Do this Downward Dog Variation for Hip and Back Pain

downward dog May 17, 2024
downward dog

The downward dog can be intimidating when we see images of advanced yogis doing them.

Most western adults can’t do a “perfect” downward dog with a completely straight back and heels on the ground.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If anything, this gives you even more reason to work on this position.

But not in a way that forces the body into discomfort. Yoga teaches the opposite – to listen to your body and work with it, not against it.

If you pay attention in the downward dog, you can learn a lot about your body. Like where you hold tension and where you are weak.

You can use this information to modify the pose in a way that helps you build strength and flexibility in those limited areas.

You can go one step further by programming a few isolated exercises that target your weak spots even more.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to modify the downward dog pose to get the most value out of it. I’ll also share additional exercises that target any weak links you discover while exploring the movement.

Common limitations in Downward Dog Pose

It’s rare for a movement to target so many different areas of the body like the downward dog pose does.

From the feet to the head, nearly every joint and muscle is involved in this movement. But there are certain areas that are more likely to limit the full expression of the position. 

The first is the feet and ankles. Although most images of the downward dog pose online show practitioners dropping both heels completely to the ground, this is no easy feat.

Let me fill you in on a little secret: most normal adults can’t get their heels on the ground. And that’s ok. It’s part of the process of self-discovery and learning about your body.

One simple thing you can do to start working on this limitation is to incorporate some calf strengthening into your workouts. 

Weak muscles don’t stretch as well as strong muscles. It’s always smart to make sure your muscles are strong when working on increasing range of motion.

Once the calves have adequate strength then stretching them is a good idea too. This is how you get better at full-body dynamic movements like the downward dog. 

Identify the limitation.  Address the limitation. Integrate the new strength and flexibility into the full-body movement. 

A strategy that I always use is testing the movement I'm trying to improve after performing isolation exercises. This is a great way to learn whether that exercise helps you get deeper into the position.

Test your downward dog pose. Do some calf stretching or strengthening. Retest the position. If you get more range, great! Add it to your routine until it no longer serves you.

The inability to get the heels on the ground does not always mean the limitation is in the calves. The body operates as a unit, not one muscle or joint at a time.

If there is poor mobility upstream, this will affect what happens downstream. And vice-versa.

How this can show up in the downward dog pose is the inability to drop the heels because of weak and tight muscles around the hips.

If the hamstrings can’t stretch enough, then neither will the calves. Another compensation for limited hip mobility is excessive rounding in the low back. 

This is how poor function in the hips can cause compensations downstream (heels can’t touch ground) and upstream (low back rounds).

The good news is that working on better hamstring function can improve both compensations. As you learned above, strong muscles stretch better than weak muscles. 

Tight hamstrings are also weak hamstrings. In order for the hamstrings to open up more in the downward-dog, we need them to be strong in addition to flexible. 

For most people, strength is more of the limiting factor than flexibility.  Weak muscles simply won't get more flexible - no matter how much you stretch them. 

A great exercise that targets strength in this range of motion are good mornings. 

This exercise will build more flexibility in the hamstrings.  Good mornings also do a great job of targeting another compensation that comes up in the downward dog - rounding of the upper spine.

To get the back in a good position in the downward dog, we want the thoracic and cervical spine to be relatively straight and in more extension.

This also requires the shoulders to be over our head which is another common weakness for many people.

Once you get the right feeling in the hips and low back, you can begin focusing on what happens higher up the spine in the good mornings.

Done right, the good mornings will improve the function of your hips and spine, which will improve your downward dog pose. Less is more!

The Modified Downward Facing Dog

The above exercises will help make the downward dog more comfortable and accessible for you. But you should not need them forever.

The goal is to integrate what you’ve learned in the isolation exercises into the movement itself.

But you’ll want to do the downward facing dog in such a way that you can challenge your limitations with the appropriate dose.

You don’t want to fight for too much range of motion too soon. You won’t get better at the position and your body will just feel more tense after the movement.

Here are two variations of the downward facing dog you can try to make your practice more productive:

  • This variation helps target the spine and shoulders more. 
  • If your upper body is limited more than your lower body, focus on this variation for a few weeks/months. 

  • This dynamic version is a great movement to use as a warm up for other workouts.  
  • Keep the heels up as much as needed and progressively lower them as you increase your flexibility. 

Closing Thoughts

All of us at one point went to a yoga class and forced our body into an uncomfortable or painful position. Good teachers will notice this and put you in a more productive and safer position. 

This is how you truly get value from yoga. By respecting your body's current limits. By working with the range you currently have and asking your body to take a little bit more with each practice. 

But of course, this isn't always how things go in a yoga class. Usually there are a couple of students that effortlessly enter positions that you haven't been able to do in decades. Or the class is so fast-paced and intense that you don't even notice what you're doing. You just try to keep up with the instructions of the teacher. 

All of these variables cause the body to tense up. The nervous system is threatened and the last thing it will want to do is relax and open. Combine this with a stressful day at work or with the family and you can see how yoga sometimes provides the opposite of what you are looking for. 

The downward dog pose is an incredible position for improving movement quality and body awareness. The key is to identify which variation is best for your current capabilities.