Marlysa Sullivan: A Steady and Comfortable Downward Facing Dog Pose

Downward Facing Dog Pose or Adho Mukha Svanasana with yoga teacher adjusting the arms and shoulders

Shtiram Sukham Asanam.” (Yoga Sutra 2.46) In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali describes asana as a “steady and comfortable posture.” How can his guidance inform every pose we practice? What amount of stability, or Sthira is needed? What is the right amount of Sukha, or ease?

In this Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) tutorial, physical therapist Dr. Marlysa Sullivan uses Patanjali’s centuries-old idea to demonstrate and clarify an ideal approach to stabilizing and protecting the mobile parts of the pose to bring space and ease to the stiff parts. She focuses this Adho Mukha Svanasana practice particularly on the shoulder, teaching us how to create a base of stability in the shoulder blades and serratus anterior muscles. This effort makes space in the upper back, protects the shoulder joints, and ultimately releases tension in the often-overworked upper trapezius muscles.

She suggests that finding the right placement for a posture, for each person, happens by identifying where we can access the strength of the muscles that need to engage, and where we can access the release of the muscles that need to relax. In other words, it’s a different experience for every person, and each of us can discover it on our own with some helpful guidance.

How to Practice a Steady and Comfortable Downward Facing Dog Pose

Practice Upward Hands Pose (Urdhva Hastasana) to Prepare 

Marlysa demonstrates the ideal shoulder blade placement to keep the arms stable at the shoulder joint. We discover that with the shoulder blades broad (protraction) and the upward reaching arms positioned a little wider than usual, we are able to engage the serratus anterior muscles. By limiting the range of movement for the arms, we find more stability for the joint and the rotator cuff.

Move Mindfully from Tabletop Pose (Bharmanasana) to Downward Facing Dog Pose.

Marlysa encourages us to mindfully move up from the hands-and-knees position, deliberately relaxing the upper trapezius muscles and gathering the elbows isometrically toward one another on the way to Downward Facing Dog Pose. She uses the imagery of a big beach ball—teaching us to squeeze it just enough with the elbows in order to feel the serratus muscles engage. This is how the shoulder blades widen apart and move forward across the back of the ribcage. It is also how the shoulder blades stay secure without recruiting the upper trapezius muscles.

Placement of the Hands, Action of the Hands 

She explains how some of us might choose to turn the hands a little outward, toward the corners of the mat in order to slightly rotate the upper arms. This will help facilitate the action of the scapula. For some, taking the hands wider than usual also may be helpful. Once the hands are optimally set for Adho Mukha Svanasana, they need to evenly and strongly press the floor.

Provide a Base of Stability

The elbows can be slightly bent in this Downward Facing Dog Pose version. Broadening the scapulae (the shoulder blades) helps us feel the engagement of the serratus anterior muscles. These muscles create a base of stability to protect and create space for the rotator cuff and the entire shoulder complex.

Adjust Your Yoga Pose

Plank Pose or Phalakasana is a steady and comfortable pose often practiced with Downward Facing Dog PoseIt turns out that internal and external rotation of the shoulders isn’t such an effective instruction once we are already in the pose. Instead, try coming a little out of Dog Pose toward Plank Pose (Phalakasana). There will be a moment where you can access the serratus muscles (a little like Marlysa demonstrates in Urdhva Hastasana). They cannot be engaged when you’re already in Downward Facing Dog Pose with arms straight. Instead, from this in-between place, broaden your shoulder blades away from your spine and toward your outer upper arms. Once you anchor your attention to this action of the serratus, you can sustain it and mindfully return to Downward Facing Dog Pose, broad and stable, and, like the poet, T.S. Eliot says, “know the place for the first time.”

Finding Balance: Steady and Comfortable Yoga Practice

Those of us who have a pattern of gripping around the shoulder-neck connection are, whether we know it or not, already familiar with Patanjali’s concept of Sthira—stability. It is a necessary part of any asana. If stability is all we have, though, we may never discover the joy of ease in the body, mind, or breath. The potential for the “perpetual dysfunction” of tensing the upper trapezius is great until we recognize it in ourselves. We can learn to build a new habit of engaging the serratus and relaxing the tension of the upper trapezius muscles. This creates the steady and comfortable balance we’re looking for in asana practice.

Downward Facing Dog Pose or Adho Mukha Svanasana with yoga teacher adjusting the arms and shoulders to be steady and comfortable

Those of us who are more mobile (or hypermobile) are already familiar with Patanjali’s concept of Sukha—comfort, good space. It’s the other necessary component part of any asana. However, if ease is all we have, we may not have access to the stability necessary to protect our joints for the long haul. Without the Sthira, we may be mobile, but we won’t be able to support and sustain that mobility indefinitely.

Explore Balance in Every Yoga Pose

Patanjali’s idea that each pose has its own balance of stability and space, Sthira and Sukha, makes every pose an opportunity to discover our own balance of effort and surrender.

Dr. Marlysa Sullivan’s tutorial invites us to create ease where there once was resistance and to stabilize where there once was instability. This lesson is an exploration and a jumping-off point to a rich understanding of our own body’s innate longing to become a stable, spacious container for all the energy we possess.

Sarah Bell

Sarah Bell (ERYT-500, YACEP) has been teaching yoga for more than twenty-five years. She was on the faculty of the Yoga Works Teacher Training Program for fifteen years, having trained hundreds of teachers in both the 200-hour Introductory Courses and the 300-hour Professional Programs throughout the country and abroad. She is the creator of Speaking of Yoga, a voice and communication course for yoga teachers, as well as Beyond the Postures, a  course that introduces yoga philosophy, anatomy, pranayama, and meditation to curious yoga practitioners. She mentors yoga teachers along the path as they find their voice and refine their skills. For more information on her upcoming retreats, courses, and classes, find her at

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