The Real Reason Downward-Facing Dog Is So Bad for You

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June 26, 2012 at 10:13 am  •  Posted in Exercise and Fitness, Yoga and Meditation by  •  19 Comments

“Downward-facing dog is the most ubiquitous pose in yoga,” writes Sara Calabro on the Huffington Post. That’s very true, but is this actually a good thing?

This popular yoga pose is the yoga world’s ambassador to a largely inflexible public. You see it in advertisements (some naked) for yoga socks, yoga mats, yoga towels, yoga blocks, and yoga nutrition products.

It also appears in movies that involve yoga, usually whenever an overweight man is trying to impress a super-bendy young woman in a yoga class.

Downward-facing dog, known in Sanskrit as Adho Mukha Svanasana, is not a pose for wimps or lightweights. Even advanced yoga students, who can contort their bodies into endless pretzel shapes, return to downward-facing dog each time they come to the mat.

Unfortunately, this pose also shows up in most beginner yoga classes, even though it is NOT suitable for beginners.

Downward-Facing Dog Is the Yoga World’s Worst Habit

If you’ve ever practiced Ashtanga yoga, you know that downward-facing dog is integral to this style of yoga. As part of the Sun Salutations, it helps turn up the heat in the body at the beginning of a yoga practice.

Ashtanga has had a large influence on yoga in the Western world. Widely known as a vigorous practice, it has been absorbed and adapted by many yoga teachers. The many versions of power yoga—from Baron Baptiste to CorePower Yoga to Bryan Kest—all draw heavily on Ashtanga.

While these Westernized versions of yoga have changed (some would say “watered down” or “destroyed”) some aspects of Ashtanga yoga, downward-facing dog—and the Sun Salutations—has remained.

Many yoga teachers learn to teach yoga in an Ashtanga-influenced style. As they learn to practice yoga, downward-facing dog becomes part of their yoga habit. When they teach students—and eventually other teachers—downward-facing dog becomes even more fixed in the yoga world.

If you ask a yoga teacher to teach a class without downward-facing dog, they immediately think of a restorative or gentle yoga class. “You have to do downward-facing dog and Sun Salutations to get the body warmed up.”

That’s like saying you have to drink coffee to stay awake. If coffee is your habit, then it feels like you can’t survive without it. For yoga teachers, downward-facing dog has become the habit that “builds heat.”

This habit is partially due to laziness. But it also comes from teachers having a limited understanding of how to develop yoga sequences for a particular effect, such as activating the body and mind, or creating a calming effect.

You Ain’t Got a Yoga Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Downward-Facing Dog Bling)

What would Western yoga be without ego? As students, our primary goal is to prove that we can do every yoga pose, in spite of our:

  • age
  • injuries or restrictions
  • fitness level
  • years of practice.

When beginner yoga students attend their first class—often named Yoga 101—downward-facing dog is one of the first poses they learn. Not wanting to show any sign of weakness, the students keep attacking the pose, no matter how often it bites back.

“Don’t worry,” says the teacher, “it will get easier.” As if lifting a car over your head is just a matter of trying to lift a car over your head (at a cost of $18 for an hour of sweaty practice, followed by $4 for a refreshing coconut water).

Even though students sign a waiver before class stating that they know their own limits, they don’t really mean it. Many students think their physical limit is either: 1) not being able to move the next day, or 2) hearing something “snap.”

No matter how many times yoga teachers tell their students to “listen to their own bodies,” the students will still gladly suffer through downward-facing dog—as long as teachers keep encouraging them to “force” themselves into the pose.

Downward-Facing Dog Has Your Back … In Pain

If done improperly, downward-facing dog can hurt your back, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, legs, etc. There are so many things that can go wrong with the pose, especially for beginner (and even moderate) yoga students.

For example, if your shoulders are tight, the tension in your arms will move into your shoulders and neck, leaving you with a stiff neck after your yoga practice. If your back is weak, you will struggle to maintain the pose, and your breath will become short and choppy. You might even pull a muscle in your back, leaving you wriggling in pain after everyone else has left.

Sure, there are other poses that are potentially more dangerous than downward-facing dog, like headstand and shoulder stand. These, however, are more flashy, so beginners are likely—rightly so—to avoid them until they are ready.

Because downward-facing dog looks so simple, it lulls you into thinking that anyone can do it. But faking it—making some sort of inverted V (or U) shape with your body—and doing it correctly are two different things.

The Secret to Enjoying Downward-Facing Dog’s Many Benefits

Downward-facing dog is NOT a beginner’s pose. This is a pose that only students with a regular yoga practice should attempt.

