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The upward facing dog and the downward facing dog, are the two dog poses that are commonly used in yoga classes; especially those which employ vinyāsa to link postures. In the Aṣṭāṅga Vinyāsa tradition of Pattabhi Jois, these two postures are featured predominantly, in the sun salutations, which open the practice and in the transitions between the postures of the various series. Indeed, the downward facing dog seems almost to have become as much a symbol of yoga, as sitting in lotus. Many people however, get the Sanskrit names of these two postures confused, whether it is with each other or with some other well known postures. So how do we remember which is which?
Ūrdhva versus adho
Upward and downward facing dog, share two common words… mukha, which means ‘mouth’ but is more commonly translated in the yoga world as ‘face’, and śvan (pronounced ‘shvun’), which means ‘dog’. Once we know those, all we need to remember are the words for ‘upward’ and ‘downward’; which are respectively ūrdhva and adho (pronounced ‘udho’). Strictly speaking, the precise form of these words is influenced by the word placed after them.
We also need to remember which is which, so here is a simple mnemonic: I think of the backbend shape of the upward facing dog as analogous to the shape of the letter ‘u’ for ūrdhva, and the roughly triangular shape of the downward facing variety, as analogous to a capital ‘A’, as in Adho. Get it? So, when we put the pieces together we have ūrdhva (upward) mukha (mouth or face) śvānāsana (dog posture) and adho (downward) mukha (mouth or face) śvānāsana (dog posture). As with any language that we learn, getting our heads around key words in this way can help to put the Sanskrit jigsaw puzzle together. Ūrdhva in front of hastāsana or dhanurāsana, at least means upward something. For example, adho mukha vṛkṣāsana, literally ‘downward facing tree’, gives us a hint towards the more commonly used name of this posture – handstand.
Adho versus ardha
However, there is still a risk of confusion, because there is another Sanskrit word, which often gets thrown into the mix by mistake, ardha, which means ‘half’. We see this word probably most commonly in ardha candrāsana, the half moon posture, or in ardha matsyendrāsana, the well known seated twist. But as a teacher of Sanskrit posture names, I am surprised at how often I see ardha (or the more grammatically accurate ardho) mukha śvānāsana turn up… in other words the ‘half faced dog’.
Now, I am as keen on animal welfare as the next yogi, and all these dogs with only half a face trouble me. So, how can we help them? Here, I have to pretend that I am a caricature Londoner, even though I am not, and drop my initial ‘h’ from the word ‘half’… pronouncing it something like ‘arf’. I then need to make the association between ‘arf’ and ‘ardha’ and I should be home and dry… and all those dogs will be saved.
So… to sum up:
· think of the backbend shape of the upward facing dog as like a letter ‘u’ and you will remember ūrdhva mukha śvānāsana
· think of the shape of the downward facing dog as like a capital ‘A’ and you will remember adho mukha śvānāsana
· remember that ardha is like ‘arf’ and you won’t mix it up with adho and apply it to your dogs… or at least you wouldn’t if only cartoon dogs weren’t so often shown making the sound ‘arf, arf’…
Ultimately let’s also remember to keep things in perspective. Far more important than what you call these postures is that you get on your mat and practise them!
This article is the sixth in a series of articles considering Sanskrit faux pas. Check out the other five – It’s not the crow!, Vīrabhadra doesn’t mean warrior, Do you know how to pronounce haṭha?, Astanga, siva, cakras and caturaṅga: what about the ‘h’? and Parivṛtta: revolved or reverse?