Downward Facing Dog is likely the most-practiced pose in modern yoga. Yet it is a pose that is undeniably complicated. When practiced with good alignment, it strengthens and stretches the arms, torso and legs. Because the pose asks so much of the upper body, if the alignment is not precise, it can destabilize the shoulders.
All poses must be a balance of strength and stretch. In Down Dog, it’s easy to stretch too far in the shoulders and upper spine. Because the shoulder joints have such inherent mobility, often the shoulders and spine express too much flexibility and not enough strength. While not exclusively gendered, I have observed this time and time again in female practitioners, who generally have more flexibility, especially in the upper body.
So how can you be sure you’re practicing a proper Down Dog?
First, I’m going to go into the basics of Down Dog alignment, and then I’ll dive a little deeper into intricacies of the upper body.
Here are the key points of a well-aligned Down Dog pose:
- Hands are shoulder width, with wrist creases parallel to the front of the mat,
- Hands are flat, and evenly rooted through the inner and outer hands,
- Arms are straight, with elbow creases facing slightly forward (not straight ahead, but diagonally forward via external rotation of the upper arm bones, as opposed to the more internally rotated upper arm position with the elbow creases square to each other).
- Feet are hip-width (sitting bone distance, about 4 inches apart),
- Legs are straight, or knees bent to accommodate tight hamstrings, with the heels stretching towards the floor.
When observed from the side, the arms and torso should be in one long line, as opposed to a hammock-shaped drop at the shoulders or spine. In the video below, my friend and colleague Teagan Schweitzer demonstrates this distortion in the upper body. You’ll see how over-flexibility results in the low back getting stuck, and how balancing that flexible stretch action with engagement and strength results in a more balanced, safer form.You’ll remember from my earlier articles on shoulders that healthy shoulder alignment starts with neutral curve in the thoracic spine (mid-back), with the arm bones plugging into the back plane of the body and the shoulder blades flat on the back. It’s easy in Down Dog to push through the arms so strongly that the shoulders drop towards the floor, losing the shoulder integration in the back body, creating a hammock shape from the side, and destabilizing the upper body over time.
To counter this, Down Dog must be just as much about strength as it is stretch. Extend through your arms, pushing your chest towards your legs only to the extent that the profile view is a straight line through the upper body. If your shoulders and spine sag towards the floor, apply more strength, toning and lifting the underside of your arms, and your front bottom ribs, to balance your flexibility with muscle engagement and integration.
Justicia DeClue (E-RYT 500) has been teaching since 2005 and is the owner and director of Maha Yoga in Philadelphia. She is most sought after for her detailed alignment instruction and open-hearted teaching style. She can be found on Instagram and Facebook.