Downward Dog, also known as Adho Mukha Svanasana (in Sanskrit- aka yoga language) is a staple in anyone’s yoga practice… here’s what you should know about it:
Dogs do it naturally
What do dogs know (naturally) that we should all be doing on a daily basis? Moving and stretching our spines. I watch my dog, Rosie, do this every morning and also everytime she gets up from a nap on the couch- a deep stretch in downward dog (hence the origin of the name).
Taking time to stretch on a regular basis helps to maintain our mobility- and downward dog is one of those great stretches with multiple benefits.
The spine is possibly the most flexible part of our body. We use it to twist, bend, lean, or simply stand upright.
Sitting is not good for your spine
The spine might just be one of the most abused parts of the human body. The amount of pressure exerted on the spine when standing in an upright position is approximately 100kg of pressure. Sitting increases this pressure to approximately 140kg of pressure (source). Many of us spend hours each day sitting- something our bodies were never designed to do.
To counteract the pressure on the spine, think about stretching each time you get up out of your chair. Make it routine to fully extend your spine, stretch up into a backbend, maybe flex side to side, twist, and finally, round forward into flexion.
Downward dog is a great way to stretch your spine
Downward dog is a back lengthener as well as a hamstring (and calf) stretch. It also strengthens your arms and core.
Check out Yoga Journal’s instruction on how to properly execute the shape (asana) of Downward Dog.
Downward Dog is an inversion
What is an inversion? Headstands and handstands are considered inversions because you are literally turning yourself upside down, but technically an inversion is when you put your head below your heart… which means downward dog is an inversion because your head is lower than your heart.
What’s good about this? When your head is below your heart, you get “extra credit” oxygen-rich blood pumping to the brain. At least that’s the party line in the yoga community. Read more here about how scientists and doctors aren’t completely convinced that inversions do anything beneficial for your brain (the article also includes many pre-cautions against practicing inversions- which could exacerbate some health problems).
But this is my blog, and I say inversions are good for you (see below for an incomplete list of when downward dog might be risky for some). I mean, something up there is getting more circulation….just check out my red face immediately after any inversion I practice.
Sometimes you have to listen to your own intuition when you are weighing the possible benefits of a yoga pose, or any shape you put your body into. It follows that when I sit on my booty too long, it gets numb… So why can’t changing our head position relative to gravity have a beneficial effect on our brains? (Is that a valid argument? Just go with me on this).
How to perfect your Downward Dog
I still remember my very first yoga class- when the teacher asked us to do downward dog- my mind was completely blown. WHY is this so hard for me?? My arms were shaking after only a few seconds and my legs felt like steel cables.
I’ve since improved (dare I say perfected) my downward dog (after over two decades of practicing yoga). Check out this quick video I made to show how you can improve upon your down dog.
One more possible benefit
As a student of yoga, I’ve read plenty of books about yoga styles, yoga anatomy, yoga philosophy and more. One of my most favorite books on the subject of yoga anatomy is literally called Anatomy of Hatha Yoga and it’s written by H. David Coulter. In this book, he breaks down each pose in intricate anatomical detail.
“Breathing in downward dog,” Coulter points out, “is different from that observed in any of the other forward bending postures.” He goes on to describe how, on inhale, the diaphragm pushes upward on the internal organs (while inverted) and on exhale, the diaphragm, “resists the fall of the organs toward the floor. And finally, the weight of the abdominal organs against the underside of the diaphragm causes you to exhale more completely.” This may be more than you needed to know about the dog pose.
And finally… the not so good side of downward dog
It’s true that downward dog might not be a pose for everyone. I’ve come across many people who complain of wrist pain (there are some things you can do about this), or some who are just too tight in the shoulders and or the legs to even get close to relaxing into this stretch. Don’t worry- you can get more flexible! In the meantime, a great modification for downward dog is a happy puppy pose.
Other health concerns to note: downward dog might be risky for pregnant mothers, most specifically- early or late into the pregnancy term. YOu may also want to avoid downward dog if you have high blood pressure or if you are experiencing a headache.
Certainly, doing any type of inversion is tough when you already have sinus pressure. If you have glaucoma, a detached retina or simply have a nagging feeling that downward dog might not be right for you- please ask your doctor, and listen to your intuition. This is not a comprehensive list of when not to practice downward dog, but it’s a start.