The Language of Yoga in Everyday English
Chances are you’ve heard of yoga. You may not practice yourself but you probably know somebody who does. Yoga is a global phenomenon. In the U.S. alone the number of people practicing yoga is around 36.7 million (as of 2015) and growing. People do yoga to increase flexibility, reduce stress, and improve general wellness. What distinguishes yoga from other forms of physical exercise is a spiritual component.
Yoga in the U.S.
Yoga began as a contemplative practice in the northern Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. Yoga’s introduction in the U.S. may be earlier than you think. In 1893 a Hindu monk named Swami Vivekenanda gave a lecture on Hinduism at a religious conference in Chicago. He traveled the country giving talks about yoga and wrote the popular book Raja Yoga. By the 1960s a little band called The Beatles promoted yoga by introducing yogi Maharishi Mahesh as their guru.
From the 1960s onward yoga continued to grow into the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today. Mainstream success brings controversy as critics point out the shallow trendiness of modern yoga and its appropriation of Hinduism. As always, a great antidote to this is education. What better way to start than by learning the language of yoga?
If you practice yoga in the U.S. you’ll typically encounter both Sanskrit and English words, often used interchangeably. Sanskrit is the primary language of yoga. The language’s history goes back an estimated 3,500 years and is related to ancient Greek and Latin. You likely already know a few Sanskrit words, especially if you practice yoga. Here we’ll cover some everyday English and some everyday Sanskrit.
Sanskrit — the Language of Yoga
The word “yoga” itself is a Sanskrit noun derived from the root word “yuj” which means “to attach, join, harness, yoke”. The most literal translation into English is “yoke”. In the U.S. it’s often defined as “the unification of mind and body”. While this is not entirely inaccurate, the traditional Hindu meaning goes a bit deeper. The traditional definition is the union of individual consciousness and the divine, or Atman. Loosely translated, Atman is a person’s true self or soul. The meaning is complex.
Other commonly used Sanskrit words include “Namaste, “Om”, and “mantra”. "Namaste" is both a customary Hindu greeting and a spiritual gesture often accompanied by a hand gesture called "Añjali Mudra"—pressing the hands together in front of the chest with a smile. "Mudra" means "gesture". Here, in yoga classes, teachers will often precede "Namaste" with its definition “the divine in me bows to the divine in you” while performing Añjali Mudrā.
A mantra is a sound, word, or phrase repeated to aid in meditation. “Om” is often said at the beginning and end of a longer mantra or can be a mantra in itself. “Om” represents the sound of the universe or vibration. It’s like an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like what it’s defining (think English words like buzz or hiss). "Mantra" is often used outside of yogic context in U.S. business and wellness circles.
Practicing Yoga — Finding a Studio and Classes
Studying the history and ancient language of yoga is a great start but what about actually doing yoga? Some would argue that you are always “doing yoga” as that is the practice. Here we’ll just stick to the nuts and bolts of finding a studio, signing up for a class, and the related key phrases to know.
When you’re ready to practice there are many options. If you’re new to yoga, or just new to town, the first step is to find a yoga studio or gym and sign up for classes. Most studios offer a free trial or trial week that allows you to take classes free of charge. Many offer unlimited classes during the free trial. This is a great way to get to know the studio and teachers. There are many different types of yoga and free trials allow you to sample. Popular styles in the U.S. include Vinyasa, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Restorative, Hot Yoga, and even Goat Yoga—yes, with real live goats!
When it comes time to pay for classes there are a variety of options. You could do a drop-in where you pay for one class at a time or a class pass or package where you pay for a number of classes at once. Some studios even offer unlimited yoga classes on a monthly basis for a set price. Tip: if you want to save a few dollars studios often offer community classes for a lower than usual fee or a sliding scale fee.
So you’re all set with signing up for class, but now you need some equipment. There are a few must-have items including a mat, block, strap, blanket, and a bolster. The yoga props are used for supported poses. For a hot yoga or vinyasa class, a towel and water bottle is, if not required, highly recommended. Most studios will rent you a mat or towel for a small fee. Props are usually provided free of charge.
The Yoga Class — Instruction and Poses
So you’ve checked in at the front desk, got your mat and other equipment, and are all ready for class. Now the teacher begins the instruction. At the beginning of class, you might hear phrases like “find a comfortable seat” or “say hello to your neighbor”. You may just hear a simple “Namaste”. They might ask you to set an intention or dedicate your practice to someone. If a teacher tells the class they offer adjustments or hands-on assists, this means they come around the room and help students with their poses. A properly trained teacher should always ask before touching you, giving you the option to say “no thanks”.
