Extending the Spine in Downward Dog

Downward Dog Mysteries

I’ve been getting a lot of crap—er, feedback—from my students about the cartoon banner on my author website. I’m actually quite fond of it, but my students are right: my cartoon self’s Downward Dog is, in yoga teacher-speak, “worthy of correction.”  But at least the German shepherd looks good!

Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is perhaps the most familiar of all yoga poses—and one of the most commonly misunderstood. Downward Dog strengthens your shoulders while stretching the backs of your legs, but those are only its secondary effects.  In Viniyoga, Downward Dog is categorized as an extension pose, meaning that its primary intention is lengthening the spine.  That amazing stretch you feel in your calves and hamstrings is just a side benefit.

The photo you see on the cover of Yoga Journal is only part of the posture. In Viniyoga, movement in and out of the pose is as important as staying. Movement contracts the muscles that will eventually be stretched, making them more like warm plastic and less like rubber bands.  Western physiologists call this action proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF.  (Though somehow I doubt that’s what the ancient yogis called it.)

Down-Dogging it the Viniyoga Way

Downward Dog, Viniyoga Style

  1. Come to your hands and knees, with your knees about four inches apart. Your hips should be directly above your knees, and your hands should be slightly in front of and wider than your shoulders.
  2. On inhale, lengthen your spine and tuck your toes.
  3. On exhale, press down through your hands and feet, lifting your hips to the sky.  Keep your knees bent and your chin slightly tucked.  Focus on feeling length between the crown of your head and your tailbone.
  4. On the following inhale, lower your knees to the mat again, bringing your hips directly above your knees and extending your spine.
  5. Move in and out of this position eight times, wrapping each movement in each breath.
  6. After the eighth repetition, remain in Downward Dog for several breaths.  With each successive inhale, press down through your heels while simultaneously extending your tailbone to the sky.  On each successive exhale, contract your abdominal muscles, feeling the strength of your core.


  • Consider cartoon-Tracy a drawing of what not to do. In particular, do not lift your chin or round your lower back. Your chin should be slightly tucked and your low back extended.
  • Your heels do not have to touch the floor, and your legs do not have to completely straighten.  Focus instead on feeling the length of your body from head to tailbone and from tailbone to heels.
  • To minimize wrist strain, spread your fingers and press your weight equally out through your fingertips.
  • Avoid pressing your chest too close to your thighs. This can hyper-extend your shoulders, which adds significant strain to your shoulder joints. Instead focus on feeling strength in your shoulders.

Happy down dogging, everyone!


Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and join my author mailing list for updates on my hopefully soon-to-be-published yoga mystery!

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