October 19, 2011

Primary Yoga Series: Dogs

I lied to you.

There is no ice cream in today's post. 

(Don't worry...I promise to give you that ice cream post soon enough!)

Instead, we are going to talk about dogs...yoga dogs to be exact.

Sorry...I couldn't resist :)


Today's blog is all about downward-facing dog (adho muka svanasana) and upward-facing dog (urdhva muka svanasana).  If you have ever been to a yoga class, you have probably performed each of these asanas a dozen or more times.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines asana as a "steady and comfortable" posture.  I find it interesting that Patanjali didn't describe yoga postures as "difficult" or "challenging."  Instead, he implies that relaxation and peace (as opposed to strain and discomfort) are the keys to truly experiencing an asana.

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Muka Svanasana)

Among other benefits, downward-facing dog:
  • calms the brain and helps relieve stress;
  • stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands;
  • strengthens the arms and legs;
  • helps prevent osteoporosis;
  • improves digestion; and
  • relieves headache, insomnia, back pain, and fatigue.
Although downward-facing dog is intended to be a restorative rest-stop during a yoga class, for many students it is difficult, painful, and uncomfortable.  This is particularly true if you have tight hamstrings, tense shoulders, and/or a stiff spine.  As a result, many practitioners look like this in a downward-facing dog:


One way to counteract tight hamstrings and a stiff spine in adho muka svanasana is to deeply bend the knees.  In this way, pressure is taken off of the hamstrings so that:
  1. the spine can lengthen and extend;
  2. the pelvis and sitting bones can tilt up to the ceiling; and
  3. the shoulders and heart can release towards the floor. 

Over time, as your hamstrings become more flexible, you can work to release the heels towards the floor.  However, be careful not to rush your progress!  The integrity of the spine takes precedence in this asana.  Only release the heels to the mat if the spine can maintain its length!

Aahhh...now that looks comfortable!

Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Muka Svanasana)

Upward-facing dog is a whole different animal (pun intended!).  Among other benefits, it:
  • improves posture;
  • strengthens the spine, arms, wrists;
  • stretches chest and lungs, shoulders, and abdomen;
  • firms the buttocks;
  • stimulates abdominal organs; and
  • helps relieve mild depression, fatigue, and sciatica.
Not only does this asana require spinal flexibility, it also requires quite a bit of arm strength (specifically biceps and triceps) to perform correctly.  As a result, it isn't uncommon for students to thrust themselves upward into the pose while collapsing into their low-back, shoulders, and abdomen.


Instead, if you know that upward-facing dog isn't the appropriate pose for you (which is totally ok, by the way), you can do cobra pose (bhujangasana).  In cobra pose you will both stretch and strengthen the upper spine without having to worry about arm strength or spinal flexibility.

Make sure to tuck your chin slightly so that you lengthen the back of the neck!

For those practitioners that are able to perform upward-facing dog, the tendency is to focus on the upper-back and arms, and as a result, collapse in the lower-back and legs.  By short-circuiting the energy flow through the lower half of the body, you may cause damage to the lumbosacral region of the spine.


Instead, focus on continuing the energy through the low-back, behind the kness, and out through the toes.  Finally, engage the lower abdominals to support the low-back stretch.

Take a look at my up-dog :)  It's taken me almost 5 years of "steady and comfortable" practice to get here!

 I love this pose!  It makes me feel strong, flexible, and graceful.

With all these yoga dogs in my life, I hope I can convince Bo to get us a real dog soon...hint hint hint ;)

Next up - hmmm, maybe I will revisit that ice cream post...

Question of the Day:

Do you practice yoga?  If so, do you enjoy downward-facing dog?

Ally and Bo


  1. Beautiful poses there. I like downward dog a lot but I can't get my heals all the way down yet.

  2. Thanks Sara! I actually don't get my heels all the way down in downward dog either. That is the beauty of yoga, there is always growth to be had! By the way, I love your blog (and all the beautiful rainbows). Indigo is my favorite almost-forgotten color :)