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How to use the shoulder in downward facing dog

Updated: Mar 13

A yoga teachers observation

Recently I saw an article about how to use the shoulders in Adho Muka Shvanasana the downward facing dog in a famous yoga magazine on social media. What struck me was there was a lot of explanation about the position of bones but not one mention about which muscles to use. What got me even more surprised was the comments on the post which were mostly yoga teachers who had all something to say about how to use the shoulders in this pose.

Using traction in downward facing dog
Downward facing dog from yoga wall

And what they said was unbelievable, starting from, you just have to feel your body and find out what’s right, to completely misleading and confusing instructions for the beginner and even experienced practitioner.

The message of the post was, no one really knows what actually to do and that got me really wondering what these yoga teacher trainings out there teach. This comes from a place of observation and not judgment.

And now you think, how do you know how to do this pose right? I’m not interested to be right, I’m interested to give some clear and logic anatomical points to keep your shoulders safe in the downward dog while at the same time reaping the benefits. And this knowledge comes from the experience of my teacher Aadil Palkhivala of over 50 years of yoga and my own from practicing for over 20 years.

First of all, what should the pose do? Adho Mukha Shvanasana is an inversion, so you should get many of the inversion benefits. But how do we get to those benefits? If you seen or done hanging from a rope wall (photo above), the pelvis is pulled towards the wall so the spine can become long, creating space in the vertebrae and therefor allowing blood flow in the vertebrae discs. The more blood flow the younger your spine. And this is only one of the benefits.

In the active pose we want to create a similar effect and that’s why we need our arms and legs to be the stable ground so we can create the traction in the spine.

And this is where the shoulder comes in since it bears half of the weight. The work is to keep the shoulder in joint and that requires muscles. The muscles which are essential to protect the shoulder are the rotator cuff muscles. By moving the head of the humerus towards the shoulder joint we strengthen this group of muscles. They are our joint stabilisers.

But the most important one of all which no one ever mentions is the serratus anterior muscle. The “serratus” is a fan shaped-muscles that originates on the super-lateral surface of the first to eighth or ninth ribs at the lateral wall of the thorax and inserts along the superior angle, medial boarder, and inferior angle of the scapula. Its main part lies deep under the scapula and the pectoral muscle.

It acts on the scapula (shoulder blade) and is the prime mover in both scapular protraction and scapular upward rotation. What we are interested in is that it moves the shoulders blades apart. In the video below you see how the shoulders are moved together and apart in the plank, which is an exercise to find the "serratus", since it's dormant in most people.

In the downward facing dog you want your shoulder blades to be spread and the spreading comes from the action of the serratus anterior. You want your shoulder in joint and that action comes from the rotator cuff muscles. They work together to keep the shoulder joint safe.

At the same time when working on the serratus anterior there happens a reciprocal inhibition which means the contraction on one side is to accommodate relaxation on the other side.

To put it straight, when you learn how to use your serratus anterior muscle you will release tension in the upper trapezius and rhomboids which gets rid of neck pain, and by the actions of the shoulder in joint you create a stable ground, including the work of the legs for your spine to release to reap the benefits of creating space between your vertebrae’s. In this video I show the "moving apart" action.

So the basic instructions for this pose in the shoulder area are:

  • hands shoulder width apart

  • press your finger mounds into the ground, especially index and thumb finger mound

  • internally rotate the arms so the inner elbows face each other (this is key to put the shoulder in joint)

  • press the top of the arm into the shoulder (fixing the shoulder joint even more)

  • spread your shoulder blades

There are of course more instructions to the legs, but for the subject we stay with the shoulders.

By the way, the same goes for Shirshasana the headstand, please don’t stand on your head putting weight on it, but learn to use the serratus to stay in control of the pose.

For more posts on safety in asana and the true meaning of yoga check out

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