These 8 Downward Dog Variations Make the Yoga Pose Work for Your Body and Needs

Whether you have a large chest, are dealing with wrist pain, or want to build upper-body strength, these variations will help you get the most out of the classic downward dog posture.

MTM: Downward Dog
Photography by Jena Cumbo.

Whether you’re following along with an online beginner yoga class for the very first time or you’re sweating through a pro-level Vinyasa flow in the studio, you’ll surely practice one key posture: the downward dog. 

“The downward dog is a posture you see all the time,” says Valerie Verdier, a yoga instructor in New York City and lululemon ambassador. “It’s a base pose, but it's also a transition. Every posture you do in your yoga class can begin in and end in a downward-facing dog, and learning to do a good downward dog can help you in your whole practice.” Performing the downward dog can also give the entire backside of your body, from your calves to your lats, a feel-good stretch while building strength and stability throughout your shoulders, wrists, and core, says Verdier. Essentially, “the downward dog does it all,” she adds. 

The cherry on top? You can adjust the traditional downward dog so it syncs with your body, experience level, and goals. For example, new yoga practitioners, folks with tight hamstrings, and people with large chests can tweak the posture so it gives them the same must-have stretch without causing any strain or discomfort. Individuals dealing with hip tightness can try a downward dog variation that’s designed to relieve tension. And people looking to level up their practice and further challenge their lower body and shoulder strength can use a downward dog variation that puts those muscle groups to the test. Regardless of your reason, there’s no shame in tailoring the downward dog so it feels best for you.

Ready to give the foundational pose a shot? Follow the instructions below to nail down the basic downward dog, then watch as Verdier demonstrates how to adjust the posture with eight different downward dog variations and alternatives that can work for all abilities and fitness goals.

How to Do a Downward Dog

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms and legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

8 Downward Dog Variations

Despite its simplistic appearance, the full-body downward dog pose can be pretty challenging. Luckily, downward dog variations can help you score the posture’s benefits, no matter how you feel during your practice. Here, you'll find downward dog variations that scale the exercise up or down, including options that help ease tightness in the hips, keep wrist pain at bay, and work for folks with larger chests. Plus, Verdier demonstrates downward dog variations that build shoulder strength and put your lower body to the test. 

As you perform the posture, continue checking in with your body, and don’t be afraid to test out a different variation if it doesn't feel right. Regardless of which option you choose, remember to bear a majority of your body weight in your legs, which helps prevent wrist pain, and avoid excessively rounding the spine or hyperextending the shoulders, says Verdier. 

Downward Dog Variation to Scale Down: Downward Dog with Bent Knees

Beginners and pros alike can benefit from this downward dog variation, which involves bending knees slightly to ease up the pressure on your hamstrings, says Verdier. “You’re contracting the hamstrings and not just stretching them, so they can be part of the supporting muscles,” she explains. In turn, the posture is worthwhile if you're dealing with tight hamstrings or calves or just need additional support, she adds.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible, keeping a bend in knees. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation to Level Up: Three-Legged Dog

By lifting one leg off the floor, the classic downward dog is transformed into a serious core and arm-strengthening posture, as your muscles will have to work even hard to keep you upright and stable, says Verdier. As you practice the pose, remember to keep your hips square with the floor and avoid locking your knee on the leg supporting your body to prevent joint discomfort, she suggests. 

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms and legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Shift weight into right leg, then sweep left leg up toward the ceiling, body forming a straight line from head to left heel. Keep pelvis square with floor and right leg bent slightly.

D. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation for Tight Hips: Three-Legged Dog with Hip Opener

Tight hips are no match for this downward dog variation. You’ll perform a traditional three-legged dog, then open your hips out to the side, which helps release tension in the hip flexors, says Verdier.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms and legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Shift weight into right leg, then sweep left leg up toward the ceiling, body forming a straight line from head to left heel. Keep pelvis square with floor and right leg bent slightly.

D. Bend left knee to a 90-degree angle and allow hips to open up toward the left, left toes pointing toward the right side of the room.

E. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation for Target Upper Body: Puppy Pose

In this downward dog alternative, you'll keep your knees planted on the floor. In turn, the posture gives you all the upper-body benefits as the traditional downward dog without creating as much tension throughout your legs, says Verdier. "It's going to open the shoulders and the arms, and it can help you strengthen the spine," she adds.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Curl toes under.

B. Step left hand forward on the floor, then step right hand forward, so both arms are fully extended in front of body. Spread fingers wide and engage core. Shift weight into hips and lower chest down to the floor, preventing rounding of back. Knees should be bent at 90-degree angles, arms straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation for Sensitive Wrists: Dolphin Pose

Whether you’re dealing with a wrist injury or discomfort, this downward dog alternative will be your saving grace, says Verdier. The posture is performed on your forearms, so you won’t put any pressure on your wrist joints.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Lower right forearm to the floor, then left forearm so elbows are stacked under shoulders. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands and forearms, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation for Shoulder Strength: One-Armed Revolved Downward Dog

This downward dog will put your shoulders through the wringer, as you'll need to support your body weight with one arm instead of two, says Verdier. To prevent muscle imbalances, remember to perform this shoulder-strengthening posture on both sides of your body.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms and legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Shift weight into left hand and lift right hand off the floor. Then, extend right hand under body to grab hold of outside of left ankle, allowing spine to twist slightly. Keep pelvis square with floor.

D. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation for Large Chests: Downward Dog with Wide Hands

Not only does widening your stance create more space for your chest, but it can also make the downward dog more comfortable if you’re dealing with tight shoulders, says Verdier. “[It offers] more space for you to be able to open the collarbone and allow the upper traps to relax,” she says. 

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with knees under hips and hands flat on the floor wider than shoulder-width apart. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms and legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Downward Dog Variation to Target Lower Body: Downward Dog with Hands On Blocks

Looking to take the lower-body challenge up a notch? Try practicing your downward dog with your hands on blocks, which helps transfer more of the weight into the legs, says Verdier. This variation can also be beneficial if you have wrist issues, as it reduces the amount of pressure placed on your joints, she adds. 

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands each resting on a yoga block (the wide face resting on the floor), wrists directly under shoulders, and knees under hips. Spread fingers wide, engage core, then curl toes under.

B. Press into hands, lift knees off the floor, and slowly raise hips toward ceiling, bringing body into an inverted "V" shape. Shift weight into feet and lower heels as close to the floor as possible. Feet should be hip-width apart, arms and legs straight, and biceps in line with ears.

C. Hold this position, keeping shoulders drawn away from ears and back flat.

Credits

Photography and art Jena Cumbo

Model and fitness expert Valerie Verdier

Activewear lululemon

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