If you want to be able to do downward-facing dog comfortably—without hurting yourself or cursing at your yoga teacher—you need to first strengthen and open up several areas of the body, including your:

  • back
  • neck
  • shoulders
  • arms
  • wrists
  • legs
  • etc.

Yes, it’s the same list as before.

To gain all the benefits of downward-facing dog that Calabro talks about in her article on the Huffington Post, you need to work into the pose slowly.

You will make the fastest progress toward downward-facing dog if you work with a qualified yoga teacher. Ideally, you should choose one who understands that you can have an effective yoga practice without having to do downward-facing dog in every class.

You should also keep in mind that yoga sequences consist of three basic parts—preparation, execution, and release. This is true both for the day of your practice, and over the course of weeks or months. If you don’t spend enough time preparing for a pose, you will never enjoy its full benefits. Instead, you will spend the entire time in the pose straining or forcing.

You also need to learn what your limits are (just like it says in the waiver that you signed). Don’t wait for something to “snap” before backing off. Your best guides are:

  • Your yoga teacher’s feedback: Listen to your teacher (unless it conflicts with one of the other two guides).
  • Your breath: If you can’t breathe comfortably (slowly and evenly) in a pose, you are not ready for it.
  • Your body: If you feel pain, come out of the pose. Don’t suffer in silence. You should tell your teacher exactly where and when you felt the pain. Yoga teachers help those who help themselves.

If you are already practicing downward-facing dog, reassess whether you really enjoy it. If not, maybe you need more time preparing for the pose. If downward-facing dog is not currently part of your yoga practice, don’t rush. It will still be there when you are ready.

Downward-facing dog is a wonderful pose. Done correctly and comfortably, it will bring many benefits to your yoga practice and to your life. Enjoy.

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Photo: Copyright iStockphoto

19 Comments

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  2. Denise / April 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm / Reply

    THANK YOU!!! Someone talking sense! I’ve spent the last year teaching without downward dog and am glad about it. Need to understand the body very well and help students into it. But yeah, takes time, strength… don’t want to worsen conditions really!

    • Shawn Radcliffe / April 28, 2013 at 9:09 am / Reply

      Denise,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s good to know that there are others out there who teach without always falling back on downward-facing dog. I took several months off of that pose in my own practice. Now that my shoulders are more open, it’s a whole new pose … I can actually breathe in it.

  3. Tracia / July 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm / Reply

    Thank you! I am an beginning overweight yoga student…class after class, video after video I quit because of DFD. I just can’t get there I can’t get close, and getting in and out of it floors me – literally. I love yoga and the way it makes me feel. But it has seemed until today that every human on earth can do this except me. Im happy.

    • Shawn Radcliffe / July 9, 2013 at 2:27 pm / Reply

      Tracia,

      I’m so glad you found this post useful. So much yoga exists outside of downward-facing dog (spread the word). The trick will be finding classes that don’t overemphasize this pose.

      I always suggest gentle classes for beginning yoga students (even for athletes) because it gives the body more room to adapt to yoga. I taught Back Care and Hatha yoga classes that skipped that pose entirely. Steer clear of vinyasa flow classes, which seem to always use downward-facing dog. Every teacher, though, calls his or her style something different, so sometimes the only way to know is to try out a class.

      And don’t feel like you are not “getting” yoga because you aren’t doing downward-facing dog. Many students who do manage to get into the pose have a hard time relaxing in it because they aren’t quite ready for it.

      Good luck.

  4. Alfons / September 29, 2013 at 10:52 am / Reply

    I too have been thinking a bit about this pose. I don’t practice physical yoga, but I know most people who do, they do “down dogs”. In my reasoning the problem starts with a flexed lower back, and lack of movement in the hip joints. Lack of being able to do refined, opposing movements with hips and lower back. That’s like 99% of western people.

    Before going into a “down dog”, I propose to check if a simple plank on elbows for 50 seconds is ok. Then, in push up position, let’s see if his abdominal brace is strong enough so he can lift a hand from the floor without twisting or flexing his trunk. Then let’s check 3 push ups with raised legs (feets on a higher surface than the hands).Then lets see if the student can lift a knee towards his belly in standing, without flexing his lower back. If these tests are ok, I’m positive he/she’s all set for downward facing dogs.

    • Shawn Radcliffe / September 29, 2013 at 12:14 pm / Reply

      Thanks for your comment. I’m always hesitant to say that one or two issues affects the majority of people. As a yoga teacher, I try to look at each student as an individual.