The rest of the class will likely focus on a series of poses (asanas) and perhaps a flow sequence set to music. In the U.S. the class atmosphere varies greatly. Some classes have no music and others blast Beyonce! Some teachers even post their class playlists online. A more restorative or Yin class might be by candlelight. Most classes feature many of the same poses. To make it easier to learn the English names, breaking up the poses into categories is helpful. The popular magazine Yoga Journal offers a handy visual guide to some of the beginning asanas listed below.
Here are the poses you’ll typically encounter in a beginning to intermediate yoga class:
Animals: downward dog, upward dog, cobra, cat, cow, lizard, pigeon, crow, scorpion, rabbit, frog, fish, dolphin, eagle, sphinx
Shapes: triangle, fallen triangle, plank, wheel, tabletop, bridge, chair, mountain, boat, star pose, plow, half moon
People: warrior 1, warrior 2, warrior 3, humble warrior, child’s pose, dancer, happy baby, goddess
Plants: tree, lotus, bound lotus (very advanced posed!)
A professional teacher will be able to guide you properly into formation. As teachers often say, always “listen to your body” and back out of a pose if it becomes painful. It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor before beginning a physical regimen. Yoga is not supposed to hurt!
In addition, there are instructions between poses. Teachers will often use certain phrases over and over again. These also vary from teacher to teacher and from class to class. We won’t define them as they’re pretty literal, but here’s a list of common phrases you might hear:
open your heart, open your chest
drop your shoulders away from your ears
rag doll over your legs
stack your (hips, wrists, elbows, knees) over your (hips, wrists, elbows, knees)
align or alignment
vertebrae by vertebra, or roll up to standing vertebrae by vertebrae
unlock your knees
push the mat away from you
inner rotation or outer rotation
inversions (going upside down)
inhale through your nose
exhale out of your mouth
breath of fire, cleansing breath, or Kapalbhati breathing
build some heat or tapas
Finally, after all the dogs, cobras, warriors, and trees the instructor announces Savasana, also known as final resting pose or corpse pose (literal translation from Sanskrit). Not all, but most yoga classes end with Savasana. The pose is considered one of the most difficult asanas because it requires you to let go or release and be free of distraction. This returns us back to yoga’s original meditative aim. The pose usually lasts 3-10 minutes in a typical U.S. class, followed by instructions to gently come out of the pose and roll up to a seated position. With that the class ends, perhaps with a final “Om” and a “Namaste”. The light in me bows to the light in you.
Bonus: DC Yoga Studio Mini-Guide
Washington, DC offers many different types of studios and classes for all levels of yoga student. Luckily, it’s pretty painless, and inexpensive, to try them out since most offer new student class passes and discounts. Here’s a brief guide to handful of studios:
Yoga District - Various Locations
With locations all over DC and affordable prices Yoga District is one of the most popular yoga studios in town. They offer a wide array of class styles ranging from vinyasa flow to meditative yoga. Their new student class pass let’s you sample a couple classes for a deeply discounted price.
Dragon’s Breath Yoga - Columbia Heights
This intimate studio in the Columbia Heights neighborhood offers Forrest, Yin, and Vinyasa styles of yoga, among others. They offer monthly unlimited yoga and other class packages. They also feature some interesting workshops including aromatherapy meditation and kid’s yoga in addition to their regularly scheduled classes.
Past Tense Studio - Mt. Pleasant
The tight-knit Mt. Pleasant neighborhood is home to it’s own family-friendly yoga studio. They offer yoga classes ranging from beginner to intermediate. In addition, they offer a class specifically for young adults, yoga-themed birthday parties for kids, and prenatal yoga.
Hot Yoga Capitol Hill - Capitol Hill
If you’re looking for something on the hotter side, as in temperature, this Capitol Hill studio is for you. The studio offers yoga in a heated room featuring a traditional sequence of poses. In addition, they have more experimental classes combining yoga, pilates, and cardio exercises. Special programs for kids and retreats are also offered.
Flow Yoga Center - Logan Circle
The community-owned studio offers 100 classes per week ranging from gentle flow to more physically challenging Ashtanga classes. Unlimited monthly and yearly memberships are available. Unlimited is a good option if you have a dedicated practice.
Willow Street Yoga - Takoma Park and Silver Spring
Another community-oriented yoga studio, the two locations feature the standard array of yoga classes with some unique workshops and special events. Recent offerings include Eyes Free Yoga inspired by blind/visually impaired yogis and Yoga en Español featuring Spanish instruction with live music. They also have a boutique with eco-conscious, locally made clothing, jewelry, and more.