And that’s not even English. That’s Hindi. Or Sanskrit – which is actually how it entered the English language. Yoga comes from a long history (at least 5,000 years and possibly as much as 10,000 years) that traces back to ancient India. As such, it brings with it numerous concepts – and a lot of vocabulary – from India and the surrounding lands.
Such as “karma.” Everyone with a decent level of English knows about karma… but few people know about its Sanskrit roots. Fewer people realize that it’s 100% not about getting some random, mystical reward for your good deeds done unnoticed. Karma comes from a Sanskrit word that means “action” – and it’s about reaping the rewards of your present actions, not a reward or retribution for things done long ago.
Mind blown? Just wait. I’m going to cover some of the top yoga vocabulary – a lot of which comes from Sanskrit and these schools of thought – and you’ll see how fascinating the words and etymology truly are.
The majority of the words used in yoga come from Sanskrit. Here I’ll cover the word, its Sanskrit roots and delve a bit into the concepts of the ancients.
Let’s start with the most basic one: the name of the practice itself. The Sanskrit word means “yoke” – or “bind.” Yoga is binding the body’s various spheres – or “chakras”; see below.
The word “chakra” comes from the Sanskrit cakra, which means “circle” or “wheel.” To yogis (practitioners of yoga), it refers to the hubs of energy within the body: from the root chakra (muladhara – the base of the spine), going upwards through the sacral chakra (svadhisthana – the lower abdomen), the solar plexus chakra (manipura – the upper abdomen), the heart chakra (anahata), and the throat chakra (vishuddha)… to the third eye chakra (ajna) on the forehead and at last to the crown chakra (sahasrara) at the tippy-top of the head.
Not limited to yoga alone, this Sanskrit word means “breath” – and it refers to the vital life energy or force that keeps us going. Many of the yoga terms that follow have to do with managing and harnessing prana – which, as the Sanskrit term implies, is a unity of breathing and movement.
“Prana” is life force, and “yama” means to gain control… so pranayama is the practice of getting control of your prana through breath. It is made up of breathing exercises that clear the physical and emotional obstacles in our body to free the breath and the flow of our prana, or life force.
The Sanskrit word means “pipe” or “tube.” However, in yoga practice, nadi is the vessel through which prana (life force) flows.
Pranayama uses the breath to direct and expand the flow of prana in our nadis.
“Asana” is a Sanskrit word that means “seat,” which is used in the practice of yoga to denote any posture or pose.
This word means (in Sanskrit) “to place in a special way.” It refers to the flowing transitions between asanas – or yoga poses.
In vinyasa yoga, poses are strung together, and movement is strongly linked to the breath.
“Bandha” is a Sanskrit word that means “lock.” The bandhas are “locks” in your body that help you achieve amazing poses while keeping good posture. (Maybe you won’t be as flexible as this woman, but you can try!) They range from the Mula Bandha (the pelvic floor muscles) to the Uddiyana Bandha (the abdominal and chest muscles) and the Jalandhara Bandha (the throat, engaged by tucking your chin into your chest) – and then the Maha Bandha, which is all three at once.
This word refers to a focused gaze – and it’s the focal point of gazing during meditation or yoga practice. In Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, each asana (pose) is associated with one of eight drishtis.
In Sanskrit, “Ha” is the sun, and “tha” is the moon. Hatha is a combination of these two energies – the basic style of yoga. It’s often used (somewhat pejoratively) for slower-paced yoga classes.
The Sanskrit word is made up of “upa” (by/near) and “nishad” (to sit down), and it refers to a student sitting down near a teacher when studying. The upanishads are religious and philosophical texts written in India, probably between 800-500 BCE.
This simple word is said to be the origin of all sounds and the seed of creation, the “universal sound of consciousness.” The derivation of this simple syllable isn’t known, and even the ancient upanishads speculate on its origin. Still, “om” (or “aum”) is a powerful syllable to voice when in meditation – because human beings have been doing this for thousands of years.
“Mantra” may be an English word that you know even if you don’t practise yoga. Like most yoga terms, the word comes from Sanskrit, where it means “instrument of thought.” The Sanskrit itself comes from the proto-Indo-European root “men,” which is believed to have meant “think.”
It’s a word, sound, or phrase repeated over and over (like “om”) – and it’s being spoken to increase concentration while meditating.
“Mudra” means “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture.” It’s a hand position used to aid concentration, focus and connection to yourself during your meditation and asana practice. There are a large number of mudras.
This Sanskrit word means “peace” – and it can be chanted as a mantra in a yoga class.
“Surya” is the sun and “namaskar” is a greeting, like “namaste.” This is the sun salutation – a sequence of asanas often used to warm up at the start of a yoga class.
“Shava” in Sanskrit means “corpse.” “Asana”, as mentioned, means “pose.” This is the “corpse pose” often used to wrap up a yoga class.
In Sanskrit, “ujjayi” means “the one who is victorious.” The ujjayi breath is called a “victory breath” or an “ocean breath.” It’s made through the nose and activates the entire abdomen – the first and second chakras. It’s combined with asanas in some types of yoga, such as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga.
Do you know about yin and yang? It’s actually not a Sanskrit concept; yin and yang come from Chinese philosophy. But the important thing is to balance them; you can’t have one without the other.
Yin means darkness (where yang is the light), so yin yoga is slow: long-held floor poses targeting the connective tissues (fascia) in the body, with the aim of improving flexibility.
In Sanskrit, “Nidra” means “sleep.” Yoga Nidra – also known as “yogic sleep” – is the state between wakefulness and sleep. It’s like meditation – and can often be used to this end, among others.
This common Hindi and Sanskrit greeting is also a way to say goodbye. In Sanskrit, it means “the light within me bows to the light within you.” Beautiful, no?
I hope that this glossary of yoga terms makes you curious about the ancient origins of this centuries-old (no, millennia-old) practice – and encourages you to delve deeper. Rather than just learn the steps of the poses, why not learn their ancient names and why they’re called what they are. Or play a yoga game in your class.
Exercise your mind as well as your body in the next yoga session.