Downward Dog is a deceptively complex pose. Because of its omnipresence in most yoga classes, people get the impression that it’s supposed to be a basic pose and can feel discouraged when they struggle with it. Don’t. There is actually a lot that goes on in Downward Dog and it requires a fair amount of openness in the back of the legs as well as in the shoulders. For most people it takes some time before they can feel comfortable here. As you spend more time with it however, you will begin to relish the role that this pose plays in your practice.
Start on all fours, with the knees under the hips and the hand slightly in front of the shoulders. Spread the fingers wide on the mat, making sure to keep weight in all 10 knuckles of the hands. Tuck the toes underneath as you get ready to press back, making sure to keep the feet hip width distance apart and the hands shoulder width. Keeping the knees bent, push the palms down and forward as you lift the sitbones up and back toward the feet. Keep your spine long as you begin to straighten the legs and lower the heels. If your hamstrings are not yet that open, you can keep the knees bent here as a variation. You should still be able to find a nice stretch on the back of the legs without letting the lower back round excessively.
Keep your arms externally rotated so the shoulder blades widen across the back, and draw the inner thighs up towards the hips with a slight inward rotation. As you press the palms forward, try to straighten the arms at the elbows. As you widen the shoulder blades, the armpits roll towards the chest. This is important as it develops strength in the shoulders and sets the stage for backbending and arm balances. You will most often hear that the shoulder blades should be drawn down the back, but this brings the humerus outside the line of force through the shoulders and since you are bearing weight here, you actually want to push up in the shoulders. Keep the sides of the torso long. If you have a hyperflexible lower back, resist sagging here, and instead support the back with your core as you extend the upper body.
One you have found a nice balance in the pose, settle in and let the breath be steady and even. In many classes, Downward Dog serves as a transitional pose or as a resting place during a flow sequence, but it can be a beautiful pose to practice just by itself.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you or see you at one of my classes!