The ancient practice of yoga has been around at least since 500 BCE and has a foundation in Hindu philosophy. As a result of its geological roots in India and its religious roots in Hinduism, most of the words and phrases associated with yoga are from the Sanskrit language, which was the lingua franca of ancient Indian Hindus.
Because of the richness and age of yoga, there is a vast wellspring of words and phrases to describe poses, principles, philosophies and other physical and spiritual concepts found in the practice, many of them Sanskrit. While the idea of becoming familiar with an ancient and nearly-dead language from the Far East may seem daunting, we’ve broken down some of the more popular words and phrases you may hear in a yoga class or read in the teachings of this ancient and graceful art.
We’re just going to get right into it. The phrases and words that follow will be broken up into categories to make them a bit more palatable. And remember: this is far from every term found in the yoga world, just some of the more widely used ones. You’d need quite a large book to be able to fit the thousands of years worth of yogic knowledge into it.
Styles of Yoga
These are a few of the main types of yoga. It may take a person a while to find what is right for them because there are so many styles that cater to people’s needs and abilities.
Anasura yoga – A newer style of yoga (1997), this rigorous yoga adapts to the users, who are guided to express themselves through the poses to their fullest ability.
Ashtanga yoga – One of the more ancient yoga teachings, this style, also called “Power yoga”, is very physically demanding. This style follows specific sequence of poses and each movement is linked to a breath.
Birkram yoga – Hot yoga. Invented 30 years ago in the U.S., this form has 26 poses with a class always following the same sequence. Popular, easy to find and good for beginners.
Hatha yoga – One of the six original branches of yoga, Hatha encompasses most types of modern yoga and is usually a pretty basic approach to poses and breathing.
Kundalini yoga – This style incorporates constantly moving and invigorating poses. It was designed to release the kundalini (“serpent”) energy that is coiled up at the base of the spine and to spread it upward through the body.
Sivananda yoga – This is a gentler approach to yoga, focusing on various sun salutation poses, incorporating chanting, meditation and deep relaxation. Often used in tandem with this philosophy is a healthy lifestyle, including a vegetarian diet and positive thinking.
Tantra yoga – An offshoot of Kundalini yoga which uses visualization, chanting, asana and breathing to tap the highly charged “serpent” energy in your body.
yoga – “Union” or “connection”. The experience of connecting is the state of “yoga”, a joyful and blissful experience.
These terms are all about the physical realm of yoga. These are things you can do with your body and can be seen with the eyes.
asana – Positions and postures in yoga. Any way a practitioner or yogi may sit, stand or position their hands.
ashram – A retreat or other secluded place where the principles of yoga and meditation can be practiced.
Lotus pose – The quintessential meditation pose. In this position, you sit perfectly straight and completely still while also staying relaxed, comfortable and alert.
Upanishads – The second sacred Hindu scriptures (behind the Vedas), which set forth doctrines such as yoga, meditation, karma and reincarnation, among others.
Vedas – Meaning “knowledge”, these are the sacred scriptures of the Hindu religion.
yogi – Someone who follows the path of yoga.
This section covers the abstract, more spiritual side of yoga.
ananda – An important attribute of the Supreme Being, ananda is the bliss or joy that is the highest state of the individual self.
Brahman – “The unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world”. The highest reality and the concept of God in Hinduism. More a principle than an actual deity.
chakra – Sanskrit for “wheel”, it is a center of radiating life force or energy which is located at the base of the spinal column and the crown of the head. There are seven chakras: Root Chakra (feeling grounded); Sacral Chakra (accepting others and new experiences); Solar Plexus Chakra (confidence and control); Heart Chakra (love); Throat Chakra (communication); Third Eye Chakra (focus, big picture); Crown Chakra (full spiritual connection).
dharma – When behaviors are considered to be in accord with the natural order.
Om – Ancient Indian mantra that signifies the unification of the body, mind and spirit. This chant is where the whole world was created and radiates. Om is the vibration symbolizing Brahman. Enlightenment and unification with the Supreme Being can be attained through this sound.
prana – Life energy, force or current. These sub-atomic energies contain inherent intelligence as opposed to the blind forces of atoms and electrons. Similar to the “chi” in Chinese.
These are some popular terms that don’t quite fit into the other sections.
mantra – A sacred, mystic syllable, word or verse that is repeated to quiet the mind and aid in concentration while meditating.
Namaste – Translated as “I bow to the divine in you”, this is a traditional Indian greeting of respect and gratitude. With palms pressed together in the middle of the forehead or your heart, lightly bow your head and shoulders.
sutra – Meaning “thread”, its an idea expressed as a concise clear statement. The Yoga Sutra (2nd century BCE) contains many modern yoga practices.
Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? You’ve probably heard of most of these words before but maybe didn’t know what they meant or how they fit into the world of yoga. If yoga is something you may interested in starting, you now have a basic introduction to some of the words you’ll hear in class or in the literature.