      That said, I agree that over-flexion of the lower back and lack of the movement in the hips can negatively affect downward-facing dog. Bending the knees often returns the lower back to its neutral curve in downward-facing dog. This is especially true for people with tight hamstrings.

      Checking the core, shoulder, and arm strength (as you propose) are definitely useful before attempting downward-facing dog. Many of these checks can also function as preparatory poses, ones that are used to build strength and increase flexibility in the areas that are needed for downward-facing dog. Of course, this preparation may be over months, not just that day.

      In addition to strength in the arms and shoulders, opening the shoulders is essential for downward-facing dog. If your shoulders are tight going into the pose, then you may tense them even more when you put weight on your hands. This may include compensating for weakness or tightness in the shoulders by engaging the large muscles of the back (e.g. trapezius) to hold yourself in the pose, which may come with shrugging your shoulders toward your ears.

      I work a lot with my students on opening the shoulders. I’ve also done this personally: I did a year of yoga without any poses that required me to put weight on my hands (down dog, handstand, arm balances). After that, I worked into these poses slowly, trying to maintain some relaxation in my shoulders at the same time. I also found that I could breathe more easily in these poses when I wasn’t tight in the neck and shoulders.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  5. Kel / September 30, 2013 at 3:53 am / Reply

    I’m just getting in to yoga, and there are a few poses in which I find it hard to breath, so I don’t like doing them, particularly since I am a very deep breather. I can’t afford classes though, so am doing my own practice at home via youtube video’s, but almost all of them that I have found incorporate downward facing dog. Can you suggest something that would be appropriate to do in place of dfd? (although thin, I am very inflexible, with weak knees and weak back) Or do you know of any online (free) video’s that teach an entire session without dfd? Thanks :)

    • Shawn Radcliffe / October 8, 2013 at 10:44 am / Reply

      Kel,

      Finding yoga classes in person or online that don’t include downward-facing dog can be very challenging. One great video is Breath-Centered Yoga with Leslie Kaminoff. I’ve taken some of his workshops and he’s very good.

      Other good options are gentle or back-care yoga classes. Beware, even some of these include down dogs. Yes, some teachers start gentle classes with down dog. You may have to do some searching before finding a few that work for you.

      As for finding free yoga classes or videos, here are some tips:

      • Check your public library. Many libraries have yoga DVDs that you can borrow or watch for free online. If your library doesn’t, see if you can request it from another library (interlibrary loan).
      • YouTube or Vimeo. Again, you may have to scan the videos before doing the class to see if they have down dogs in them.
      • Local teachers or studios. Some may offer discounted or free classes, or a first-week/class free pass.

      Good luck.

  6. Majik / April 6, 2014 at 1:20 am / Reply

    DFD is a GOOD thing, if done properly. If you have a teacher that knows anything about biomechanics then they will show you the right way – even if it means modifying the pose to suit the student’s level.

    Telling people they shouldn’t do it because they can’t get it right away is ridiculous… Instead, since you are clearly an expert, maybe you should be giving them the tools and knowledge you no doubt have to help them get to that level?

    Yes, it’s quite obvious that I am a big fan of DFD, but, like you, the safety of others comes first – but I don’t just shun a position that is OBVIOUSLY very good for you (with all the benefits one reaps from doing it – PROPERLY).

    I teach yoga to a class of plus size women and not one could do it it when we started, they can ALL do it now… Yes, with proper form.

    I’m not claiming to be a great teacher; at all. But, I do know how to bring a client from point A to point B (in a safe and healthy manner).

    • Shawn Radcliffe / April 6, 2014 at 7:29 am / Reply

      Majik,

      You have some great points, especially about working with a qualified teacher and working up to downward facing dog. You said that your plus size students couldn’t do downward-facing dog in the beginning. I’d be interested in hearing how you prepared them for doing the pose safely.

      I am a big fan of downward-facing dog, as well. I just want to help students get the most benefits out of it. Doing downward-facing dog is like getting married: you should do it only when you are ready. That means preparation and proper form (for the pose and marriage).

      Personally, I think working up to a pose doesn’t always mean doing the pose until it gets easier. Many of my students, especially new ones or those with shoulder/neck injuries keep doing downward-facing dog because they think if they suffer through it enough times it will get easier. But if you go into a pose and cannot breathe smoothly or you tense your muscles, you may need more preparation.

      Modifications and proper form can help students do a pose safely and effectively, but so can preparation. That means preparation during the class and over the days/weeks leading up to the class. If you do more preparation before tackling a challenging pose, that pose will seem that much easier when you try it again. Why rush it? It’s okay to not do a pose right away.

