“Downward-facing dog is the most ubiquitous pose in yoga,” writes Sara Calabro on the Huffington Post. That’s very true, but is this actually a good thing?
This popular pose is the yoga world’s ambassador to a largely inflexible public. You see it in advertisements (some naked) for yoga socks, yoga mats, yoga towels, yoga blocks, and yoga nutrition products.
It also appears in movies that involve yoga, usually whenever a sedentary man is trying to impress a super-bendy young woman in a yoga class.
Downward-facing dog, known in Sanskrit as Adho Mukha Svanasana, is not a pose you just throw yourself into, though. And even advanced yoga students, who can contort their bodies into endless pretzel shapes, can benefit from rethinking their relationship with downward-facing dog.
Unfortunately, this pose often shows up in beginner yoga classes, even though it is NOT suitable for beginners.
The “Best” and “Worst” Pose of the Yoga World
Not at all.
Even though downward-facing dog will never be the “worst” pose (or even the “best” one), it can still be bad for you. Of course, that can be said for most yoga poses if they are done incorrectly.
But downward-facing dog has two things going for it that makes it more likely to cause problems for students, especially for those who are new to the practice.
- Teachers often fall back on downward-facing dog out of habit, rather than using it with a specific purpose in mind.
- The pose is deceptively easy, with most people able to get into some shape that resembles what you see in Yoga Journal and on YogaGlo.
The Habit of Downward-Facing Dog
Yoga is all about breaking habits (aka samskaras) and replacing them with other (we hope) better habits. However, in the rush to dive into yoga head first, we sometimes fall into bad patterns without realizing it.
So how did downward-facing dog become a habit? To find that out, you have to look at the tradition of yoga as it passed into the West.
If you’ve ever practiced Ashtanga yoga, you know that downward-facing dog is integral to this style of yoga. As part of the Sun Salutations, it helps turn up the heat in the body at the beginning of a yoga practice.
Ashtanga has had a large influence on yoga in the Western world. Widely known as a vigorous practice, it has been absorbed and adapted by many yoga teachers. The different versions of power yoga—from Baron Baptiste to CorePower Yoga to Bryan Kest—all draw heavily on Ashtanga.
While these Westernized versions of yoga have changed (some would say “watered down” or “destroyed”) some aspects of Ashtanga yoga, downward-facing dog and the Sun Salutations have survived the transition.
Many yoga teachers learn to teach yoga in an Ashtanga-influenced style. As they learn to practice yoga, downward-facing dog becomes part of their yoga habit. When they teach students—and eventually other teachers—downward-facing dog becomes even more fixed in the yoga world.
If you ask a yoga teacher to teach a class without downward-facing dog, they immediately think of a restorative or gentle yoga class. “You have to do downward-facing dog and Sun Salutations to get the body warmed up,” they say.
That’s like thinking you have to drink coffee to stay awake. If coffee is your habit, then it feels like you can’t survive without it. For yoga teachers, downward-facing dog has become a heat-building habit, thrown in at the beginning or in the middle of a yoga practice.
Downward-Facing Dog and the Ego
What would Western yoga be without ego? When we take a yoga class, our ego whispers to us that we can do every yoga pose in spite of our:
- injuries or restrictions
- fitness level
- years of practice.
When beginner yoga students attend their first class—named Yoga 101 or something similar—downward-facing dog is one of the first poses they learn. Not wanting to show any sign of weakness, the students keep attacking the pose, no matter how often it bites back.
“Don’t worry,” says the teacher, “it will get easier.” As if lifting a car over your head is just a matter of trying to lift a car over your head (at a cost of $18 for an hour of sweaty practice, followed by $4 for a refreshing coconut water).
Even though students sign a waiver before class stating that they know their own limits, they don’t really mean it. Many students think their physical limit is either: 1) not being able to move the next day, or 2) feeling something “snap.”
No matter how many times yoga teachers tell their students to “listen to their own bodies,” the students will still gladly suffer through downward-facing dog—as long as teachers keep encouraging them to “force” themselves into the pose.
Beginners, Skip the Down Dogs
But downward-facing dog is NOT a beginner’s pose. This is a pose that only students with a regular yoga practice should attempt. Even if you have the strength to hold yourself up with your arms (like many athletes who come to yoga for the first time), you may need to spend some time opening up your shoulders first.
If done improperly, downward-facing dog can hurt your back, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, legs, etc. There are so many things that can go wrong with the pose, especially for beginner (and even moderate) yoga students.
For example, if your shoulders are tight, the tension in your arms will move into your shoulders and neck, leaving you with a stiff neck after your yoga practice. If your back is weak, you will struggle to maintain the pose, and your breath will become short and choppy. You might even pull a muscle in your back, leaving you wriggling in pain on your mat after everyone else has left the studio.
Sure, there are other poses that are potentially more dangerous than downward-facing dog, like headstand and shoulder stand. These look challenging, though, so beginners are more likely to avoid them until they are ready.
Because downward-facing dog looks so simple, it lulls you into thinking that anyone can do it. But faking it—by making some sort of inverted V (or U) shape with your body—and doing it correctly are two different things.
Enjoying Downward-Facing Dog’s Many Benefits
If you want to be able to do downward-facing dog comfortably—without hurting yourself or cursing at your yoga teacher—you need to first strengthen and open up several areas of the body, including your:
Yes, it’s the same list as before.
To gain all the benefits of downward-facing dog that Calabro talks about in her article on the Huffington Post, you need to work into the pose slowly.
You will make the fastest progress toward downward-facing dog if you work with a qualified yoga teacher. Ideally, you should choose one who understands that you can have an effective yoga practice without having to do downward-facing dog in every class.
You should also keep in mind that yoga sequences consist of three basic parts—preparation, execution, and release. This is true for both the day of your practice, and over the course of weeks or months. If you don’t spend enough time preparing for a yoga pose, you will never enjoy its full benefits. Instead, you will find yourself straining or forcing while in the pose.
To make the most of downward-facing dog, you also need to learn what your limits are (just like it says in the waiver that you signed). Don’t wait for something to “snap” before backing off. Your best guides are:
- Your breath: If you can’t breathe comfortably (slowly and evenly) in a pose, you are not ready for it.
- Your body: If you feel pain, come out of the pose. Don’t suffer in silence. You should tell your teacher exactly where and when you felt the pain. Yoga teachers help those who help themselves.
- Your yoga teacher’s feedback: Listen to your teacher (unless it conflicts with one of the other two guides). And feel free to ask for a second opinion.
If downward-facing dog is not currently part of your yoga practice, don’t rush. It will still be there when you are ready. If you’re already practicing this pose, reassess whether you really enjoy it. If not, maybe you need more time preparing.
Downward-facing dog is a wonderful pose. Yes, it can be bad for you, but it doesn’t have to be. Done correctly, down dog will bring many benefits to your yoga practice and to your life.
- Breath-Centered Yoga with Leslie Kaminoff (DVD): This video includes four complete yoga practices, including a vigorous warrior sequence that avoids stress on the hands and arms (yes, no downward-facing dog).
- Downward-facing dog outside: (c) iStockphoto
- One-legged downward-facing dog in Joshua Tree, Wikimedia, (c) Jarek Tuszynski
- Good habits, bad habits sign, Flickr, (c) The People Speak
- Dog doing downward-facing dog, Flickr, (c) Bill