In a Bikram Yoga class, you will never do it; in a power vinyasa class, you will do it what feels like a thousand times. It is an integral part of the sun salutation.
You may love it or despise it, but Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog Pose, has many benefits, including these:
• Elongates and releases tension from your spine
• Stretches your hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands
• Strengthens your arms, shoulders, and back
• Improves digestion: Although downward-facing dog is not a full bend or fold, the pose does allow for slight abdominal compression by drawing the navel into the spine. The pose compresses the organs like the kidneys, liver and the spleen, aiding in digestion.
• Relieves back pain, headaches, insomnia and fatique
• Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause
• Downward-Facing Dog is a mild inversion that calms the nervous system and helps relieve stress
• According to BKS Iyengar, a mere minute in this pose will “bring back lost energy for runners after a hard race.”
• Strengthens Bones: If you’re new to yoga, even holding downward dog for a few seconds can cause the muscles in your upper half to tremble. This is good—shaking means the muscles in the arms and shoulders are being challenged as they support more of your body weight. Not only do poses like downward dog promote upper body strength; they also strengthen bone density and help prevent osteoporosis.
• Relieves Back Pain: As you strengthen the core muscles (muscles in the torso, consisting of the abdominals and lower and outer back muscles) with downward dog, don’t overlook the stretching, aligning, and loosening benefits of this pose on your spine, shoulders, and back. For instance, in downward dog, the shoulders melt down the back, the upper back fans out, and the spine is properly aligned to promote flexible and ease tension.
• Strengthens abdominal muscles: Envision turning downward-facing dog right side up into boat pose. Just as you would with boat pose, engaging the belly in downward-facing dog strengthens and abdominal muscles that support the spine.
• improves circulation: Many tend to forget that downward-facing dog is an inversion! As the hips lift and the head drops below the heart, the pull of gravity is reversed and fresh blood flows, aiding in circulation.
Ideally, when the body is properly aligned, Downward Facing Dog is a resting pose. Have you ever wondered why your instructor leads you to take and hold downward dog between yoga sequences? This is because in addition to promoting a good stretch to the entire body, downward dog also allows you to take pause or inventory between postures, as a means to mind-body connection.
In a perfect world, here is what downward dog looks like when the body is properly aligned.
However many bodies cannot get fully comfortable in Adho Mukha Svanasana, due to tight hamstrings, injuries of the wrists or shoulders, or even one’s own unique skeletal structure (some folks will never get their heels to reach the floor due to the shape of their bones in the ankle!). So, here are some useful modifications that you may find helpful:
• Ease pressure on your wrists by placing a wedge under your palms or performing the pose on your elbows.
• Elevate hands on blocks or on the seat of a chair to release and open your shoulders.
• Bend knees slightly to flatten lower back.
Check out this helpful slide show on ways to make downward dog feel better!
Finally, here's a helpful instructional video from Yoga Journal's website that takes you through the pose, step by step:
Whether it's in a hot yoga flow or a traditional Surya Namaskar sequence, Adho Mukha Svanasana is a home base of sorts, a place where we pause together in class and center for a few quiet breaths. As they say in some yoga circles "I'll meet you in Downward Dog!"