Exploring the Differences Between Commonly Mixed-up Yoga Poses


In every language, when words sound alike, life can get really confusing. I remember traveling (briefly) as an American in Paris and, since I don’t speak French, I took out my English-to-French dictionary (this was the mid '90s so I didn’t have a smartphone in my pocket). I pieced together and memorized one statement in French: “I am not from here. I do not speak French. Do you speak English?” I was extremely proud of myself that everyone who I spoke to was able to understand me. It felt good to be able to at least approach people in their language in order to ask for help, instead of assuming that everyone I approached spoke English. (No smartphones meant I relied on old-school maps and guidebooks, which left plenty of room for error when it came to my navigation.) Everyone I approached tossed huge smiles my way and replied to me in English. When I returned home, I had lunch with a friend who was fluent in French and I recited my French sentences to her, saying that this statement I’d taught myself had been a big help during my Paris travels. Instead of the friendly smile that the French natives had thrown my way, my friend burst into laughter. It turned out that the statement I’d memorized in French actually meant: “I am from the sun. I do not speak French. Do you speak English?”

So I’d made my way through Paris comically introducing myself, eliciting smiles along the way. But if one person had corrected my French earlier, I could have learned something and put my new knowledge into action. Whether in Sanskrit or in English, some yoga pose names can sound similar. And some poses, even if their names sound nothing alike, look so similar that it’s difficult to understand the subtle differences. Let’s explore a few commonly “mixed-up” poses and learn what sets them apart from one another.

Utkatasana and Uttanasana

These two poses look nothing alike, but they sure do sound similar.  (literally "intense powerful pose," but often referred to as chair pose) and uttanasana ("intense stretch pose," frequently referred to as a standing forward fold) are common poses, and frequently appear one after the other in the same sequence. If you mishear the pose that’s called out (or if you’re not sure what these poses look like), you may find yourself landing in the wrong one. First, let’s consider the Sanskrit word ut, which means “intense.” Technically speaking, the direct translation of each of these pose names includes the word “intense” as the prefix: utkatasana, intense powerful pose; and uttanasana, intense stretch pose. Linguistically, it’s the sound immediately following the ut that’s a cue for your ears—a hard “k” versus a hard “t.”

If you mishear the pose that’s called out (or if you’re not sure what these poses look like), you may find yourself landing in the wrong one.

To find utkatasana (intense powerful pose), first stand in tadasana (mountain pose) by bringing your big toes to touch and leaving a small space between your heels so that the outer edges of your feet are parallel. Bend your knees, lower your hips, and lift your arms. Resist clenching your knees toward one another and, instead, try to direct the center of each kneecap over the second toe of each foot. With your arms lifted, spin your palms to face one another, and bring your upper arms back in line with your ears. (If you’re in a vinyasa yoga class, the next pose may even be uttanasana, so begin to listen for the subtle difference in pronunciation. Remember, your intense powerful pose has a hard “k” sound in the middle of the word.)

Unlike utkatasana in which your upper body remains upright, uttanasana is a forward bend. Like utkatasana, you’ll want to come into this pose by first standing in tadasana. Keeping your legs straight, inhale, and lift your arms overhead. As you begin to exhale, reach your chest forward and broaden your collarbones, finding a hint of a backbend between your shoulder blades. Keep this slight backbend as you hinge at your hips, reaching your arms forward along the way, as though you're reaching for something in front of you, so you keep a long, straight spine as you come into a forward fold. Bring your hands to the ground, and let your head and neck relax. If your hands don’t reach the ground, bend your knees until all of your fingertips touch the floor (or touch yoga blocks). Then, with your fingers or palms on the ground or blocks, reach your sits bones into the air and press your thigh bones back. In a classical uttanasana (intense stretch pose) your palms come flat onto the ground, and your fingernails and toenails are all in line with one another.

Parsvakonasana and Parsvottonasana

Here’s another example of Sanskrit words sounding awfully similar to the ear. Luckily, the entry points into these two poses are completely different from each other. Parsvakonasana (side angle pose) is entered through a warrior II stance, while parsvottonasana ("intense side stretch pose," also known as pyramid pose) is entered through a stance more similar to warrior I. The common denominator here (and the linguistic culprit of confusion!) is the Sanskrit word parsva, which means “side.” But just like our last pose example, a hard “k” and a hard “t” are the differentiators. (Remember how your uttanasana pose above directly translated to intense stretch pose? Well, parsvottonasana is a related pose, both in stance and in translation. (Because of grammatical rules in Sanskrit known as sandhi rules, two vowels cannot be placed next to each other when words are combined. So when the words "parsva" and "uttanasana" merge into one word, that word becomes "parsvottonasana.") The breakdown is parsv/side, ot/intense, ton/stretch, and asana/pose. 

