Downward facing dog (adho mukha svana in Sanskrit) is one of the most recognizable yoga poses, but it’s far from basic. Melissa Hernandez, a CorePower Yoga instructor in New York City, says, “Downward dog is full-body work. It not only strengthens your arms, shoulders and low-back, but your core and glutes, too.” Beyond your typical Vinyasa or Ashtanga class, the classic yoga pose is used in many CrossFit and running classes to strengthen and stretch your arms and hamstrings, and ignite the core.
In addition to building total-body strength, downward facing dog also helps improve circulation, ease tightness and stiffness in the lumbar spine and might affect your outlook, too. “Inversions, like downward dog, where you heart is over your head, has been shown to help elevate your mood,” Hernandez says. Hernandez notes that if you can’t do crow pose or a handstand, downward facing dog gives you similar benefits. “It brings oxygenated blood to the brain and stimulates the central nervous system because your heart is above your head,” she adds.
Ready to shake up how you get down on all fours? Here are some new downward dog variations to help you get started.
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Walking out your hands from a forward fold position will help deepen the stretch in your inner arms and open up your shoulders. “Take your time when you start to bring your hands back towards your toes, so you can feel the stretch in the back line of your legs,” Hernandez says.
How to: Stand in mountain pose (tadasana) with your feet together, facing forward. Slightly bend your knees and fold your torso over your legs into a forward fold position (a). Place your hands on the ground in front of you and walk your right hand forward and then your left hand until you’re in downward facing dog position with your hips lifted high towards the ceiling (b). Press your hands firmly on the mat and your shoulders against your back. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and calves as your spine elongates (c). Walk your hands back out to a forward fold position.
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Want to fire up your core? “This variation on all fours will activate all 360 degrees of your core, as well as strengthen your glutes and hamstrings,” Hernandez says.
How to: From downward dog position, lift your right leg off the ground, forming a 90-degree angle to the ground. Keep your hips square as you lift your leg up, and your right foot flexed (a). While keeping your right leg lifted, shift your weight forward until your shoulders are directly stacked above your wrists in a plank position (b). Take three breaths. Return to downward dog position and place your right foot back to the ground before alternating sides (c).
You’ll challenge your balance and improve your stability with this pose as you bring your knee in for a crunch. Your lower abs will get some lovin’, too, with the kick in the beginning of this movement.
How to: Get into downward dog position with your shoulders behind your ears, hands firmly pressed on the ground and heels planted (a). Keeping your hips square, lift your right leg off the ground with your foot pointed, forming a 90-degree angle to the floor (b). As you start to shift your weight into plank position, round your back and tuck your chin to bring your knee towards your nose (c). Take three to five breaths before returning your right foot back down to downward dog position. Repeat the same movement on the left side (d).
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The key to nailing this challenging pose is to move with control, and engage your transverse abdominal muscles as you slightly twist your hips. This downward dog variation helps open up your quads and hip flexors, as well as lengthen the spine, Hernandez says. “Focus on your breathing with this pose. Inhale as you extend your leg high and exhale as you bend your knee,” she says.
How to: From downward facing dog position, lift your right leg with your right foot pointed to hip height (a). Keeping your hips and shoulders square, bend your right knee and rotate it, stacking your right hip on top of your left (b). Hold this position for three to five breaths before bringing your right foot back down to the ground (c). Repeat on the left side.
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This downward dog is a specialtwist (pun intended) on your core, engaging your obliques and lower-ab muscles. “It opens up your shoulders and improves your arm flexibility. You’ll really feel a stretch on your sides,” Hernandez says.
How to: Get into downward facing dog position. Start to shift some of your weight on your right side as you lift your left hand off the ground (a). Draw your left hand over to your right side and reach for your right outer calf, thigh or underneath your heel (depending on your level of flexibility) (b). Deepen the rotation by holding this pose for three to five breaths and relaxing your neck (c). Return your left hand to the ground in downward facing dog position before switching sides (d).
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