this is our intention, give yourself permission to focus on that area and let worries about alignment go.
Tip 4 – Learn the shift
Ultimately, in order to create the most energy efficient DD, we want the weight between the hands and feet to be even. However, for many of us, all the weight is through the arms and shoulders because our upper body alignment is positioned too far forward. What we need to balance this out is to learn to engage the upper body—press through the hands, lengthen through the arms and spine, and create a shift of our upper body back (aiming to move the rib cage more towards the upper thighs). Have a look at this shift demonstrated with a chair version of DD below (the chair version is a nice way to first learn the shift; however, just make sure you anchor your chair so that it doesn’t slide). Also, note, this shift back with the torso does require a decent amount of shoulder strength, and this may need to develop overtime.
Note, some people are hyper mobile in shoulders, and if this is you, it’s important to be conservative in the shift back and more important to engage the muscles about the shoulder girdle and core to prevent excessive shoulder flexion and spinal extension. Again, this is where having a picture of yourself helps to draw awareness of what your body is doing.
Tip 5 – Note head alignment
Don’t forget the neck is part of the spine. Our goal is to keep length and neutrality through the entire length of the spine, and some people leave the head hanging down (see poor head alignment below in picture on the left, and good head alignment in picture on the right). It helps to come back to the shoulder flexion of the upper arms being in line with the ears, and our gaze should be towards the feet.
Hopefully some of these tips are useful in helping you create more comfort and ease in DD. It’s certainly worth your while if you plan to do yoga regularly—this classic pose is sure to keep showing up in your classes!