When I first started practicing yoga I’d hear during class what I referred to as the “language of yoga.” I loved the sound of those words as if they held the key to some beautiful new knowledge. Over lots and lots of time I started to understand what some of these words meant, and when I did my teacher training I had to look at many of them more deeply for my some of my assignments.
The language of yoga is an integral part of its practice, its history and its intent. As you may know the roots of yoga run deep in the Northern Indian culture, and so the language is based on Sanskrit (one of the oldest and most traditional languages in India.) The use of Sanskrit in yoga varies between teachers and yoga styles but its influence is felt across all forms of yoga.
In your yoga asana classes, all physical postures will end with “asana” which is literally translated as “pose”, however other Sanskrit terms are a bit more confusing. When I started my yoga practice I would have loved to have understood some of the key words that I was hearing, saying and sometimes chanting and I think that this would have deepened my practice at an earlier stage, so I have written a quick intro into some commonly heard Sanskrit yoga terms so that you can go in to class with an understanding of some of what your teacher is saying:
This word literally translates as “seat”. Initially, it was used to define a comfortable pose for meditation. Later the word asana started to refer to a yoga pose or yoga posture. That is why yoga poses have -asana in their Sanskrit names (for example, Padmasana, Balasana, Tadasana). Asana is only one of the many aspects of yoga. Asanas help strengthen the body and better prepare it for meditation. It’s often this physical aspect of yoga that motivates people to start practicing but very often they continue to explore breathing exercises, meditation, yoga philosophy and other aspects of yoga.
Bandha is a term for “body locks” in Hatha Yoga. It is a lock or bind used to direct and regulate the flow of Prana (life force energy) to certain parts of the body. It is also a posture in which organs or parts of the body are gripped, contracted or controlled. The most common Bandhas used in yoga classes are; Mula Bandha (root lock) – contraction of the perineum in a man, and the cervix in a woman. Uddiyana bandha (upward lock) – contraction of the abdomen into the rib cage. Jalandhara bandha (Jalandhara’s lock) – tucking the chin close to the chest. This bandha clears the nasal passages and regulates the flow of blood and prana to the heart, head and glands in the neck.
The Sanskrit word Chakra translates as a wheel or ring, therefore a Chakra is one several “flying wheels” or points along the spine that are associated with a physiological function and emotional experience. The Chakras radiate energy along the spine and distribute that energy throughout the body. When working in harmony Chakras circulate divine energy and regulate physical and emotional health.
Drishti is a Sanskrit word meaning "sight" and refers to the gazing technique practiced while holding a yoga pose. It can also be used during meditation to improve focus.
Mantra is made of two parts; the root man “to think” and the suffix tra “an instrument or tool”, therefore a literal translation of the word mantra is “instrument of thought”.
In meditation Mantra is a word, sound, syllable or phrase that can be repeatedly spoken, chanted, whispered or repeated in the mind. The aim of a mantra is to keep the mind focussed and provide mental protection against distractions or unwanted emotions. A mantra can also bring enlightenment as a practice in itself, by using repetition and chanting of mantras the mind is encouraged to enter into a meditative state so that the meditator can begin to connect with the Divine within themselves, thereby evoking a higher level of consciousness.
The word Mudra means “seal” or “closure” in Sanskrit. Mudras denote positions which close the body apertures, and where the fingers are held together with special hand gestures. The term Mudras also denotes gestures made, often with the hands, during meditation or pranayama practice as a means to direct the flow of energy within the body. Different parts of the hands are associated with areas of the brain and the body. By placing the hands in yoga mudras we stimulate different parts of the brain which enables us to help generate a specific state of mind.
This is a word that translates as ‘the light within me bows to the light within you’ or ‘I bow to the divine in you’. It is normally said at the end of the practice. This is also a common greeting in countries like Nepal and India. You say it with your hands pressed together, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs pointing towards the chest.
This tiny word contains 4 distinct sounds; the “AWE” sound, represents the start of the universe, the “Ooo” sound represents the energy of the universe and the “Mmm” sound represents transformation. The last sound is the deep silence of the Infinite. By chanting OM the vibration from the sound correlates to the original vibrations that sounded when the world was created.
As a greeting or parting salutation, Om Shanti is repeated at the beginning and/or end of yoga class as a way of wishing others peace. It is also repeated as a mantra at the end of Hindu and Buddhist devotional ceremonies.
The Sanskrit word Prana means “vital life force”. It is the energy that exists in and around the physical body and sustains life everywhere. Prana comes into the body on the breath, so when we breathe we take in prana. When we expand and improve the quality of the breath we are expanding and improving the quality of the vital life force within and around us.
Pranayama is the practice of consciously prolonging inhalation, holding and exhalation of breath. During inhalation the primeval life energy (prana) in the form of breath is received, whilst holding the breath savours this energy and when exhaling the breath is used to empty thoughts and emotions from the body. Pranayama is used to develop a steady mind, strong will-power and sound judgement.
One of those yoga poses that even people who haven’t been to a single yoga class have heard of (along with Lotus pose and Tree pose, probably). This pose normally ends the practice. You need to lie on your back with your arms and legs straightened, the feet pointing outwards, the palms up, eyes closed. Savasana helps to relax the mind and the body and lets the effects of a yoga practice sink in.
A flowing sequence of poses. For example, Sun Salutation or Cat-Cow are examples of Vinyasa. Different yoga styles focused on flowing sequences of poses such as Ashtanga yoga fall under the category of Vinyasa yoga.
I hope you have found these helpful. These are a starting point and will help you understand what is going on in a yoga class and hopefully begin to deepen your practice.
I'd love to hear if this has helped your yoga practice, feel free to comment below.
Love and light,