Downward dog may seem like one of the most basic elements in a yoga practice. In many classes, it’s one of the first asanas (or poses) you’ll do in a class — and also one of the last. But it’s far more than just a warm-up or a cool-down position. Downward dog is actually quite complex — and so are its benefits.
“Downward dog is a deceptively challenging posture that requires lots of strength,” says Lauren Weisman, senior yoga and Core Fusion teacher at Exhale Spa in Santa Monica, California. And because it involves using the entire body, she says, you can feel its effects from head to toe.
Most often, you likely see yogis doing downward dog during sun salutations, which is a short, energizing flow. But versions of the pose are also frequently used in all kinds of workouts, from Pilates to post-run stretching routines to injury-prevention plans. And that’s because health and fitness professionals from all fields know how rewarding downward dog can be for your wellbeing, too.
7 Ways Downward Dog Does a Body Good
1. It can get things moving. Yoga in general — and all forms of movement, for that matter — can stimulate the various organ systems in your body. But downward dog has a special advantage, says Weisman. “All inverted poses, where your heart is above your head, encourage blood flow and serve to both energize and calm your body.” Popping into this posture might even be helpful when you’re feeling bloated or, ummmm, backed up, says Weisman.
2. It may clear your head (in more ways than one). When it comes to studies on yoga and allergy relief, results are inconclusive. But some patients may find relief after practicing, says Rachna Shah, MD, an allergist at Loyola Gottleib Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, Illinois. “Any inversions — including downward dog, headstands and bridge pose — can help open up sinuses and allow the flow of mucus if there is any nasal congestion,” she says. Yogic breathing (or pranayama), which you can do along with your downward dog, might also improve stuffiness and even asthma symptoms, Shah adds.
3. It builds strong bones. “Downward dog is a great way to strengthen the upper extremities and build bone density, as it is considered a weight-bearing exercise,” says Elizabeth Manejias, MD, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. And having a strong upper bod isn’t just important for showing off your guns and shoulders (although admittedly a nice perk), it’s also vital for preventing — or helping to manage — osteoporosis. According to Kari Studley, a yoga instructor and physical therapist at Copore Sano Physical Therapy in Kenmore, Washington, “It’s a nice, gentle way to load the shoulders, engage the rotator cuff and get your arms over your head, something we don’t do very often in everyday life.”
4. It fights slumpy-posture syndrome. Maybe not a real thing, but it should be — we’re all suffering from it these days. (See: text neck.) Luckily, downward dog can serve as an antidote to all that time we spend hunched over. “It is useful for opening the anterior chest wall and shoulders that are so often rounded with excessive desk work,” explains Manejias. Practice often and you might be able to relieve neck and back pain associated with poor posture, and even find yourself sitting up a little straighter, too, she adds.
5. It does double duty. While some poses (like seated stretches) only work on flexibility, and others (like chaturanga) focus mainly on strength building, the Double D (see what we did there?) does both at once. “As both a stretching and strengthening asana, downward dog provides incredible balance for mind and body,” says Weisman. It also targets your upper and lower body at the same time, so you’ll feel it in your hands, arms, shoulders, back, calves, hamstrings and even the arches of your feet. (Got all that?)
6. It gives you fast feet. Not only does downward dog provide a great ankle and calf stretch as mentioned above, but it also strengthens lots of smaller stabilizing muscles in the foot. “To protect yourself from injury [when running, walking or hiking], you want feet that can conform to the ground, react quickly to the terrain and transfer weight effectively,” says Studley. “Really focusing in on the feet and ankles in this pose can help you get that.” Once you’ve settled into down dog, try pedaling your feet (bending your knee and ankle while lifting your heel up, one foot at a time) to deepen the stretch.
7. It will give you a glow. Rebecca Tung, MD, a dermatologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, says, “The added blood flow to your face and brain, combined with the requisite focus on your practice, add a boost in terms of a youthful dewy afterglow and calmer overall expression.” So toss that makeup bag and spend a few minutes in down dog every a.m. for a clear, bright complexion — no highlighter required.