One of the most common yoga poses, Downward Facing Dog, can be treacherous if your shoulders are not properly prepped or your anatomy is not compatible with the shape. While there is definitely a standard human “structure,” the effects of daily living and each person’s postural habits create body blind spots (points of weakness and imbalance), so not every pose is possible for every body. Many yoga poses, while common, are so extreme that they will pull the body out of alignment because the architecture of the pose is not suitable for the person attempting the pose. If you do poses (or any exercise, for that matter) without knowing whether you should even be doing those particular poses, much less doing them with improper form and posture, you will eventually wear out your tissues and create pain.

How do you determine if your anatomical structure is suited for Downdog? Check out the video below to assess the temperament of your Downward Facing Dog and learn an alternate pose to strengthen your shoulders.

Enjoyed this article? Read Assess The Temperament Of Your Dog Before You Master The Pose

Jill Miller

Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the self-care fitness formats Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® Method. With more than 30 years of study in anatomy and movement, she is a pioneer in forging relevant links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage, athletics and pain management. She is known as the Teacher’s Teacher and has trained thousands of movement educators, clinicians, and manual therapists to incorporate her paradigm shifting self-care fitness programming into athletic and medical facility programs internationally. She has crafted original programs for 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, YogaWorks, and numerous professional sports teams. She and her team of 500+ trainers help you to live better in your body with an emphasis on proprioception, mobility, breath mechanics and recovery. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and International Association of Yoga Therapy conferences. She has the rare ability to translate complex physiological and biomechanical information into accessible, relevant moves that help her students transform pain, dysfunction and injury into robust fitness. Jill is the anatomy columnist for Yoga Journal Magazine and has been featured in Shape, Men’s Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, Self, and on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Jill is regularly featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the creator of dozens of DVD’s including Treat While You Train with Kelly Starrett DPT and is the author of the internationally bestselling book The Roll Model: A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in your Body. Based in Los Angeles, CA, she is a wife and mother of two small children and is currently writing her second book.

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Barbara White

This was such helpful information. I had quit doing Downward Dog about 2 years ago because it seemed to irritate my right shoulder. This assessment shows me that I don’t have the capacity to do it properly. Thank you for showing a great alternative pose!

Kim Salisbury

Really appreciate the self test for if you should be doing DD. I am going to especially have my male clients try this out because many of them continue to go into DD even though I advise them that their shoulders are not ready for it. It makes so much sense about how this is duplicated while working at a computer all day. Loved the option of dolphin plank with supination. This makes so much sense in getting the same results of DD without the strain on the shoulder. Thank you!

Matt Halawnicki

A tough pill to swallow. None the less a valuable lesson in self care within the yoga room. Thank you!

Janie Hickman

I enjoyed your breakdown of Downward Facing Dog along with the explanation how it can be dedtrimental. The self test will come in handy in my classes to demonstrate how we are all built differently. I can imagine there will be more Dolphin Supinates in class from now on.

Christiane Parcigneau

This video is an excellent reminder of the Level 1 training I took a few weeks ago. For some reason I keep mixing up my internal and external rotation when my shoulders are in flexion… Though I am now externally rotating my shoulders in downward dog (I used to internally rotate), I like the “test” of rotating the forearm to help determine a person’s ability to do the pose safely. It’s a great tool for new and experienced yoga students alike.

Aracelly

I’ve recently broken down the downward dog and my students have mentioned how revealing the yoga tune up prep poses have been leading to the downward dog. I myself never enjoyed being in that position and not once did an instructor ever mention the importance of external rotation and the use of the serrates anterior in DD. It was always a type of “push your head through your hands, elongate spine, heels to ground” that was the emphasis. With my knowledge in biomechanics and thanks to the Yoga Tune Up level I teacher training I can now SAFELY teach this… Read more »

Olga

Wow. this was a real revelation for me. i was practicing yoga for years and never thought that the basic pose as downward dog can be so complicated. we are used to hear all the time: long spine, coccyx to the celling, heels to the floor, chest to the feet, but whats about the shoulders? now every time i have a new student in my class i will first of all check his ability to externally rotate the shoulder

Tara Kachroo

A great review of the work we did today in day three of the Level 1 training.

