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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Monika Bansal

This is a great revelation. Yoga teachers don’t know or don’t talk about the forearm pronation. This is such an important thing before attempting the down dog. Thank you Jill for this knowledge !

Kate Clark

Teachers I’ve had in the past told me that most people should bend their knees in down dog, but the YTU training is the first I’ve heard about assessing the shoulders for the pose. Thank you so much for this!

Rita Chow

Went thru this in the YTU class today with Dinneen. I always knew that this pose is not for everyone, especially because I mostly worked with people with chronic pain/ injuries or extremely inactive people with underwork muscles. Being able to go thru this whole “why” in class is very beneficial for me, now when I see students who might not have the body to perform this pose safely, not only can I tell them that this is not what they should do but I can also give them detail explanation and variations.

Anja

This may just be the key for helping people with their downward facing dog. Understanding one’s range of motion and take that awareness into Yoga poses (or their modifications) is a great way of keeping the body healthy and happy. Thank you for this excellent demonstration!

Amanda Shepherd

This is handy and forearms down is also a great alternative for folks who want to give their wrists a break. Thank you :).

Yvonne Cone

Worked on this today in Level 1 training. And though we went through all of these points, I did not fully realize the long term harm that could be done that causes soft tissue damage. I always thought of it more generally as the arm/shoulder bones doing the work, but didn’t think as much about the muscles, tendons and all that makes up the shoulder girdle. So appreciative to know this now, and intermix it with Purgatory Dog with my students.

Kristin Webb

I easily passed the shoulders self test for downward dog, but I have intermittent wrist pain that makes the pose inaccessible when the pain flares up. The dolphin supination variation is brilliant. Focusing on squeezing the block means I’m still getting a strong workout with my shoulder joints in extension, without aggravating my wrist.

Annette Kraemer-Batosic

Being in the middle of the Integrated Anatomy session and happy to learn a better adjustment in Downdog. I leraned today not to adjust their internally rotated shoulders while they are in downdog but have them come onto their knees or in a plank, and then adjust the shoulders by twisting the biceps externally. Really appraciate the adjustment.

Harriet

This is exactly what we learned about in our YTU training today, but this video just blew my mind. The test presented here is so simple and so clear, it absolutely removes any confusion about who should or shouldn’t be doing down dog in the classical way. I knew it wasn’t necessarily appropriate for every body, but it has never been this obvious as to how and where to demarcate the efficacy of down dog for a particular body. So glad I came across this today!

Patricia

This is great! I have started working with a few private clients who are new to yoga and are eager to get into downward facing dog; many of whom sit at a desk all day on their computers. This is a simple and easy way of assessing their structural limitations and also offers an alternative to the full expression of the pose.

Marja

Agreed. A doctor in my Yoga Therapy RX program gave the example of going to your local doctor and, when you get there, 20 people are in the waiting room. The doctor opens the doors and says, “everyone, come in, and everyone gets penicillin!” If yoga is medicine, the practice bodes best when it fits the individual in his/her particular stage of life. Group yoga is beneficial for so many reasons and, simultaneously, can be problematic. As teachers, if we are well educated and profoundly aware and conscious of the bodies in the room, we can offer the right medicine… Read more »

Michelle W

I really appreciated this post. It not only reminds us that every pose is not necessarily for everyone, but that there are modifications to assist each student. I loved the test you used to show if the shoulders were in the safer, externally rotated position, rather than internally rotated. I loved the modification, too. It really allows us to think about even the most common poses — ones that we can tend to pass by all too easily.

sarah

This was great, not only as a test to see if you’re ready for down dog but also as a way of making an imprint on the shoulder so when you do come to down dog (if your body is ready) your shoulders have that imprint, that muscle memory to come back to. I am wondering though if someone is close in the test if they would be able to externally rotate the upper arm and internally rotate the lower arm with the reference point of the floor. I have found in my own body that I am capable of… Read more »

Connie

A very simple way to survey the students before they are pushed into vinyasa or power yoga!

Jasmine Ellemo

I tried the test and I’m ok.yeah, however one side was much easier than the other ( my Right) so I think that I often put a bit too much weight on the right side to compensate for the left not being as flexible. Maybe that’s why my right shoulder gets tired more easily! I will ask all my students to try this over the next few weeks and we will try the dolphin pose variation as well . Great video!

Barbara

I really like the simple forearm rotation test. I would not have thought of using it in my class but it makes perfect sense. I suppose there will be a number of people who will fall into the must-do-dolphin category. Now I have to think about how to fit this pose easily into a vinyasa. Thank you for the great video and explanation.

