The Language of Yoga: Sanskrit Terms Every Yogi Should Know

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Before you took your first yoga class, you had probably already heard at least one Sanskrit word. Sanskrit, the language of yoga, is an ancient Indic language—the language the first yogis spoke and wrote. Many ancient yoga texts are written in Sanskrit, and traditional yoga teachers use Sanskrit words when they teach.

While it’s common for yoga instructors to mix English and Sanskrit, and it’s possible to find teachers who teach in English only (especially for beginners), many yoga students enjoy studying Sanskrit as a way of connecting more deeply to their practice.

Sanskrit for Yogis

Two Sanskrit terms you probably heard before you ever stepped onto a yoga are om and namaste. Om is more of a sound than a word; specifically it represents the sound of the universe. Namaste can be roughly translated as “the higher power in me recognizes and honors the higher power in you.”

Which Pose is That?

Other Sanksrit words you’ll hear often in yoga classes are names of poses, or asanas. Asana means posture. If your yoga teacher uses the Sanksrit words for poses, here’s a quick guide to what she’s asking you to do:

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Dog Pose
  • Balasana – Child’s Pose
  • Janusirsasana – Seated Forward Bend
  • Savasana – Corpse Pose (the pose in which you lie on your back during final relaxation)
  • Sukhasana – Easy Pose (the basic, cross-legged seated position usually taken at the beginning and end of class)
  • Trikonasana – Triangle Pose
  • Uttanasana – Standing Forward Bend
  • Virabhadrasana – Warrior Pose

Another Sanksrit term you may hear in yoga class is pranayama, which refers to any of the breathing techniques yogis practice. There are several types of pranayama, including:

  • Ujjayi – This is also called “ocean-sounding breath.” Ujjayi is practiced with the mouth closed and throat slightly constricted. When practicing this breath, your breath is slightly audible and sounds a bit like ocean waves (or Darth Vadar). Your teacher will probably remind you to return to this breath often during class.
  • Kapalabahti – Also known as breath of fire or skill shining breath, kapalabahti is practiced by forcing air out of the lungs through the nose in short, forceful breaths. The purpose of kapalabahti is to create energy.
  • Nadi Shodana – Alternate nostril breathing. This is the practice of breathing in or out through one nostril at a time in order to stimulate the opposite hemisphere of the brain or to balance both energies.

Choose Your Dristi and Seek Peace

Have you ever had a teacher use the term dristi? The word means gaze. In certain balancing poses, for example, you may be instructed to choose a point of focus or dristi. You’re also very likely to hear the word shanti in yoga circles (in fact, I once knew a teacher whose name was Shanti). Shanti means peace. Om shanti is a greeting or wish for peace for the entire universe!

The more you practice yoga and read yogic texts, the more Sanskrit words you’re likely to encounter. Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, for example, are often presented in both Sanskrit and English for Western readers. The same is true of Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita, which many serious yogis study as a context for understanding the spiritual roots of their yoga practice. And of course, if you decide to become a yoga teacher, Sanskrit is likely to be part of your training.

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Maria Kuzmiak

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