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Sanskrit: the Mysterious Language of Yoga

Posted by Katarina Tavcar on

The first time I ever went to a yoga class, I didn't really know what to expect. I had a vague idea on how the class was probably going to look like that was pretty much based on the common misconceptions, but what I didn't expect or think about was the actual language of yoga.

That first yoga class was in English, of course, but every now and again a word would sneak in that would make me listen up with extra attention. Urdha what-asana? There were so many new words and expressions, along with all the postures and movements, it was a bit hard to follow but nonetheless felt amazing.

I later found out that all those words were actually in Sanskrit—a language of ancient India with a history going back about 3,500 years in which the majority of the big spiritual texts including Vedas, Upanishads and Yoga Sutras by Patanjali were written.

So here's a list of words I wish I knew before going to my first class and that might help you be a little bit less confused if you're just deciding to go for your first class or you've heard these before and were wondering what they mean:

Asana = »posture«
Asana is the third limb in Patanjali's eight-fold path of Ashtanga yoga. Originally this meant a seated position but is nowadays regarded as any kind of physical posture in yoga.

Bhakti = »love/devotion«
Bhakti represents the love and the devotion of the devotee to the Divine or the guru as a manifestation of the divine.

Deva = »she who is shining«
A female deity in Hinduism such as Kali, Lakshmi, or Saraswati.

Devi = »he who is shining«
A male deity in Hinduism such as Shiva, Vishnu, or Brahma.

Drishti = »view«
View or — in other words — also point of focus. Usually the tip of the nose or the spot between the eyebrows.

Mandala = »circle«
Circular design dedicated to a deity and symbolizing the cosmos.

Mantra = sacred sound
Sacred sound or phrase that can have a big effect on the one reciting it as they are believed to have psychological and spiritual powers.

Mudra = »seal«
Mudras are symbolic or ritual hand gestures or whole-body gestures that connect us to a certain element or power.

Namaste = »the light in me recognizes the light in you«
The common greeting in India usually accompanied with a bow and Anjali mudra bringing your hands together in front of your heart, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards.

Prana = »breath/life«
Lifeforce. In the body, it is the breath that is a physical manifestation of this life force. In the cosmos, it's a sum of all kinds of energies like gravitation, motion and the rest.

Pranayama = »life/breath extension«
Breath control, also known as the fourth limb of Patanjali's eight-fold path, originally only consisted of conscious inhalation, retention of breath and conscious exhalation, but in modern times any kind of breathing technique is called pranayama.

Shakti = »power«
Shakti is God as the Mother of the universe. It’s the power of Brahman, the personification of primal energy and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move the universe.

Shanti = »peace«
Shanti is a space of being mentally and spiritually at peace. Peace, which we are able to sustain even in the face of stress and turmoil.

Shiva = »he who is benign«
God in his aspect of the destroyer of the universe. He's the third person in the Hindu trinity besides Brahma and Vishnu. It is also the Absolute, the Supreme Reality, the transcendent aspect of God.

Tantra = »loom«
The tradition of Tantrism focuses on the shakti side of spiritual life and originated in the early post-Christian era and achieved its classical features around 1000 C.E. It has a »right hand« (conservative) and »left hand« (unconventional) branch.

Yantra = »visual technology«
Yantras are mystical diagrams, mainly from the Tantric traditions of the Indian religions, that are used for the worship of deities in temples or at home.


Katarina Tavčar

Katarina Tavcar Yoga teacher

Dreamer, creator, lover, yogi.