Sarah

I do not have full ROM in my shoulders, that I already knew. After working with Todd Lavictoire and taking his tune up classes for over 2 years now I thought I mastered the nuances of a proper downward dog (external rotation, please!) BUT… while working with the pose in teacher training, 1 I have discovered that I actually have very limited and external rotation! Point: downward dog may not be for me right now. Wow.

Sheena

A must know for any yoga practitioner and yoga teacher! We all see these tight shoulders in downward dog. Now we can safely test and offer a modification that will make sense to people. Thank you for the clear explanation! I look forward to sharing this technique and alternate pose in class this week.

Kassandra Barker

This is such an important point to make! Not every body is capable of, or should be put in certain positions. Such a great distinction to make especially with the number of shoulder injuries I see in people who practice unsafe yoga.

Corey

This is a great message Jill! Thank you so much for going against the grain and showing people that some poses that they think will help them, might actually harm them. I also like it opens the conversation to reverse the shaming associated with not being able to get into every pose.

Karolina hess

This is so true. I teach yoga and so many of my students have hard time with that pose. It’s very complicated with many moving and squeezing parts. It also exposes tight hamstrings, ankle and wrist mobility limitations. It requires a lot of strength and awareness and it’s not a warm up pose!

Lynn

An eye opener for sure. It can be a wake up to embody that everyone’s geometry is different, and thus, we all do not benefit from the same practice.

Angi bloom

I find it helpful for many to do downward facing dog with the groins supported by the top of a solid chair. Most people do need to place a folded blanket under the groins so that they don’t create any irritation. They get to feel the back lengthening, the hamstrings elongating and do not need to put any weight on their arms. The head can rest on the seat of the chair. What I love about this variation is that both sides of the pelvis are level and that the upper body can practice the actions without any weight bearing.… Read more »

Sara

Thanks Jill!
This is such a useful assessment for whether yogis should do downward dog or modify. I will now use this in my beginner classes so that students can understand what version of the pose is right for them.

Karen Smereka

I started teaching yoga full time about 4 years ago. As we moved through time together and becasue I inherited many students from the previous teacher, I noticed a lot of people with wrist issues and shoulder issues. Despite my trying to encourage people to put their whole palm on the ground or externally rotate their shoulders blah blah, I didn’t see any change. The pain was still there and I had to keep sayig the same cues to compensate for what I thought was ‘incorrect form’. I now know that through this blog, downward dog isn’t for everyone anatomically.… Read more »

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya

Wow! What an incredibly useful test. I had not heard of this before and have been trying to demystify the mystical down dog for years. In anusara I cue forearms hug in and shoulders externally rotate. But I never thought to run an drill like this. It’s brilliant! I see lots of yogis (and even yoga teachers) who do have the forearm flexibility and still internally rotate their arms because they have hears the cue of reaching their chest to the floor. They mistake the sensation of impingement in the shoulder for a stretch.

Mei Wong

Thank u for this very important information on a pose that is almost always used in a yoga class. Your assessment is crystal clear and very easy to understand. I find this assessment is great for privates but even as a class assessment can help students avoid long term injury. This is great. Thank u.

Angela

This is an elegant adaptation of Downward Dog. I will definitely be using it for my students. Thanks Jill!

Marin

This a great option for those of us with at least one forearm that doesn’t pronate to a flat palm. I also wanted to mention to those who are “lucky” enough to not be able to go upside down (invert) either that this palm-up dolphin modification works against the wall, too!

Morgan Macgregor

This is revelatory. I discovered a while ago that while I THINK I do DD just fine, I have an immense amount of trouble with forearm plank, forearm stand and dolphin. I cannot get my forearms down on the mat. This suggests to me that I’m probably not in correct alignment in the shoulders when I’m in DD. In my case I believe it’s muscular (upper back weakness coupled with a lot of scar tissue back there), but I know many people for whom the issue is structural; their skeleton will not allow for DD. I think that if this… Read more »

Helen

Great blog reminding us to prioritise poses that work for our body, and not to work towards those that are typically aesthetically pleasing or the common pose many others may be working towards. I am on the YTU L1 in Ireland this week (Wahoo Europe!!!), and we focused on this pose in great detail. It was very educational and is a loud reminder that ‘standard’ poses are not for everyone and a reminder of just how involved they can be. Deconstruction and testing is clearly key!

