There is that one yoga pose that will always be in your yoga classes, no matter how difficult the class is i.e. beginner or intermediate level and that is the Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose). This pose got its name as it looks like a dog stretching. It is an inversion (hips above head), arm strengthening and whole body stretch pose. Personally I love this pose as it’s easy, calming and it gives you a really good stretch for your shoulders, arms, back and the entire back of your legs. It’s also a great warm-up pose before you start doing other asanas. We will take a deeper look into the anatomy and alignment of the Downward Facing Dog pose.
Alignment & Joint Movement
- Flex our hips, with sit bones pointing to the ceiling
- Extend our knees
- Ankles are flexed
- Feet are dorsiflexed
- Fingers are abducted and weight is spread evenly across palms, which are firm
- Extend the wrists
- Extend our elbows
- Pronate the forearms
- Shoulders are flexed and rotated externally
- Lumbar spine extends, cervical spine flexes
- Come into the shape of an inverted V
- Continue to push the belly towards the thighs
- Gaze towards the navel
Anatomy in Downward Dog Pose
The Shoulders and the Arms
Rotator Cuff is a combination of 4 muscles: Subscapularis, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor and Supraspinatus. These muscles originate from the scapula (shoulder blade) and insert on the upper arm bone, near the humeral head. The main function of the rotator cuff is to support and position the ball of the humeral bone and socket of the shoulder joint, which is less stable.
Serratus Anterior forms the lateral part of the chest wall and originates from the superior borders of the 1st to 8th ribs at the side of the chest and along the anterior length of the medial border of the scapula. The serratus anterior muscle supports the upward rotation of the scapula, preventing us from putting too much weight on the rotator cuffs in the Downward dog pose.
Deltoids is a three-part muscle with anterior, lateral and posterior sections, originating from the clavicle, acromion and scapula respectively, and inserting on the lateral humerus. The anterior deltoid will raise the arm forward, the posterior deltoid extends the arm backwards and the lateral deltoid abducts the arms. In Downward Dog pose, as you externally rotate the scapula, the posterior deltoids work with the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles to contribute to the action to stabilise the shoulder in Downward Dog. Contract the anterior deltoids to move the shoulders forward, imagining that you are flexing your arms overhead.
Triceps Brachii is also activated in Downward Dog pose. It is a three-headed muscle at the back of our upper arm where the medial and short heads originate from the humerus and the long head from the glenoid (end of the scapula). As the triceps brachii contracts, it helps us extend our elbows and rotates our scapula, increasing the contact of the humeral head and the glenoid, thus stabilising our shoulder joint. As the triceps contract and our elbows extend, the force also helps us extend our knees and stretch our hamstrings.
When we have tight shoulders, our shoulders may internally rotate and come up to our ears, causing the triceps or upper arms to carry our weight and our elbows may point towards the side. We need to depress the scapula and upward rotate it with the help of our serratus anterior and deltoids, to activate the rotator cuffs and keep the teres minor and infraspinatus from contracting, opening up the space around our collarbones.
The Latissimus Dorsi is a large, triangular muscle, which forms two-thirds of our superficial back muscles and originates from the posterior iliac crest, sacrum, the top of the back of the bottom six thoracic vertebrae. The latissimus dorsi is a breathing muscle that expands the circumference of our ribcage when we inhale, for more air to enter our lungs. The lats also adduct, rotate and extend our arms. In a downward dog, the extension between the arm and sacrum is established by the lats. It draws the body forward and through the arms when we transit from the Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) or Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose).
The Pelvic Girdle and Thighs
Gluteus Medius is a medium sized fan-shaped muscle located forward of the gluteus maximus. It’s origin is on the outer surface of the ilium below the iliac crest and inserts on the superior surface of the greater trochanter of the femur. This muscle stabilises the pelvis and is used to synergise hip flexion. The muscle internally rotates the hips, bringing the kneecaps to face forward. When it is activated, it helps to draw the iliac bones slightly apart and internally rotate the thighs.
The Quadriceps is a four-part muscle which inserts on the patella (knee cap). It is made up of the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and vastus laterialis which originates from the femur and inserts at the patella. The rectus femoris originates from the front of the pelvis and continues on the front of the thigh, covering the vastus intermedius and combining with other quadriceps to insert on the patella. When this muscle is contracted, it leads to hip flexion and knee extension. When the quadriceps are engaged in this pose, the rectus femoris flexes the hips and extends the knees and the three vastus muscles contract, straightening the knee to bring the heels closer to the mat.
The Gastrocnemius originates from the back of the femur above the medial femoral condyle and the lateral femoral condyle (both ends of the femur). The Soleus originates from the head and upper part of the fibula and the inside of the upper tibia. The gastrocnemius and soleus combine to form the Achilles tendon, which inserts onto the back of the calcaneus (heel bone). The main action of these muscles is to plantarflex the ankle, however the gastrocnemius also flexes the knee. If the muscles are tight, it will prevent one from getting the heels to the floor in a Downward-Facing dog pose. The Tibialis Anterior is a muscle at the front of the shin, originating from the lateral surface of the tibia and bones of the lower leg. The muscle inserts into the inside part of the foot and the first metatarsal (foot arch and dorsiflexes the ankle. Both the gastrocnemius and soleus form an antagonist pair with the tibialis anterior muscles hence the more we flex our ankles, the more it stretches the calf muscles and our Achilles tendons. With flexibility in the ankles, it enables the heels to come closer to the floor. So in future, when you meet students in your class who may not be able to put their heels on the mat, you know what exercises you should recommend to them, to stretch these muscles to create more flexibility in the ankles.
Photo credit: Google
Downward Dog pose engages a lot of muscles, most of which I have touched upon this post. In future as you do your downward dogs, don’t forget to engage the right muscles and ensure that your alignment is right, to reap the most benefits out of this pose! Sending you peace and light. (: