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The Dreaded Down Dog

in YogaDork Ed

Terry DFD Article Image

by Terry Littlefield

NamaStay. Sit. Roll over. Good dog. Well, here it is. The dreaded down dog blog –  Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana. I’ve been thinking about writing this for a couple of years and, like my healthy eating, it comes and goes. The time has come to share thoughts and create a conversation about this complicated pose. But I don’t want to create anti-ahimsa and asana arguments. I am, after all, a yoga teacher.

That being said, I think this dreaded down dog blog needs to happen because I am a yoga teacher. I put people in this pose. I practice this pose. I teach level 1 classes and therapeutic, functional movement in my classes. Regardless of the class title, many students show up with body blind spots (areas of the body that have been abused, misused, overused, or areas of the body that are just plain confused) and there is a lot of confusion when it comes to downward facing dog. I want to share some information I have found helpful in both my teaching and practicing of this pose. So here we go:

Always warm up the shoulders before practicing or teaching DD.

Down dog is not a resting pose. *(see below for more on this).

Have options for your students. There are many options.

Om shanti needs to occur in your shoulders, not just in your heart.


Muscles of the shoulder complex are attached to your head, back, rib cage & elbow!

Upper arm bone, shoulder blade & collar bone are the 3 bones of your shoulder girdle.

Killer shoulder stability and mobility, awesome. Killing your shoulders, not awesome.

Head of your humerus (upper arm bone) rests in the glenoid fossa.

All directions of movement of your shoulders should be explored for healthy shoulders.


Svanasana not SAVASANA. Yes, I’ve heard that in a class. Downward facing corpse?

Very happy spines are neutral spines. DD is a neutral spine.

Arms overhead is shoulder FLEXION, not shoulder extension.

Never forget shoulders are externally rotated in DD, but there’s so much more.

Always remember all shoulders are unique. It always depends on the person.

Stabilize shoulder joint with co-contraction of your external and internal rotators.

Actions of rotator cuff muscles in DD stabilize head of the humerus in glenoid fossa.

Need the simplest warm up ever for shoulders? Shoulder flossing.

Angry shoulders result in angry elbows which result in angry wrists which result in…

*DD is not a resting pose. It’s just my opinion. But the more I learn, the more I think I have a great opinion here. I do not leave students in DD to rest. I do not leave students there to warm up.  I see students struggling in this pose because it’s a VERY difficult pose. I don’t know when it became the go-to resting pose. I’ve taken so many classes lately, from level 1 to advanced, and so many teachers put the class in DD as the first or second pose. I see people suffering, straining, and fidgeting in the pose because our daily lives don’t require we spend a lot of time in shoulder flexion, especially loaded shoulder flexion. (Remember arms overhead is shoulder flexion, not extension. Please stop teaching “extend your arms overhead.”At least consider it.)

I talk with students before and after class and I am reminded how we all spend too much time on the computer and not enough time reaching to the very top cupboard for that cute dish we forgot we even had. I know in my own practice, even after several years of practicing, I don’t experience DD as a resting pose. I love the pose, but I know how much work I need to do to be in DD for an extended period of time.  And I still don’t want to be in DD to “rest.” And for the love of God, Guru, Gandhi, Shiva, Hello Kitty or whatever else you believe in, don’t put me in DD for 108 breaths and then give me a rest in child’s pose for three breaths and then repeat DD for 108 more breaths. That’s 219 breaths with shoulders in flexion 😉 Om shanti shoulders, remember?!

DD is Dandasana, staff pose, shoulders in flexion, fingers reaching, crown of the head reaching, heels reaching, legs working, spine in “perfect” neutral and so much more. Have you tried that lately? For five full breaths? I have. I don’t want to hold it for 108 breaths. Although, it would be fun to work up to that.

Consider other resting pose options for yourself and your students:  Table top. Child’s pose. Half dog at the wall. A chair version. Standing in Tadasana. I encourage the students in my class to explore other poses.

