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Pose Breakdown: Down Dog

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Down dog (adho mukha svanasana) is one of the most common postures in a modern day hatha

yoga class. My classes always include it, and we visit it probably 20 to 30 times in a class - that is a lot!! Granted, we don’t usually hold it for long periods of time, but still: that is quite the litter of dogs.

Illustration of a woman in down dog pose; her hands are at the front of the mat, feet at the back, and her hips are lifting high, lengthening her arms and spine.

And here’s the really annoying thing about down dog: so many of us teachers refer to it as “a resting pose.” For experienced yogis, this may be true. I’ll admit that generally, I find it to be a very soothing pose - but I know that this is not everyone’s experience. And, it is not always my experience, either!

If down dog is not a resting pose for you, do not fret! It is likely that you have one or more of the following things going on:

  1. Tight hamstrings (the muscles that connect your sitting bone to the back of your knee)

  2. Tight latissimus dorsi (the muscle that connects your pelvis, mid and lower vertebrae, to the front of your upper arm bone, right near the shoulder joint)

  3. Weak or tight wrists (hopefully you know where those are)

  4. A yoga mat that isn’t sticky enough

A new yoga mat is an easy fix (and for a list of mats that I approve of, check out this totally unsponsored list I made). The other things, however, will take some focus and time. But again (and I cannot stress this enough), do not fret! Down dog is a difficult pose for most students, especially in the beginning, when your body isn’t used to bearing the weight of your body on your arms - the arms simply aren’t built for it! Thankfully, there are some things you can do to make it easier over time. Here are 3 of them:

1. Widen your feet & bend your knees

Stepping your feet wider, especially when combined with bending your knees, will allow your hamstrings to relax a little bit. So, if you are someone who always feels a lot of sensation in your hamstrings in down dog, this is the first thing I’d recommend. It works because it reduces the strain in your hamstrings, which allows your pelvis to fold forward, which allows your spine to lengthen more - and this is what this pose is primarily about: spinal length!

2. Widen your hands & turn your hands slightly outward

Widening your hands will allow your latissimus dorsi (or "lats") to slacken. Turing your hands slightly outward may at first bring more sensation to your lats, making the pose feel harder. But it will put the shoulder bones in a more stable position overall. By putting your shoulder bones in this position first, your lats can gradually stretch out, ultimately making the pose easier on your shoulders.

Pro tip: Rather than come into down dog and hold it, flow from down down to plank a few times. Try to breathe slowly and deeply, and move gently. This will stretch your lats (and hamstrings) dynamically, which is generally easier on the body than stretching statically.

3. Strengthen your hands in a less demanding position

Strengthening a weak area when it’s already in high demand is difficult at best, and injurious at worst. So if your wrists tend to hurt in down dog, first, come out of down dog. You can come to table top instead, or even stand in front of a wall with your arms stretched out in front of you, hands against the wall (like a standing plank pose).

Now, with less weight pressing into your hands, come to your fingertips and attempt to pull your fingertips toward each other (like you’re one of those mechanical claws trying to pick up a stuffed animal). Do this for a few breaths, then come back to your palms. With your fingers actively spreading and lengthening, press the floor (or wall) actively away from you. You may even feel your shoulder blades get wider across your upper back - that’s great! That means your serratus anterior (the shoulder muscle that connects your ribs to the underside of your shoulder blade) are helping out, which will also reduce the strain on your wrists.

You can repeat the above process a few times, but don’t go past the point of fatigue. When your wrists tell you to stop, listen to them, for they are wise!

Above all, remember that yoga is meant to support you. If a pose doesn’t feel supportive, remember that you are always allowed to find a different pose, and/ or to build up to the pose gradually, over time. No pose is for everyone, and everyone has some poses that will just never feel great. You can still have a “complete,” nourishing practice, even if you never do certain poses! Trust that with every sensation, your body is giving you information. Sensation is an invitation to pause, to feel, to inquire, and to experiment.

If this post has intrigued you, and you’d like to inquire further into the body, specifically the shoulders, you are invited to join me for:

Thursdays, May 25 - June 15


at The Breathe Building

Portland, OR

Until then, take care of your bodies, hearts, and minds.

Image of Abby doing side plank next to her small brown dog, Wanda, on a green yoga mat; text reads: Anatomy of Asana: Stable Shoulders, Thursdays, May 25-June 15, 5:30-7pm at The Breathe Building

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