Eleanor

I am a Physical Therapist attending Yoga Tune Up training in Ireland. We covered this today, and am SO delighted with the attention to detail. For too long the Yoga community have avoided addressing the potential of insiduous repetitive stress, and the fact that not everybody can or should do certain poses. Bravo, Jill, for challenging and forward, not resting in the habits of the past.

Claudia Blasimann

Doing this “test” today at the Level 1 Teacher Training Course opened my eyes for the difference and the connection of internal/external rotation of the shoulder and pronation/supination of the forearm. I will definitely have my students test this and warm the up more before – if even – doing Sun Salutations!

Melissa Harris

Wow! Just learned this one today. It will be interesting to try to unteach the ever so popular downward dog to some folks. But very important to prevent shoulder impingement syndrome.

Amelia

Wow this is a revelation to me. The only “modifications” I’ve been taught before are regular dolphin or just taking the hands wider. Another cool bonus of this would be reversing the flexed wrist position that we’re constantly in during vinyasa.

Emma McAtasney

This video has been the biggest wake up call for me. I thought I had improved my shoulder strength, stability and flexibility until I tested myself. Barely any external rotation. I began incorporating the supinated position straight away and I have felt such an improvement. Thank you!

Brent

I am a huge fan of dolphin already and I appreciate the palm up variation with a block. good stuff!

Lisa

I am able to rotate my shoulders outwards and turn my palms down, so I’m able to practice DD safely. But, I really enjoyed Dolphin Pose with the block, as well – it underscored the idea of how my shoulders should feel in DD. Thank you!

Ashley

I love this! My fiancee has always hated yoga because downward facing dog is so painful for him and so much of Vinyasa yoga uses Downdog as a “resting” pose. This also helped me connect with the cue that I give my students to press more into the inner edges of their hands – that really means they are pronating even more through the forearm. This is a much safer and more anatomically correct cue to produce a better down dog.

Kim Cordova

this is a great way to check shoulder openness for DD, Id never thought of DD as a pose that would be unavailable in the shoulders rotation wise.

Amanda

WOW, this has really opened my eyes. Downward Dog is usually the first pose in class and there is no attention to those who might not have the strength or body awareness to perform proper alignment! So scare to think how many poor beginners are being set up for failure in this posture. Thank you for raising this issue! I have been practicing for almost a year now, and downward dog has been one of my biggest struggles, because every teacher instructs and assists this pose differently. Just glad I’m not alone on this subject!

Soo Kim

I often have pain in my elbows I think because I’m pulling my upper outer arms downward to externally rotate the shoulders. That’s what I’m supposed to do to place my arms in the most stable position, right? Well, what do I do when there’s pain caused by it? I modify by supinating the arms – I feel that I can load weight and still externally rotate the shoulders. This is one of the most important modifications I can do 🙂

Michelle

This is so scary to me! I see so many people do downward dog everyday without body awareness. I am excited to use this modification in class and to get students thinking about what their shoulders are doing.

Rachel Peppler

Hey Jill! I’m so excited I found this post! recently a client of mine who has wrist issues was asking what the deal was with Downdog…she says she hates it. I was getting her to do it on her elbows but now I now that that didn’t help her at all. the self test and alternative the Dolphin Supinate will be something I discuss with her and see if she and my other clients will try. So much great information on this blog. Thanks You!!

Beth

This has been extremely helpful. I love the test and modification. So many of my clients internally rotate their shoulders in Down Dog and thrust their ribs to compensate, This is a great way to help them understand where they need to be, and for me to guide them there, Thank you

Molly

Awesome tip on the self test, as well as the dolphin supinate alternative. I think dolphin supinate is a great way to teach what external rotation of the shoulders feels like, since many students struggle with it in downward dog even if they’re capable of “passing” the self test.

am

what if we have one shoulder lower than the other? any advice on that?
Thank you!

Stephanie B.

