The practice of yoga was neither “invented” nor “discovered”. It existed long before references to it first appeared in art and literature. Nature played an important role in rites and rituals, with ancient yogis drawing inspiration from the world around them. Almost all mythological figures were associated with at least one animal. It is no surprise, then, that many yoga poses are inspired by animals, insects and nature.

One such pose is the adho mukha svanasana. A careful study of the name tells us its meaning. “Adho” = Down; “Mukha” = Face; “Svana” = Dog; “Asana” = Pose.

Finding the holy cows

Lord Indra was proud of being a capable and just leader. He ruled his kingdom, Indralok, fairly and never denied help to anyone. Lord Indra resolved all problems and disagreements promptly by holding court regularly. His subjects felt safe and secure. Anyone could present their problems to him and seek justice while the court was in session.

One story of such a day in court goes like this: One day, a group of cowherds came into Lord Indra’s court. They complained that all their cattle had been stolen by some fearsome demons. Despite searching day and night, they found no trace of the cattle. They implored Lord Indra to help as their livelihood had been snatched away. “You shall have your cattle back in no time,” Lord Indra assured them.

He promptly sent a few soldiers out to search for the cattle. After some time, they came back empty-handed, with no news.

Next, he sent even more skilled and formidable soldiers. They were adept at tracing lost things and people even in the densest jungles. After some time, they too came back empty-handed.

Then, Indra decided to send Suparna to survey the land aerially. Suparna was a supernatural bird and perhaps, from her vantage point, she would find some clue about the cattle’s whereabouts. However, Suparna also came back with no information.

Now Indra was puzzled and the cowherds had started to despair.

Finally, Indra decided to call on Sarama for help. Sarama was a dog Indra relied on heavily whenever in need. She was swift-footed and had a strong sense of smell, which helped her find anything easily.

She sniffed around the area the cows had been grazing on. She made her way around the cowherds’ settlement and sniffed there too. When she was unable to detect anything, she moved on to the rest of the jungle. She kept her sense of hearing and smell alert. However, she still couldn’t find anything. Sarama continued going deeper into the jungle until she finally began to sense something. She quickly followed the trail and discovered the cows hidden in a remote cave. All this searching had made her hungry and to her delight, she also found food in the cave.

She quickly ran back to Lord Indra’s court and guided him back to the cave. Everyone was overjoyed.

Sarama’s happiness knew no bounds. She was glad to have served Lord Indra again and been of use to those who needed help.

A constant companion

When the war of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata was over, the Pandavas made their way to heaven. Slowly and quietly they ascended the mountain from where they would board the chariot to heaven. The eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, led the way. He was followed by Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva and Draupadi. A lone dog also followed them.

The journey up the mountain was long and arduous. They were all very tired. Soon, Draupadi collapsed and was unable to continue. The Pandavas looked at her with sorrow since she would not enter the kingdom of heaven. Throughout her life, Draupadi had secretly favoured Arjuna. This attachment to him had been her undoing.

The remaining Pandavas continued, even though their exhaustion increased with every step. The dog followed.

The next to collapse was Sahadeva. He had been proud of his own intellect and this vice kept him from the kingdom of heaven. The remaining Pandavas trudged on as the dog followed, wagging its tail.

Nakula collapsed next. “He was proud of his looks and wouldn’t stop admiring himself,” explained Yudhishthira to the others. “That’s why he will also not make it to the kingdom of heaven. Let us continue.” Yudhishthira had noticed the dog and had started to consider it a part of their entourage.

Arjuna collapsed next. He would also not make it to heaven. His failing was that he was overconfident and conceited.

The summit of the mountain was close and though they mourned their siblings and wife, Bheema and Yudhishthira continued. The dog wagged its tail and followed them. Finally, Bheema also collapsed. He was proud of his physical strength and ate too much, thought Yudhishthira. By now, he was almost delirious with hunger and thirst, but carried on. He was aware that it was only him and the dog now.

At the top of the mountain, Lord Indra descended with his chariot and invited Yudhishthira in to be flown to heaven. Yudhishthira was happy that the harrowing journey was finally coming to an end. But being righteous and just, he had one final request. “Lord Indra,” Yudhishthira said, “I can only come to heaven if this dog comes with me. He has followed us from the base of the mountain, and has been with me as I lost every single one of my siblings and my beloved wife. He has been with me in sorrow, in happiness, in sadness and in bliss. He has seen me tired and hungry. Now, when I’m at the brink of heaven, I do not wish to abandon him.”

Lord Indra, of course, could not allow a dog into heaven, as dogs were considered inauspicious.

Yudhishthira found himself becoming increasingly emotional. “Lord Indra, the dog has done nothing to harm anyone or anything. It has shown only the utmost loyalty, faith and love. I’m afraid if he can’t enter heaven, then neither can I.” So saying, he turned away from the celestial chariot and started to walk away.

Lord Indra stopped Yudhishthira. “Congratulations, Yudhishthira, you have passed the ultimate test,” he said. “This dog is none other than Dharma, and you have shown that you have an intimate bond with Dharma. Welcome to heaven.”

As Yudhishthira boarded the chariot and flew to heaven, the dog turned into the god of Dharma.

There are many more references to dogs in Hindu mythology.

For instance, Bhairava, an avatar of Shiva, rides a dog. In fact, Bhairava not only rides dogs, but also keeps company with them.

Early yogis considered all life equal. If there are poses named after sages, then there are poses inspired by animals as well. Yogis observed a dog languidly extending the spine while keeping the rest of the body alert. They were curious about the benefits that humans could derive from this movement, and decided to mimic the natural movements of a dog.

A yoga pose is more than just a physical posture, and it is worthwhile to study its other aspects. While performing the adho mukha svanasana, we should think about the qualities that make the dog man’s best friend. In both the myths above, we see that a dog’s sense of loyalty and devotion makes it a valuable companion. It’s a fact that people with pet dogs are happier and feel less lonely. Guard dogs evoke a feeling of security in their owners. In recent years, dogs have also been trained to help the physically and mentally challenged manage their daily lives.

Today, we tame and domesticate animals to control and use them for our purposes. Rarely do we sit and think about what we can learn from our pets and other animals.

While practising the downward dog pose, meditate upon the strength and courage of a dog. To be loyal and faithful in today’s world, we need to be strong in our relationships and have the courage to forgive. The decisions we make, and the manner in which we conduct our lives, should be reflective of this.

How to:

  • Place your hands and knees on the floor, shoulder and hip width apart.
  • Spread your fingers wide on the mat and press the hands down firmly.
  • Start to straighten your legs.
  • Lift and extend your tailbone up and out.
  • Extend the torso by extending the spine.
  • Lengthen the back of the legs as you push the heels into the floor.
  • Relax the neck, face and shoulders.

Helpful hints

  • For help in extending the spine, rest your heels against a wall and push into the wall with the heels.
  • By bringing your chest closer to the knees, the shoulders and back will become more straight.
Beyond asanas

Excerpted with permission from Beyond Asanas: The Myths and Legends behind Yogic Postures, Pragya Bhatt, Penguin Books.