      As for providing the tools that people can use to get to the next level in downward-facing dog, I think a blog post is not the best approach. As you said, teachers need to know how to get people safely from point A to point B. But every student has his or her own point A, point B, and path in between. Students are better off working with a teacher one-on-one to help them do a pose safely, rather than reading a post saying “do this, it works for everyone.”

  7. drjohnnyraider / April 12, 2014 at 3:22 pm / Reply

    Thanks for the conversation. It is always helpful to question why we are integrating each posture into our ongoing practices. It never occurred to me that Adho Mukha Svanasana could be the least bit harmful. I see it as a resting pose and a meditation. I am in Love with this posture, for it allows me to investigate so many of the nuances of my practice from a static posture. It may be true that for some, this posture not fit their body at first. This is a key lesson for all practitioners, to listen to our bodies. Let’s not get into judging the asanas themselves as good or bad, for anyone or everyone. Adho Mukha Svanasana can be one of the most healing and restorative asanas as well. Find a good teacher, learn the asanas properly, enjoy!

    • Shawn Radcliffe / April 15, 2014 at 4:05 pm / Reply

      Well said, especially about asanas being neither good nor bad. Sometimes if you attempt a pose before you are ready, it may feel like a pose is “bad.” Although I’d probably say it was an “inappropriate” pose (for you, at that moment in time and space). And yes, find a good teacher, learn the asanas properly, and you will gain the many benefits of yoga.

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  9. elisabete / July 2, 2014 at 1:33 pm / Reply

    I’m 33 years old and I’ve been practicing yoga for almost two months and i get frustrated with this pose because i don’t have a lot of strength in my arms and i don’t hold very long… will i be able to do it as time goes by? Cause i have fybromialgia and i don’t if it’s because of it or if it’s normal because i’m a beginner…

    • Shawn Radcliffe / July 2, 2014 at 1:45 pm / Reply

      Elisabete,

      It’s not uncommon for people to struggle with downward-facing dog, even in people without fibromyalgia. Your arms will get stronger the more you do the pose. But there are other poses that will develop your arm strength. Preparing with simpler poses can often be easier than just pushing through downward-facing dog because there are fewer things to think about.

      One of these is table-top pose (hands and knees on floor, back flat) — extend one arm out in front of you parallel to the floor, with the option of extending the opposite leg back parallel to the floor.

      Plank pose is another one, more challenging than table-top. You can also try extending the arm/leg and try balancing on one arm/leg in this pose.

      In both of these (as in all poses), if you have difficulty breathing smoothly, back off a bit. It may take days/weeks to move to a more challenging version. But don’t worry, it’s still yoga even if you are doing simple movements, as long as you keep bringing your focus back to your body and breathing.

      Sometimes, tight shoulders or a weak back can also make your arms seem weaker, because you are trying to use your arm strength to compensate for tightness or weakness elsewhere. Ask one of your yoga teachers to take a look at your downward-facing dog. He or she may have some good pointers for you.

  10. Michaelle Edwards / August 29, 2014 at 7:15 am / Reply

    The problem with downward dog is that it puts the body into a right angled shape stressing the natural lumbar curve, hyper extending the knee and flattening the natural tension in the arch when bells are ousted to the floor. I have created a new way to do downward dog that creates strength to the back as when knew are straight, back muscles are inhibited from recruitment and many people are just hanging from the posterior ligaments in order to fit the curving shape of the body into a right angle. I created YogAlign where each pose requires posture to simulate upright alignment. The YogAlign down dog is called Core Dog and one knee is kept bent while the other leg is lifts and extended to line up with the hips and spine. The chest is never pushed to the floor and arms are kept below the level of the ears. Doing a downward dog where one keeps the knees straight, heels down and chest lowered to floor is hugely damaging to the ligament stabilizing forces in the wrist, shoulder, neck, spine, sacrum, hip, knee and foot joint. This pose overrides natural anatomical joint function. See http://www.yogainjuries.com for more information.

    • Shawn Radcliffe / August 30, 2014 at 3:37 pm / Reply

      Michaelle,

      Thanks for the comment. I have played with bending one knee and extending the other leg in downward-facing dog before. I think it can help get the sensation of extending the spine, which is one thing that I focus on in the pose. Your are right, forcing your heels or chest to the floor in the pose can be harmful (and few of us are built to achieve full heel touchdown). Plus, you start to think that’s the goal of the pose, and lose sight of what’s going on in your back. Bending the knees is useful in downward-facing dog, just as it is in standing forward bend (uttanasa), especially when your hamstrings are really tight.

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