Modified Downward Dog: Six Ways To Access This Foundational Pose

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Downward-facing dog is a stock pose in the modern yoga library. It features in most classes and often serves as a linking pose within sequences such as vinyasas and sun salutations.

Downward-facing dog is a foundational pose that all practitioners will want to know how to do to make the most of their yoga practice. But what happens if you want to modify the pose? In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • What is downward-facing dog?
  • Why downward-facing dog is so important, and what are the benefits?
  • 6 ways to access the pose, including modified downward dog tips for beginners and seasoned practitioners
a woman doing downward dog in a patio

What is downward-facing dog?

Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, or downward-facing dog pose, is pronounced ah-doh-moo-khu-shvanh-aahs-anna and is not be confused with Ardho Mukha Sāvāsana – downward facing corpse pose!

Along with the lotus pose, downward-facing dog is arguably one of the most identifiable poses within yoga. You’ll find it in a wide range of class styles, from Ashtanga to Restorative Yoga, and in yoga classes worldwide.

A key part of sun salutations, Hatha Yoga, and Vinyasa Flow classes, this iconic pose requires strength and flexibility and can be held anywhere between one breath and several minutes.

The critical point here is that just like so many other yoga asanas, downward-facing dog can be interpreted in different ways by different schools and teachers.

Where does it come from?

Prior to the 1920s, there was little documentation of a shape such as downdog, but during the early 20th century, a similar posture can be found in European gymnastics. The pose came into use within yoga in the 1930s through teacher Swami Kuvalayananda. It was forged by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar, all of whom developed the pose in their own way.

a shirtless man doing downward dog on a yoga mat

Why is downward-facing dog so important, and what are the benefits?

Downward-facing dog is an inversion and provides traction for the spine. It functions as a vital pose within the sun-salutation (sūryanamaskāra) sequence, positioned after upward facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Sāvāsana).

The pose provides a lengthening of the calves and hamstrings, which benefits those with tight legs. It requires some core awareness and builds strength in the shoulders and arms.

We might say that a primary aim for downward-facing dog is that it provides a great platform to make observations. It allows us to develop our awareness and explore our relationship to gravity and effort.

Do I need to Do a modified downward dog if I’m pregnant?

A 2015 study (Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) on the safety of the pose during pregnancy reported that “downward facing dog is safe to practice during pregnancy for women who have no health or pregnancy complications.”

So downward-facing dog is safe for people with a baby on board as long as they are comfortable practicing, but what about other contraindications?

a pregnant lady doing downward dog on a yoga mat in a living room

Who should not do downward-facing dog?

It’s important to note that you should seek the advice of an experienced yoga teacher who will give you more information on all things downward-facing dog.

You should never feel pain in a yoga pose, so if you feel more than uncomfortable, which it can be for beginners, then come out of the posture and get some guidance. It is not advised that you do downward facing dog with an injury, especially a shoulder injury or after surgery but as always, check with your health professional.

Is Downward Dog a resting pose?

Not necessarily, but it is an excellent way to bring the spine to neutral after other postures, such as back/forward bends. Some would argue that over time and with practice, it can become easier and serve as a place of stillness and rest amidst the movement of more dynamic styles such as Ashtanga.

3 Things to watch out for before approaching a modified downward dog

If you’re a beginner downward-facing dog is likely going to feel challenging. But, if you’ve been at it a while and you’re not sure you’re doing it correctly, ask a teacher and get some input.

#1: Hybrid plank/downdog

Students new to downward-facing dog often create a hybrid plank/downdog pose that is much harder to sustain than downward-facing dog. The best way to rectify this is to think about the posture as an inverted or upside-down V. There should be one long line from your wrists to your hips with no break or angle in the shoulders.

#2: Cranking the neck

Where exactly should the neck go in downward-facing dog? It’s not a simple answer, but as a rule, the neck should be relaxed and comfortable. It might be helpful to remember that the head acts as a weight providing traction for the spine, which can be welcome for most people.

#3: Overworking

“Push the hands into the ground” is a helpful learning tool. Still, it can be fatiguing, especially for hypermobile people and those lacking strength. When we “push,” we create muscular energy that isn’t necessarily needed in this pose. Try working a little less hard and find support through your structure, aka the stacking of your bones.

a woman doing downward dog with a pug

Modified downward dog – 6 variations

What is a pose variation?

Variations of poses are used in yoga by deconstructing vital elements of the shape and modifying them so that the essence, form, and characteristics are honored while the effort or application is modified.

If you’re a student new to yoga, these variations could help with discomfort in the pose. If you’re a seasoned practitioner, they can help you vary your existing practice.

Teachers of yoga may find the following useful when trying to find ways to make downdog more comfortable and accessible for their students.

#1: Modified downward dog | Wrists

Some struggle with the wrists in downward-facing dog. This is generally due to bone structure, so stretching won’t necessarily make a difference. But you can change the angle required of the wrist by lifting the heel of the hand.

This is too difficult to do without a prop, so you can fold a yoga strap twice or three times and place it underneath the heel of the hand, keeping the fingers and base of the knuckles on the mat. Some yoga accessory companies also provide engineered wedges for this very purpose, like these lifts by yogadirect.

a yoga strap rolled up next to two yoga blocks

#2: Modified downward dog | Shoulders

Shoulders are tricky joints, and it’s not uncommon for people to struggle with their shoulders in this pose. It’s worth noting that generally, the shorter the downward-facing dog, the easier it is on the shoulders, the longer it is, the more taxing it is on the shoulders.

Many folks benefit from turning their hands out a little. For example, most of us are taught to point the index finger directly forward. But, for larger or tighter shoulders, this can be problematic. Try turning the hands out a little so the index fingers point more in the direction of 1 o clock and 11 o clock.

Playing around with the width of the hands can also be helpful. For those with broader shoulders taking the hands further toward the long edge of the mat can provide more space and comfort.

Still not comfortable?

Try forearm dog or dolphin pose which is downdog but with the forearms on the floor – be sure to keep the elbows under the shoulders.

Puppy pose is also an excellent modification for downward-facing dog, and it doesn’t require any of the upper body strength needed in downward-facing dog. The pose is the same as downward-facing dog but with the knees on the floor underneath the hips.

two women doing a modified downward dog puppy pose

#3: Modified downward dog | Legs

Shaky, tight legs can be a restriction in this pose. Try bending the legs slightly to take the strain off the hamstrings and lift the tail up to lengthen the lower back.

#4: Modified downward dog | Restorative

If you want to hold the pose for a more extended period, you need to consider how to support the body a little. By placing a bolster or brick underneath the head, you can create some support for the neck and shoulders and relax a little.

#5: Modified downward dog | Can’t keep still?

Try pedaling the legs in downward-facing dog to ease the legs and the “fidgets.” It’s ok to move in the pose as long as it’s mindful and attentive.

#6: Modified downward dog | Against the wall or on a chair

For those that may aren’t going on to the floor for whatever reason, adding a wall or chair to your practice can be a lovely thing.

By placing your hands on the back of a chair or the wall, you remove the need for upper body strength. Walk the legs to 90 degrees so your hips and shoulders are in one line or a little higher. This one is great for bigger bodies as well as if you’re feeling fatigued or have a baby on board.

two chairs on two yoga mats

Key Takeaways

Downward-facing dog is an iconic posture with a rich history within modern yoga. With variations across styles and methods, it is both an active and resting pose and provides a springboard for transitions to other poses.

It is a diverse pose that can be modified for injury as well as for energy, and most people can access the posture with the correct instruction. It’s a great pose. Give it a go!

Want to find out more?

If you want to learn more about āsana, check out the third of the eight limbs by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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