Thank you for the tip on the self test. When I first started practicing downward facing dog about 5 years ago, my teacher would say this is a great resting pose. My response was, “RESTING pose, NOT!” She helped me make a few adjustments with my shoulders, focusing on keeping my shoulders externally rotated, and it made all the difference in the distribution of my body weight. Eventually, I found myself loving this pose. I just recently took a 200 hour yoga teacher training class and I will definitely keep this self test tool in my tool bag along with… Read more »

Dawn Mauricio

Thanks for another great post, Jill. I really appreciate the test of forearm flexibility. It is something I can take easily into a yoga class when the students would much rather do Downward Dog. For the students of mine who may feel like not doing Downward Dog is a cop out, Dolphin Supinate is a great and challenging alternative, as they can’t sink into bad postural habits.

katie

I’ve seen this video before and it is one of my favorites! Great explanations and tools to understand internal and external rotation of the shoulder.

Tune Up Fitness

Hi Chiara,

Thank you for your question! This clip is not from the At Home Program, but a special clip that was created while filming the Massage Therapy DVD.

Hope this helps! Please feel free to contact us should you have any additional questions 🙂

-Alex ([email protected])

Lisa Mills

This is so useful! Thank you very much! I now see that I should not be doing this pose! Does that mean I shouldn’t be doing press ups either?

Tune Up Fitness

Hi Lisa,

The shoulder is most stable in external rotation in flexion, in both dynamic and static poses. Practice and perfect the basics before moving on to more intricate moves. Hope this helps!

-Alex ([email protected])

Chiara

Great video! The info was very informative. I will be doing Dolphin instead of Down Dog for awhile. Can you tell me if this clip is from the At Home series of DVDs?

Tune Up Fitness

Hi Chiara,

Thank you for your question! This clip is not from the At Home Program, but a special clip that was created while filming the Massage Therapy DVD.

Hope this helps! Please feel free to contact us should you have any additional questions 🙂

-Alex ([email protected])

Oliver

Thank you so much, this was a very useful video for me. I always find tension within my shoulders while I am doing the downward facing dog. I have a question though, I understand that some people might not be able to rotate their elbows 180 degree without internally rotating their shoulders so these people should start with the dolphin supinate pose. Is it possible that after doing the dolphin supinate for a period of time these people have a more flexible elbow joints that allow them to become the candidate of downward facing dog? Or they just have to… Read more »

Tune Up Fitness

Hi Oliver,

There are so many other things to consider – it truly depends. It may be more beneficial for a student to embody their shoulders and create stability rather than focusing on completing the task of doing one pose. Hope this helps!

-Alex ([email protected])

Cristina G.

Hi Jill–Thank you for this very helpful tip to assess a student’s anatomy as it relates to Downward Facing Dog. I am currently taking a 3-day YTU Embodied Integrated Anatomy course. During my 200-hr teaching training, I learned about modifications for DD, but the program didn’t cover if the pose is OK for everyone. Are there some exercises an individual can do to increase the rotation in the forearm/wrist while maintaining the external rotation in the shoulder so that they can eventually practice downward dog safely?

Crescent Diorio

Hi Jill, I am a physical therapist and now going through my 200 hr YTT. I absolutely love this video! As an avid yogi, and someone who knows anatomy and understands alignment, you just blew my mind in terms of checking for full pronation while maintaining shoulder external rotation. I never thought to check this way, versus closed chain. Additionally, I’m thinking of my mom who fell and broke her wrist about a year ago who is now doing yoga. I know she complains to me that her wrist is “not the same” and she also had some rotator cuff… Read more »

alissa

Nice! Easy test and a great alternative pose. My right side is fine, but my left forearm is more restricted and tight and so downward dog doesn’t feel great on the left shoulder unless I move my hand out further away from the midline, so consequently I haven’t been doing it. I just tried it and I think it’s going to be very useful for me to work on the dolphin supinate version. Thanks Jill!

Dana

This is fascinating! I did the test on myself and fortunately I can do downward dog, because I am a yoga instructor. But I teach pro-athletes and I will be doing this test on all of them to make sure that this pose is appropriate for them! Fantastic! Thank you so much!

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