15 Sanskrit Words From The World Of Yoga

Have you ever wondered where the names of all those yoga poses have come from? In honor of International Day of Yoga, we’re exploring the role of Sanskrit in the ancient practice of yoga.
Closeup of the intertwined hands of someone doing yoga on the beach.

Your mum, your aunt and your best friend are doing it and everyone is raving about its incredible benefits. But what is exactly the appeal of yoga?

Yoga is an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice that focuses on breathing, flexibility and strength as a means of bringing harmony between the mind and the body. The clue is in the very word itself as yoga (योग) means ‘unite’ in Sanskrit and it’s a cognate for the English verb ‘to yoke’ (to combine or connect two things). Indeed, according to various yogic scriptures, the practice of yoga can lead to the union of the Individual Consciousness with the Universal Consciousness.

Researchers suggest that its origins can be traced to northern India, possibly as far back as 5,000 years ago, with the first yoga practices being mentioned in the ancient Hindu text of Rigveda (one of the four sacred Vedas).

Recognizing its universal appeal, the United Nations proclaimed June 21st as International Day of Yoga, 10 years ago. It’s a special day that’s always observed with a yoga session on the North Lawn at UN Headquarters in New York City.

This year, the 10th International Day of Yoga has a special theme: “Yoga for Women’s Empowerment.”

Thanks to yoga, we don’t just have a rich philosophy and practice to live a happy and balanced life by. Yoga also lifts the veil behind the mystical language of Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language from India in which all Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poems — such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — have been written. It’s also the ancestor of many languages spoken in northern India today. 

And here at Babbel, we couldn’t think of a more harmonious choice of language since Sanskrit is also considered to be a Deva bhasha (देवभाषा), from Deva meaning God, and bhasha language – the language of God. The etymology of the word Sanskrit (संस्कृत) itself comes from the words sáṃ (“together, entirely, perfected”) and kṛta- (“made, done, formed”), meaning entirely or perfectly done.  

According to the 20th century yogi, philosopher and poet Sri Aurobindo, “Every one of its vowels and consonants has a particular and inalienable force which exists by the nature of things and not by development or human choice.”

How Many Forms Of Yoga Are There?

So, you’ve decided to add yoga in your life. Well done, we applaud you! 

But let us stop you there for a minute. There are several yoga traditions, and therefore several different practices to choose from. Here are just nine of the most popular methods.

Ashtanga (अष्टाङ्ग) yoga — it means “eight parts of the body.” Quite an energetic practice, partly meditative but also physically challenging. 

Bikram (विक्रम) yoga Bikram means wise and brave but this type of yoga took its name from the Indian yogi who invented it back in the 1970s, Bikram Choudhury. It’s also known as ‘hot yoga’ as it’s usually conducted in a room with heated panels and temperatures of around 40.5 C (104 F). 

Dharma (धर्म) yoga It is based on the teachings of its yoga master Sri Dharma Mittra and has a big focus on handstands, headstands and balancing postures. 

Dru yoga — This type comes from Dhruva, a prince in Hindu mythology who developed deep awareness and meditative stillness. It can also be translated as ‘North star’ which represents our inner still-point. It focuses on clearing energy blockages and a typical class includes yoga postures, meditation, breathwork and relaxation.

Hatha (हठ) yoga — Despite its gentle moves, hatha means force in Sanskrit. It’s also believed to offer the perfect balance between solar (ha) and lunar (tha) energies. 

Iyengar yoga — This practice focuses on alignment, sequencing, timing and the ability to hold poses for a long period of time. 

Kundalini (कुण्डलिनी) yoga — It’s a rather spiritual and transformational practice which combines meditation, breathwork, music, chanting, and yoga postures. 

Vinyasa (विन्यास) yoga — A vinyasa is a smooth transition between yoga poses, and vinyasa yoga is a yoga practice where you flow from one pose to the other without stopping. Some studios also call it flow yoga or power yoga. 

Yin yoga — This focuses on greater flexibility and balance. Despite the very subtle differences, it’s also known as restorative yoga.

Pick the one that speaks to you the most and trust us, you won’t regret it!

The Role Of Sanskrit In Yoga

Have you ever wondered where the names of the asanas (आसन) — “yoga poses” — have come from? Some derive directly from Hindu mythology with its creatures, animals and deities, some from Indian classics and some are as recent as the 20th century. 

As acclaimed yoga teacher and spiritual adviser Kausthub Desikachar once said: “By meditating on these characters, we hope that we might come to embody some of their attributes.”

So next time your thighs start feeling like jelly during the Viparita Shalabhasana (“Superman pose”), think whose attributes you are embodying. 

More importantly, keep your ears open for the various Sanskrit terms your teacher is sharing during the practice, because yoga is as much about breathing exercises and flexibility as it is about personal transformation.

Here are 15 of the most common Sanskrit words you’ll hear during a yoga session.

Ayurveda (आयुर्वेद) — Not entirely connected to yoga, it is sometimes considered as a sister science to it. The term is made of the word ayus (आयुस्) for life and longevity and the word veda (वेद) for knowledge. Together it means the knowledge of life and longevity and it is an alternative medicine system heavily practiced in the Indian subcontinent. 

Chakra (चक्र) — wheel in Sanskrit. We have seven of them and they represent various focal points and centers of spiritual power in the human body. From top to bottom, they are:

  • the Sahasrara (Crown) for understanding and enlightenment
  • the Anja (Third Eye) for insight and intuition
  • the Vishuddha (Throat) for communication and truth
  • the Anahata (Heart) for love and compassion
  • the Manipura (Solar Plexus) for strength and inner power
  • the Svadhisthana (Sacral) for joy and sexuality
  • the Muladhara (Root) for health and safety

Chaturanga Dandasana (चतुरङ्ग दण्डासन) — four-limbed staff pose, and it is better known as the low plank pose.

Drishti (दृष्टि) — means focused gaze and it is a very important practice that aims to develop heightened concentration and intention.

Garudasana (गरुडासन) — Eagle pose. In Hindu mythology, Garuda is known as the King of birds.

Mantra (मन्त्र) — a group of sacred words or prayers that’s believed to have spiritual powers.

Mudra (मुद्रा) — a symbolic, ritual gesture done with the hands and fingers. 

Namaste (नमस्ते) — a way of respectfully greeting and honoring a person. Usually spoken at the end of a yoga session with a slight bow of the body and hands pressed together.

Nidra (निद्रा) — meaning “sleep,” this is a practice that aims to induce conscious relaxation, also known as yogic sleep. 

Pranayamas (प्राणायाम) — breathing exercises from the word prana (प्राण) for “breath, life force.”

Sankalpa (संकल्प) — resolve or intention. It’s a powerful concept that invites us to be present and intentional, as a means of manifesting change and transformation.

Santosha (संतोष) — contentment, a deep feeling of satisfaction that comes through gratitude. 

Shala (शाला) — “house” in Sanskrit, this word is often used to describe a yoga studio.

Shanti (शान्ति) — quite simply “peace.” A state of mental and spiritual peace. 

Surya Namaskar (सूर्यनमस्कार) — We’re finishing this short vocabulary with one of our favorite asanas, the Sun Salutation: the perfect burst of energy for a slow morning. In Hindu mythology, Surya is the God of the Sun, the soul and source of all life. 

So, have we managed to convince you about the transformative power of yoga?

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