Downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) is probably the greatest yoga pose ever. It’s a pose you’ll encounter in almost every yoga class—with good reason. It strengthens and stretches your back, wrists, and ankles. It safely gets you upside down. It helps release tension in your neck and shoulders. It helps fluidly transition you from the ground to a standing position. And it’s fun!
Traditional Downward Dog
The best way to get into downward dog is to start on your hands and knees in table pose (bharmanasana). Place your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keep your hands planted, tuck your toes under, then press your tail up in the air and shift back until your body forms an upside down letter V. From there, check out these variations moving from the most simple to more complex.
Variation 1: Calf Stretch
This is the perfect stretch for runners and anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet. Warm up in downward dog by gently pedaling your feet in time with slow, even breaths. When you feel ready, move one foot close to the center, then hook your other foot over the back of your ankle. Use the weight of your hooked foot to bring your heel closer to the ground. Breathe deeply as you release all the tension in the back of your body. Be sure to spend an equal amount of time on the other side.
Variation 2: Three-Legged Dog
There are a lot of ways to play with three-legged dog. The important thing here is to keep your palms firmly planted on the ground and your shoulders aligned. Exhale fully, then inhale as you lift one leg behind you as high as you can into the air. Point your foot. Flex your foot. Do a few ankle rotations in each direction. From here, you can exhale and bring your knee toward your nose, then either or both elbows. Inhale, lift; then exhale, knee to nose or elbows; this will give you a fantastic ab workout. Another awesome variation is to bend your knee to open up your hip flexors as shown above right.
Variation 3: The Wave
A dynamic yoga teacher once taught me to keep breathing and moving in each yoga pose rather than striving to stay perfectly still. That idea has always stayed with me and has helped me develop a more exploratory and playful practice. With the wave, time your breath to the movement for maximum effect. Breathe in and bend your knees to give your back a nice stretch and take the weight off your wrists. Breathe out and curl forward to open up your back body and tone your abs. Keep going until your blood gets flowing and you feel invigorated.
Variation 4: The Twist
Twists are the best way to detoxify your internal organs and keep your spine flexible. This twist also improves your balance. Start in downward dog with a wide-legged stance. Firmly plant one hand then take the other hand across your body to the opposite ankle. Hold your ankle while you bend your elbow to pull your chest through so you are looking up under your armpit. Breathe deeply and twist gently with each exhale. Be sure to spend an equal amount of time on the other side.
Variation 5: Flip Your Dog
This playful pose is also known as “Wild Thing” or “Rock Star.” It’s kind of like a half-wheel or backbend. If you’re not a big back-bender, this is a wonderful way to open up your chest and strengthen your arms. In downward dog, bring your feet close together then slowly shift your weight to one hand. Roll over to the outer edge of your foot with your other foot stacked on top. Bend the knee of your top leg and place your foot behind the knee of your extended leg. You will naturally lift one hand off the floor. Gracefully arch your raised hand over your head while you lift your hips toward the sky. Doesn’t that feel amazing? If you’re able, you can move into a backbend or gently flip back out the same way you came in. Or, just set your hip down for the easiest way out. Remember to do both sides.
Downward dog is an amazing pose that should be a part of any healthy person’s day. These excellent variations will give you more ideas to play with in your growing yoga toolkit. Enjoy, feel good, and namaste!