downward dog

Downward Dog is Not What You Think It Is

Even people who know nothing about yoga have usually heard of downward dog (Sanskrit: adhomukhasvanasana).

It’s a classic pose. It appears in almost every yoga class. But the pose you’re thinking of is not downward dog at all.

It’s close, and maybe that’s where the confusion came in. Maybe it’s because the real adhomukhasvanasana isn’t easy or even possible for most people who practice yoga–myself included.

The pose you’re thinking about is called mountain or, in Sanskrit, parvatasana.

mountain pose not downward dog

Downward dog is very similar, but in downward dog the idea is to touch the forehead to the floor.

This requires a lot more flexibility in the shoulders. I wish I could demonstrate it for you, but I can’t, so I took this photo of the page in my teacher’s book where he demonstrates downward dog.

downward dog

My teacher, Yogrishi Vishvketu, wrote this book for exactly this reason: he went to North America and was surprised by all the strange names of yoga poses, many of which were not the same names he had in his understanding. The book took five years to create, and as you leaf through it you’ll find there are many poses you probably know by some other name. The official names he presents in the book are quite specific, referring not only to shape or inspiration, but also body part and position.

I learned to use the name “mountain” instead of downward dog when I did my first yoga teacher training in 2007. But somehow, over the years that followed, I fell back into the habit of calling it downward dog–probably because that’s what I heard in every class I attended and that’s what people were familiar with. I even referred to it in my ebook as downward dog.

I let the peer pressure get to me. (You’ll notice that I call it downward dog in all my online yoga classes up until the beginning of the 2017, where I started to transition back to calling it parvatasana or mountain.) After completing my 500 hours of yoga teacher training, I am re-committed to calling the poses by these names, even though I might be alone in doing so. And even though I might still forget sometimes. 🙂

Which means, of course, that you’ll go to yoga class and the teacher will say downward dog, and what he means, most likely, is what I’m doing in that first picture. And that’s okay! So just smile about it, and know that when you come to class with me from here on out, you’ll hear it called mountain.

4 thoughts on “Downward Dog is Not What You Think It Is

    1. Great tip! I lose the alignment in my neck when I do that….the range of motion just isn’t there. I practice with a kneeling version: knees on the ground, hips above knees, forehead on the ground and arms stretched forward. That challenges it a bit and feels really good! I can go a bit beyond the straight line in mountain, but I can’t get my head all the way down as per downward dog. 🙂

  1. This article seems overly prescriptive. Within India there is a great variety in the names of the postures between systems, schools and regions. One teacher’s chakrasana is another’s urdhva dhanurasana. If you know what is being referred to by a particular term in the context you are in, then what’s the problem? I wouldn’t try and tell someone from Sheffield they are wrong to call a ‘bread roll’ a ‘bread cake’ simply because it is not the term *I* learnt for that thing.

    1. Hi, Matthew! Yes, you’re right…there are many names for a wide variety of the poses, and even within my own study with Akhanda yoga there were some name changes that were made between my 200 hour and 500 hour trainings! In this case, for me, it makes a distinction between two different poses. In general, it’s a small distinction, and yes, as long as everyone knows what you’re talking about, you can call it whatever you like. I’ve never even heard a Sanskrit name for stargazer, and crow/crane/raven get interchanged all the time. 🙂 Occasionally in classes when we do “downward dog” there are people who put the head to the floor, not because they’re making a distinction, but because they have the physical ability to do it and figure they might as well. And that’s fine, of course, but we can get more precise with our practice when we intentionally make those choices. I think it’s good for people to recognize that putting the head down isn’t necessarily an advanced version of mountain, but a separate pose you might choose to do sometimes. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *