Downward dog: the foundational yoga pose. The pose that is supposed to “reset everything.” The pose that feels so good to practice when you wake up.
Or does it? Does downward facing dog feel good to your body?
It should feel good: when performed properly it lengthens the spine, activates the shoulder stabilizers and decompresses the neck.
If it doesn’t, let’s figure out why.
Downward dog can aggravate hypermobilities
Here are some common complaints after downward facing dog:
- Pinching in the tops of the shoulders
- Pain at the base of the neck
- Pain in the mid to upper back
All of these can be the result of pressing too far back in the pose. When we press back, we need to stay mindful of spinal positioning, otherwise we aggravate existing hypermobilities in the shoulder, neck and back. Hypermobilities lead to pain.
This image illustrates pushing too far into the pose. The head is down past the arms, creating a stress point where the neck meets the torso. The shoulders have too much “give” in this position, putting them at risk of injury. The upper back is hyperextended in one area, creating compression in the spine.
This is a mistake common among experienced practitioners, as well as other populations prone to ligamentous laxity (loose ligaments) and hypermobility. Examples are gymnasts, dancers, pregnant women and new moms.
Let’s fix it!
Downward dog can improve strength, alignment and symmetry
If you do it this way…
Step 1: Pull your chin toward your Adam's apple
This lengthens the back of the neck, centering it in line with the rest of your spine. Keep your ears between your upper arms, not past them.
Step 2: Turn your armpits toward the front
This assures that your shoulder blades come up and around (upward rotation), activating the serratus anterior. When the serratus helps with upward rotation, tension decreases in the muscles on the sides of your neck (upper trapezius). Your hands may rotate outward a little and that is fine. This activates stabilizing muscles of the rotator cuff.
Step 3: Lengthen your back
Be aware of any tightness in your back. If you notice tightness or pinching in one area, think of making a mini “cat back” in that spot instead. Or have someone place a hand in that spot so you can push your spine into the hand. This activates tiny core muscles that keep your vertebrae in line.
When the back is lengthened, the bottom of the rib cage cannot flare out. Think about keeping the bottom ribs together. This is especially important if you have recently been pregnant, because the lower rib angle has already widened from the pregnancy. See this post for more on activating the muscles that prevent rib cage flare.
Step 4: Unlock your elbows
Press your palms into the ground, making sure to keep the area under the index fingers in contact with your mat. When the elbows are locked, you lose the energy that should be pressing from shoulder to palm. Unlocking the elbows activates your biceps and keeps your elbows in a more neutral position.
Feel better after the pose
When you practice downward dog with good form, your body feels better afterward. If the pose makes something hurt more, you need a modification. If you have suspicions that your form could be improved, ask your yoga teacher to check it. Downward dog should give you a feeling of length and space throughout your spine. Energy and blood flow are maximized, helping you feel calm, strong and ready for the next pose!