YOGA FAILS, FIXED: How to Not Mess Up Downward Facing Dog

Yoga instructor Natalie Sabin illustrates 3 mistakes people often make in Downward Facing Dog—and prescribes fixes for each.

More and more people in the U.S. are doing yoga, which should be a good thing. The practice is linked to numerous health benefits—improved fitness, flexibility and cardiovascular health, and reduced stress, back pain and risk of insomnia, just to name a few—and is endorsed by many major health organizations.

The problem is that no yoga class is right for every person. In fact, there are many different styles of yoga. Some, such as Bikram or Ashtanga, have set sequences of poses that are similar or identical every time. Bikram uses one sequence over and over; Ashtanga employs a few variations. A large number of studios offer classes that are what one might call "fusion," borrowing ideas and poses from several places, including Pilates and even gymnastics. And within these studios, different teachers often instruct dramatically different classes.

The point is this: When you walk into a yoga studio, it can be hard to tell what you're going to get.

This is especially true for yoga newbies, who aren't sure how the practice is supposed to feel in the first place. When a newcomer steps into a studio for the first time, he or she often feels surrounded by more flexible students who've clearly been practicing yoga for a long time. Good instructors notice and offer help, but many teachers lead their classes at the pace of the most capable students, rather than catering to beginners. This can leave people feeling lost in the shuffle, or worse, precipitate an injury when they try to contort their bodies to what they think they should be doing, based on what other students around them are doing.

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This "Yoga Fails, Fixed" series is for any person who's ever felt lost, confused, or just plain awkward when trying yoga. In this article and others to come, we'll examine common poses, identify form mistakes people often make when attempting them, and offer simple fixes. We'll start with perhaps the most commonly taught (and commonly screwed up) pose of all . . .

Downward Facing Dog

Also known as: Down Dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Sanskrit)

Downward Facing Dog is a fixture of most styles of yoga, either as a strengthening pose, which challenges your muscles; a transition pose, used between other poses in a sequence; or a resting pose, where you just "hang out" and regain your energy (but it takes time to reach this level of comfort).

Since Down Dog is such a common pose—and often performed several times during a class—the move is frequently untaught by instructors, who assume that everyone knows how to do it. In truth, the pose has a lot of nuances, and it can easily be performed incorrectly. Getting your alignment correct is not only important for your anatomy—since it affects the benefits you reap from the pose and lowers your risk of injury—it also makes the pose more comfortable.

But wait, what's the point?

Why is this pose so popular? What are the benefits of doing it? For starters, Downward Facing Dog helps with posture imbalances. Many of us have poor posture, standing with our shoulders rounded inward or our head and neck slumping downward. Rounding of the upper back can lead to decreased mobility, which if left unchecked can become permanent (think "hunchback"). But even in less extreme cases, decreased spinal mobility can make simple things more challenging—like throwing a ball, reaching your arms overhead or turning your body to change direction when running.

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Another benefit of Down Dog is increased flexibility in the lower body. The pose stretches your hamstrings, calves, ankles and feet. It also helps open up your shoulders, lower back and wrists—all common trouble spots.

But you will receive all these benefits only if you perform the move correctly. So with that in mind . . .

Downward Facing Dog Fail 1: Hands and feet too far apart, or too close together

When your hands and feet are too far apart, Downward Facing Dog can feel like agony. The pose becomes way harder than it needs to be.

On the other hand, if you place your hands and feet too close together, you're basically cheating. The effort you put in won't be sufficient to reap the benefits of the pose.

THE SIMPLE FIX: Before you move into Down Dog, get into a Plank position with your arms and elbows fully extended, as if you were about to perform a Push-Up.

Getting into Downward Facing Dog

Notice that the arms and hands are directly underneath the shoulders. He is ready to lift up and back into Downward Facing Dog.

Look at the center of your wrists. Make sure they are placed directly below the center of your shoulders, not in front of the shoulders or behind them. Walk your feet back far enough so you are resting on the balls of the feet. Maintaining that distance between your hands and feet, lift your hips up and back to get into Downward Facing Dog.

Correct Position for Downward Facing Dog

The correct position for Downward Facing Dog once the practitioner has properly aligned his hands and feet on the mat.

Downward Facing Dog Fail 2: Trying to force your heels to touch the ground

When you look around the room in a yoga class, you might spot some uber-lithe woman in Down Dog with her entire foot flat on the ground. Good for her. If you find that your heels are nowhere near the earth, THAT'S 100 PERCENT OK.

I say that in ALL CAPS because too many people think that "heels on the ground" is the gold standard for Down Dog proficiency. It's not. In fact, some people will never be able to reach their heels to the ground in this pose. That doesn't mean they cannot or should not practice yoga. Indeed, it probably means they need yoga  even more. You need to respect your own level of ability, listening to what your body tells you.

When your hamstrings and low back are tight to begin with, forcing your heels to the ground will only cause you to lose the natural curvature of your lower back. This seriously limits the posture benefits you can gain from the pose.

THE SIMPLE FIX: When you are in Downward Facing Dog, bend your knees until they are almost touching the ground. As you do, let your heels lift away from the ground naturally. Then, with your knees still bent, begin to push your hips up toward the ceiling. Notice how your low back is straight. Begin to straighten your legs at the knees. As soon as you feel your low back round, stop. Keep at least a small bend (some instructors will call it a "microbend") in your knees as you hold the pose. Don't think at all about your heels; instead, focus on lifting your hips up and back. Your hamstrings will get a better stretch, and your lower back will thank you.

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Downward Facing Dog Fail 3: Your shoulders are by your ears

Incorrect Shoulder Position in Downward Facing Dog

Notice that his arms are rolled inward and his shoulders are up near his ears. That's incorrect, and it places extra stress on the body.

Some people performing Down Dog look like they are trying listen to their pulse through their deltoids. This happens for two reasons. First, their shoulder blades (scapula) are not engaged on their back, which forces their upper arms to do too much work, since the muscles surrounding the shoulder blades are essentially asleep at the switch. Your arms fatigue more quickly, you become less stable in the pose, and your neck and shoulders tighten up—which is the exact opposite of the result you were trying to produce.

THE SIMPLE FIX: Start this correction with your arms. Keeping your hands firmly planted on the ground, push through all five fingers and start to roll your upper arms out and downward.

Correct Shoulder Position for Downward Facing Dog

Notice the difference after he's rolled his triceps outward and toward the ground. That, plus broadening his back along the shoulder blades, creates more space for his head and neck. It also distributes his weight more evenly.

Without moving your hands, start to roll your outer arms toward the ground. The insides of your elbows will rotate forward slightly. Keeping that engagement in your arms, imagine you are a turtle, and your shoulder blades are your shell. Come out of your shell by drawing your head and neck toward the ground as you push your shoulder blades up toward your tail bone. Voila! Freedom.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: YOGA | HEELS