To come into parsvakonasana (parsva/side, kona/angle, asana/pose), position your feet like warrior II. With your right leg forward and your left leg back, bring the pinky edge of your left foot parallel to the short edge of your mat, and align your right heel with your left arch. Your feet should be about one leg-length apart from each other so you can bend your right knee, bringing your thigh parallel to the ground. Begin by placing your right elbow on top of your right thighbone, as though the thigh were a little shelf. Lift your left arm up and direct your palm as though you were about to high-five someone who was nose to nose with you. You can stay here or move deeper into the pose by bringing your right hand to the mat (or a block) on the pinky-toe side of your right foot. Keep your left arm as it is or come into extended side angle pose (utthita parsvakonasana) by extending your left arm over your ear with your palm facing the ground.

For parsvottonasna (pyramid pose), warrior I will be your base stance. (You may want two blocks near the front of your mat so you can place one under each hand when you forward fold.) Begin with your right foot forward in a warrior I stance, with the heel of your left foot at the back of your mat turned in at about a 45-degree angle. From here, straighten your front leg and imagine someone’s tugging your fingers toward the ceiling, lengthening the space between each of your ribs and each of your vertebra. Begin to hinge forward at your hips, allowing your arms to move at the same rate as your torso, so you’re reaching forward. (This forward reach and forward hinge is similar to the way you folded forward in uttanasana.) Keep all of the length you created along your torso and, bringing your hands to the ground or blocks placed in front of your front foot or on the outsides of your front foot, allow your torso to rest on your front thigh.

Upward Facing Dog and Cobra

Unlike the previous examples, these pose names (both in English and in Sanskrit) sound nothing alike, but they bear some physical resemblances, so they’re often confused with one another. In Sanskrit, upward facing dog is urdhva mukha svanasana and cobra is bhujangasana. In both poses, you are prone (on your belly) and in a backbend. In some yoga classes, your teacher may specify “low cobra” or “high cobra,” instead of just saying bhujangasana or cobra. These two variations are quite different from each other; high cobra is the variation that’s most similar to upward facing dog. If your teacher doesn’t specify, choose the one that feels more appropriate in your body. 

Unlike the previous examples, these pose names (both in English and in Sanskrit) sound nothing alike, but they bear some physical resemblances, so they’re often confused with one another.

For both cobra variations, first come onto your belly and, with your palms on the ground, draw your wrists back so they frame the sides of your ribs. The tendency may be for your palms to land under your shoulders, but draw them back so that the backs of your upper arms are parallel to the ceiling, and your elbows line up right over your wrist creases. (Take a moment to lift your head enough to see your wrists in relation to your elbows and ribs to check that they’re in the right spot.) Point your feet so that your toenails press into the ground, and try to spread your toes, pressing as evenly as you can through each of your toenails and even trying to get your pinky toenail to press into the ground. As you press down through the tops of your feet, lift your kneecaps so you feel your quadriceps (the muscles along the fronts of your thighs) engage. This is the base for both your low cobra and your high cobra.

To come into low cobra from the prep described above, press down into your palms and lift your chest. The height of your chest will depend on the openness of and flexibility in your back and chest, and the length of your rib cage. Without lifting your hands, energetically draw your palms back in space, as though you’re trying to slide them back toward your feet. Keep length in your neck, and allow your chin to remain parallel to the ground. Lift your shoulder heads, and ever so slightly but without pinching, draw your shoulder blades toward one another. This is where your backbend is—in your thoracic spine, just between your shoulder blades.

If you’d like to move into high cobra, begin to straighten your arms, but keep a slight bend in your elbows. Your thighs remain on the ground in high cobra, just like they were when you were in low cobra. While your chin may lift a little bit, think of the crown of your head as the “top” of this pose—not your chin. The back of your neck should remain long. The spot where your backbend is (just behind your shoulder blades) shouldn’t move. If you feel any pressure in your low back, increase the bend in your elbows, reach your chest forward, and again, energetically draw your palms back toward your feet. (Pointing your chin way up toward the ceiling begins to scrunch up the vertebrae in your cervical spine and could cause pain or injury in the back of your neck.) If you feel yourself craning your chin high into the air, check in with your eyeballs. (Yes, your eyeballs.) Keep your gaze forward toward a horizon line instead of allowing your eyes to roll up and back into your head. 

Now you’re ready to move into upward facing dog. Just as you kept a slight bend in your elbows in high cobra, do so here. Also like cobra, continue to press your toenails into the ground and lift your kneecaps. But here’s where the pose gets quite different. Unlike cobra, where the thighs rest on the ground, in upward facing dog, lift your thighs away from the ground. To avoid putting pressure on your lumbar spine (your low back), once your thighs lift, slide the tops of your feet forward toward the front of your mat. This will pull the weight out of your low back, bringing the backbend up to the same spot where it was in your cobra pose—right behind your shoulder blades. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows, but draw your shoulders back and your chest forward so that your shoulders stack over your wrists.

We’ve just begun to tap the surface of these commonly mixed-up yoga poses. The truth is, yoga is as much a practice in listening as it is in doing. By tuning in, not only to the pose names but also to your teacher’s verbal instructions, you’ll begin to better understand how to distinguish one pose from the next.

About the Teacher

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Karen Shelley
Karen Shelley is a Brooklyn-based yoga instructor who leads group classes throughout New York City and... Read more