Li Si Yang

A quick and simple way for students to assess their own shoulders to help them be aware of their limitations.

This new awareness will allow instructors to educate them on the protental of injures and teach students exercises that are similar and that will slowly progress them to a downward facing dog.

Katie Rutterer

Downward Dog class yesterday blew my mind. It’s going to take me some time to unpack everything that happened but I can’t wait to bring this shoulder work to my students. I know so many people want to do handstand but can’t hold a proper DD. I love having steps to work up to proper shoulder stability even if students get frustrated when they have to back off what they’re used to doing.

Monica

Thank you for this post Jill! I can’t wait to share this downward dog test with my students. It’s such a simple way to understand what the shoulder must do in order to keep the shoulder stable as it bears the weight of the body. The dolphin supinate is a great modification that I’ve never offered before. I look forward to trying it out in my classes!

Jamie Hyunji Hwang

This is great information. It can be also applied information to Chin-ups & Pull-ups exercise.

Ann Starr

What a easy test for people to check if the own anatomical structure is suited for Downward Facing Dog. I hate seeing people at the gym who are doing planks with their shoulders an unstable position.

Courtney

This post was really helpful to reinforce the anatomy class demonstration and is a great reference.

Kelly Paige

Personally I have always struggled in downward facing dog & this post highlights body alignment and an alternative pose, dolphin, for me to explore. I am aware a lot of people struggle to make the correct body shape in downward dog. It is important to know why, the internal rotation of the shoulders. This information is important when assessing students needs.

Kelly

My takeaway from teacher training yesterday – pose ubiquity does not equal safety

Annette Allen

This will be so helpful and simple to do with my clients! I wish someone would’ve showed me this test when I first started doing yoga. It would have been a game changer and taken years off my struggle with down dog.

Lisa

Love this great pose alternative! I suffer from thoracic outlet syndrome and too much down dog never feels good for me. I wish other instructors would offer this in class…I’ll just have to go into it myself!

Suncana

This is always such a great reminder. I have a private couple I teach and they are insistent on doing downward facing dog. I always try to remember to prep with dolphin supinate. I also try to really explain the safe position of the shoulder to them so they can get it ingrained in their brain that exertnal rotation and depression is what we are aiming for. Not a jamming of the humerus.

Vickie Chartrand

Très intéressant! Je compte bien faire ce test dans mes cours avant de faire la posture du chien tête en bas.

Sylvie

Merci pour cette démonstration du test, et il sera très utile pour prévenir des douleurs inutiles , j’aime bien l’alternative propose et l’utilisation du bloc pour nous guider dans la distance entre les bras .Un outil de plus !

Sharon

Brilliant! Todd and Amanda are correct when they say you are brilliant! looking at this ‘basic’ popular pose from this angle proves what I have always preached…’let the pose come to you on your body’s terms…do not chase after the ‘pose’ I will use this method in my next class! Thank you so much! I am so happy I made the choice to join YTU!

Paula Bishop

While the focus of this post is about the advisability of doing down dog, what caught my attention was the connection between down dog, pushup, and planks. I struggle with pushups because of some hypermobility in my shoulders, plus I’m a bit lacking in upper body strength. I have no problem doing a chest press on the TRX, which mimics the shoulder movement of a pushup, and now I think I know why–the TRX straps force the external rotation of the shoulders. Being a student of my body now–thanks to YTU Level 1 training–I think that some of my pushup… Read more »

Jen Wheaton

It’s amazing how many yoga classes I’ve taken over the years where instructors have cued Down Dog as a “warm up” pose, or a “catch your breath” pose during a hot vinyasa. This video and taking more YTU classes has really hi lighted my body blind spots in down dog. It was a HUGE ah ha moment to really evaluate and dissect the pose and ALL that is involved in properly maintaining down dog. When I looked at all the muscle groups and DOMs with a fine tooth comb this week in class and tried to replicate that in my… Read more »

Rick Widdifield

I like this assessment or diksha (threshold test) that you need to pass before proceeding to Downdog. I’ve been in a lot of yoga classes and gotten plenty of adjustments in Downdog but never have I been tested to see if I should be doing the pose to begin with. This is such a ubiquitous pose. It’s interesting to speculate on how many many people shouldn’t even be doing the pose. Having compromised shoulders myself and having actually done this modification with you in a workshop I can truthfully say that good shoulder alignment is almost automatic. It should be… Read more »

Miao Zhang

I’m on Day 3 of the YTU Level 1 training and this is basically a recap of what we learned today! It’s always beneficial to hear it again and again so it sticks to your head. And it is also great to know that I can tell people to come in to dolphin with a block as a modification if a person’s forearm doesn’t allow such degree of pronation when the shoulders are externally rotated. I think I missed that part in the lecture that this can actually be a modification for these people. Glad I read this blog!

