As one of the oldest languages in the world, Sanskrit can sound confusing to Western ears. It is a ceremonial language that is not commonly spoken, but found in ancient texts. Considered as a sacred language to those of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain faiths, many ancient religious and poetic texts demonstrate this language’s unique beauty. Yoga teachers learn and often teach students postures using the traditional Sanskrit names. Let’s demystify yoga and look at 10 Sanskrit words you’ll likely hear in class.
Asanas is a general term that means poses. When speaking of a particular pose, the pose’s name is often followed by the word asana; it can act rather like a suffix. For example, Adho Mukha Svanasana is the name for Downward Facing Dog, or Down Dog. While some instructors may use the English nickname for poses, others may use the original terminology. Your teacher may also begin the class asking if students would like to work on any particular type of asana such as balance, twist, or strength asanas.
Pranayama refers to the breath. Specifically, pranayama is the practice of controlled breathing. Yoga calls for several different forms of controlled breathing in order to attune the body and mind. Yoga instructors will often recommend when to inhale and exhale during postures to assist students in gaining the most benefits from each and every asana. Controlled breathing not only helps students go more deeply into poses, but it also helps to calm the mind and encourage a more meditative state.
- Dirgha and Ujjayi
Dirgha and Ujjayi are specific forms of Pranayama. Dirgha is the three part, full body breath. In this pranayama, students are encouraged to fill their lungs from the bottom to the top as they inhale. It is the foundational Pranayama for all yoga. Ujjayyi is colloquially referred to as ocean breath as it sounds like the wind coming off the ocean. Both Breath practices can calm or energize the mind to better attune with the body; many instructors begin class with these pranayamas to bring awareness to the mind and body before and during more demanding asanas.
Vinyasa can mean several different things, but it is used most commonly to mean the flow of yoga postures together with the breath. For example, Sun Salutations involve the combinations of several poses together; this combination exists as a vinyasa that students complete at their own pace while focusing on inhalations and exhalations throughout the sequence.
Tadasana is an essential asana, or pose, in yoga. Many yoga sequences will begin with Tadasana, or Mountain pose. While this pose may seem simple, the goal is to engage as many muscle groups as possible when standing to realize the strength within the body—rather like becoming the mountain this pose takes its name from. From Tadasana, the instructor will then ask students to move into a variety of different poses.
Drishti refers to a focal point. You may hear an instructor advise the class to find a drishti especially during balancing poses such as Tree. Focusing on a drishti instead of a wobbly form in front of you can help to steady your own balance, allowing you to better attune yourself with the posture and breathing techniques. Depending upon the posture, the drishti can be located on the floor, the wall, or the ceiling. Wherever it’s located, the most important aspect of a good drishti is its immobility: it should be close enough not to strain the eyes, and far away enough that they eyes are comfortable holding it in their gaze.
You’ll likely hear savasana at the end of your class; this term refers to a specific pose which translates as Corpse Pose. Most yoga classes end with students lying flat on the floor in Savasana; after a demanding class, this pose encourages the body to fully relax and integrate the yoga practice. Inviting Students to just Be for a few minutes.
This small word actually represents the larger idea of complete consciousness. While only two letters, when spoken aloud om encompasses three sounds blending together:
ahh—ooh—mmm. Practitioners believe that this sound reverberates through the body and mind creating a highly alert wakened state, ideal for mediation. Some yoga classes may end with an “om” while others will use it periodically throughout class, especially if the class has a strong meditational element to it.
- Namaste or Jai Bhagwan
Namaste may be the most familiar word on this list; it is the word most used by popular culture outside of class. Namaste translates to mean “The light in me honors the light within you”; it exists as a very respectful greeting between teacher and student and student and student. Many yoga classes may open and close with the instructor speaking “Namaste” to which the students reply “Namaste” in turn. Think of Namaste as the yogic form of “aloha”—but instead of meaning both “hello” and “goodbye”, this yogic term conveys a deep respect to the person you are addressing. Jai Bhagwan is a Hindi greeting roughly translated to mean “may your yoga (or the divine in you) be victorious” and is often spoken instead of Namaste in the Pranakriya and Kripalu traditions in honor of Swami Kripalu who was from the Gujurat region of India.
- Bhagavad Gita
Yoga teachers often refer to the Bhagavad Gita when discussing the history of yoga. The Bhagavad Gita is the original yogic text explaining the practice of yoga. It is a philosophical text containing over 700 verses delving into the physical and metaphysical aspects of yoga. It presents and explores universal questions as well as yoga’s role in the individual’s life.
Let these ancient words deepen your practice and the experience of yogic culture. If your teacher names a posture by its Sanskrit name, never be afraid to ask for a common name to help further your understanding of a posture or flow. You’ll find that most teachers use both names when instructing a class. As with any language, the more you hear it the more comfortable you will become with its use.