The Yogi Dictionary: 21 Essential Words and Phrases

If you’re like me, the first few yoga classes seemed to have be about learning poses, and half learning the lexicon of the practice. Terms like asana (pose), bhuja (arm or shoulder), and daya (compassion for all creatures) seem to fly around, and while everyone else nods attentively, you’re stuck wishing you brought a translator.

First, don’t fret. Speaking or understanding Sanskrit arguably isn’t required to effectively practice yoga (although, like with any language, there’s a special meaning hidden in many words, so it’s a bit more of a must-know when studying the philosophy behind yoga). Over time, you’ll pick up on the sayings and begin to recognize patterns in the etymology. But if you’re a good yogi and want to get a jump on it (and of course you are!), here’s a quick list of some of the most common Sanskrit terms you’ll hear in your practice:

21 Common Yoga Terms

  1. Akasha: The first of the five material elements that our universe is composed of, the ether. This is the basis and essence of all things, the fundamental building block of our world. Its main characteristic is sound, called Shabda, which is why yogis use certainly vocalizations to find balance during the practice (see “Om” below).
  2. Asana: Asana means ‘manner of sitting’ or ‘pose’ and is often placed at the end of a specific pose’s name, like adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and chaturanga dandasana (four limbed staff).
  3. Avidya (vs Prajna): Avidya and Prajna are two sides of the same coin. On one side is Avidya, spiritual ignorance and the root cause of suffering. It is here that many find themselves seeking yoga, to relieve that sense of anguish and to find balance. Prajna is the opposite, meaning wisdom and spiritual liberation of the yogi. Centering yourself is prajna is one of the main goals of yoga.
  4. Bhagavad Gita: A founding text for yoga. The 700-verse scripture covers some of the most basic questions of the universe, yoga’s place, and how to understand life, death, and the flow of energy.
  5. Bikram: A traditionally 90-minute, 26 posture heated yoga session.  
  6. Bindu: Often understood as ‘point’ or ‘dot,’ the bindi is worn on the forehead. Bindu refers more directly to the idea of the ‘seed’ – a source of creativity and inspiration.
  7. Brahma: The creator of the universe and the being of which all humankind descended from.
  8. Buddha: Meaning ‘awakened’ or enlightened one who has found inner freedom. Also used as a honorific title.
  9. Chakra: Literally meaning ‘wheel of the wagon,’ Chakras are swirling points of energy in the body. There are 7 common chakras, though the body is filled with them.
  10. Dhriti: Often referred to as ‘steadfastness,’ this is the ability to overcome fear, non-perseverance, and indecision.
  11. Drishti: One’s yogic gazing or concentrated attention. While your early learnings will focus on positioning the body, you’ll soon learn that where you direct your gaze plays a large part in mastering an asana and meditation. This will be one of the key directions your yoga teachers mentor you with during classes.
  12. Doshas: The three governing elements of the body’s constitution, including vata (wind), pitta (bile and digestion), and kapha (bodily fluid).
  13. Guru: A spiritual teacher – “he who is heavy.”
  14. Hatha Yoga: The form of yoga centered in poses (in contrast to Mantra, Karma, and Bhkati yoga). This is the physical practice of yoga performed in yoga studios.
  15. Mudra: Hand and whole body gestures. For example. when in meditation, touching the tips of the thumb and index finger while resting your wrists on your knees.
  16. Om (or Aum): A mantra and mystical sound of yoga. Sometimes referred to as praṇava. In some classes, especially those with a focus on mantra yoga, you’ll perform the om sound with the rest of the classes at the begin, end, and several times throughout. 
  17. Patanjali: A Sanskrit proper name of which several works are attributed to, namely the 196 Indian sūtras.
  18. Pranayama: Controlled breathing and breath in yoga. Understanding and mastering pranayama is as important as mastering the physical demands of asanas and directive cues of dhristi.
  19. Savasana: Recognize anything about this one? Asana is at the end. Savasana is also known as corpse pose and is a relaxing pose traditionally reserved for the end of your practice. When you hear this word, get ready to lay down and center yourself.
  20. Ujjayi: Sometimes called ocean breath, hissing breath, or victorious breath. It’s a type of pranayama where the capacity of the lungs is fully expanded and the chest puffed out. Often occupancies vinyasa
  21. Vinyasa: A slightly polysemic word (which means it has many meanings). In the context of yoga, vinyasa refers to a dynamic, flowing form of yoga, characterized by ‘breath controlled movement’ where the body and breath are as one. In other words, it’s synchronicity of our pranayama and asanas.

Master Your Yoga Speak

21 Essential Yoga TermsThe best way to begin to internalize these definitions is found in the same methods used for learning a new language – emersion. Devote yourself to reading yoga texts, listening to lectures, and paying special attention to the words used by your teacher during sessions. As you encounter them more and more, they’ll become less archaic and more familiar.

Have you found any special way to keep these definitions in mind or keep track of new terms encountered? Tell us in the comments below!

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