Jessica Haims

WOW!! Talk about some serious insight to how many poses are not meant for all bodies. Over a life time I have heard you just have to open up to the pose, but sometimes our anatomy doesn’t allow for that! Understanding the effect that internal rotation will have on our soft tissues in down dog, or just the shoulder in general was eye opening. This is a great and simple test I would love to implement on private clients or in a small group setting to help accommodate the students shoulders and prevent injury!

Katy

Wow very simple test w the elbow joint! I e never seen this before I’m going to remember to try this w my class’s and def ” do both arms” as you remind us in the video! Thank you!!

susanne

I have the same experience in this week, one of my clients told me, that she has always pain in her elbows, if she does the downward facing dog. I explained her the correct alignment and the eternal rotation, and she has had the first time without pain. She was very happy ;-))

Ric

Any tips on how to increase that flexibility as to make downward facing a viable option in the future?

Susan J

So happy that Dolphin is celebrated as a good pose for shoulder pain…struggled with pain on down dog for 3 years.

Alexandra Dionne

very interesting to see that the down dog posture, who is use in a many class of yoga is not for every one.

Keisha F.

I absolutely love this! I often cue students to externally rotate the shoulders and many times it’s very hard for them to understand what this means. Generally, I like to mini-workshop it prior to the first downdog of the day (I enjoy teaching foundation classes) so that I can discuss the intricacies. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be very time consuming and they always want to “just get moving,” so this is a wonderful option to use in order to show them how to actively access the proper position of the shoulders while building towards a healthier/safer practice of this pose.… Read more »

Ethan Hammond

The same concept applies to any shape, especially squatting. Sure, all humans have the potential to do a full squat but trying to get a novice into the full shape ASAP may do more harm than good. For down dog, i think it is important for everyone to understand beforehand where there shoulder mobility is and to only act within that range.

Dana Healey

Hi Jill, you just taught up this pose in YTU teachers training level 1 and I think It’s amazing. This pose forces you to externally rotate with the elbows fixed in place, whereas in downward dog the elbow is free to help dictate where the shoulders are rotating. I teach a sun salutation class and I will now incorporate this pose to help teach people how to get that external rotation, or rather what it should fee like. thank you so much!

Delfina Bonilla-Lopez

I love that Jill is saying this! I can’t tell you how many yoga teachers have tried to “fix my down dog” and mess-up me up. Everyone always talks about how it’s supposed to be a restful position, but for me it never has been. It never has been because I always had pain in my deltoids when I did this pose and I never understood why. This lesson has really helped me understand why. And even when I’ve tested myself in other positions, I’m always strongest when my shoulder is externally rotated. It’s really hard for me to do… Read more »

Monica

Wow! I really appreciate this information. I’ve never heard or seen it explained in this way and it makes so much sense. I am eager to try it out on students I have, specifically men who are very muscular in the shoulders. I can think of one right now who complains of shoulder pain in DD and I’ve been looking for a remedy for him while he finds external rotation in the shoulder, alleviates the pain he experiencing and strengthening at the same time. Thanks so much for the clear explanation!

Jesse Fairbanks

Great illustration of earning the pose and respecting the prerequisites to down dog. To often students of yoga lose sight of the internal event of holding a pose. Great regression to avoid the misuse of a fundamental yoga pose.

Sonia

This reinforces what we learned in class today and is helping to make things more clear. I too worried about hurting someone in a class and am glad to know there is an alternative to offer.

Jean Eng

This was truly a great find. I wasn’t sure why this ubiquitous posture was so hard.. but after doing the test on the arm, I have found an imbalance on my right side. I had no idea my right shoulder was in internal rotation. The alternative you’ve given feels great and I will definitely keep practicing that until I can retrain my shoulder to externally rotate. Thanks Jill!

eneida cardona

The more I learn about the body an how it works, the more I worry about harming someone in the yoga room. this downward facing dog alternative is a nice option to have available to those that cannot access down dog.

Lulu Goodman

Omg…. This information in truly enlightening. I just experienced day three of YTU Level 1, shoulder focus toward downward dog. Not only was I surprised at some of my weakness and dysfunction, I am very curious about many of my students, particularly the older set. I am anxious to test and assess everyone!