As I said previously, one of my go-to warmups for the shoulders is called Shoulder Flossing. It is super easy, and if you maintain good posture while flossing, you will gather a lot of valuable information about your true shoulder range of motion. If shoulder flossing bothers you and/or students in your class, I would find out why, and consider not spending a lot of time in DD. I sometimes challenge myself to teach classes down dog-free or no more than one breath in down dog. It’s fun to get creative! External rotation, flexion, depression, protraction, co-contracted internal and external rotators is the optimum positioning for poses like DD, handstand, forearm stand, et cetera. For stability, mobility and woofability, get your shoulders set. It’s a lot of work, it’s not restful, but it’s crucial to avoid impingement and shoulder injury. There’s so much to this complicated pose. Always keep learning and stay out of the dog house.

Here’s a helpful “Shoulder Flossing” video:

More shoulder tips!:


Terry Littlefield, RYT-500, Integrated Yoga Tune Up teacher, and long-time practitioner, is a passionate educator with a big sense of humor and an even bigger heart. Her classes are a blend of science and spirit, breath work and ball work (Yoga Tune Up therapy balls, of course), movement and meditation. If you want to have fun and experience safe, functional movement within your yoga practice, she’s your yogi.




12 comments… add one
  • I disagree about DD not being a resting pose. For some yogis, it is a resting pose, for others not and never. It depends on your body and your personal practice. In mixed level classes, I invite students to linger in DD if it feels right for them. For others, I provide alternates or suggest Child’s. You know, this is the thing about yoga. It is a personal practice.

  • Dave

    I remember a very good teacher once asking ‘What is your intention?’
    The poses have no beginning or end. For a resting pose start in Child’s Pose with arms extended. If that is too easy come up onto the knees. Then knees off the ground with bent knees. Then straighten the legs. Maybe the 3 legged dog. For even more challenge try the 2 legged dog, that is opposite arm and leg, try to reach up and grab the foot. Then the pose becomes a backbend with a twist. Short dogs and long dogs. What is your intention?

    Search (Yoga Dork doesn’t allow links) “Christoph Seiland From Specialists to Humans” To find some interesting yoga information on shoulder extension or lack of and modern lifestyle.

    Search “Simon Borg-Olivier When it is Good to Hunch Your Shoulders Up”

    And a wonderful quote from Shiva Rea
    “If you struggle with Down Dog, be compassionate and patient with yourself; you are not the first person with tight hamstrings or weak arms. On the other hand, be diligent. Ultimately, Down Dog will start to feel so good that you will really empathize with the full-body joy that dogs display while doing the pose.”

  • DD gives me the blues. One of my elbows dont straighten which puts undo pressure on my shoulder. This causes a lot of strain to my shoulders during DD.

    I try to old it but I feel like my arms and shoulders burn out. This can be disheartening because DD is a central pose.

    I could use a masters class where we just work on that pose for correct form and details.

  • I’m brand new to yoga and I’m wondering what muscles DD is supposed to work? Should I feel it in my hamstrings?

    • Dave

      Marjorie, this comment section is not really set up to provide the type of help you are seeking. Maybe try finding a new to yoga class or two. You could also try something like Yogabycandace.com yoga forum for questions, there are probably others as well.
      Welcome to yoga!

  • John

    Good to see an article on the practical,physical practice of a pose and one that doesn’t threaten instant permanent injury for failing to follow the prescribed technique.

    Still a bit restrictive for me, though. Of course down dog can be a resting pose. Sometimes it’s better to arch the thoracic and work mobility rather than keep a neutral spine. Sometimes shoulder extension can be useful. Sometimes the main thing is to improve overhead strength and mobility by elevating the scapula and this will impact external rotation. Sometimes breathing should curl the lumbar a little. It’s a versatile pose and can safely and usefully be done in many different ways

  • I would agree that DD is not a resting pose. The entire body is engaged and not really “resting” compared to other postures such as savasana or child’s pose.

  • matt

    I don’t have trouble with down dog. I must not be doing it right. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overanalyzing, yes?

  • Himix

    Downward Facing Dog: a Yogi’s best friend…

  • I think that us guys really like these strength poses. We get caught up in the idea of a ‘powerful yoga’ session without really thinking it through.

    We all seem to want to stay in these poses for periods of time hoping that somehow the longer you stay in a pose … the more more benefit and stronger you will be for it.

    Which is not always the point.

    But we are guys remember.

    • Matt

      Not buying the male self hatred. Not everything we do is because of testosterone poisoning or mental or character defects.

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