I was teaching a yoga class the other day and started referring to things in “yogic terms,” which is to say, I was using yoga “terminology” and using Sanskrit words. Teaching is rather like having a long conversation with yourself, and you hope that somewhere along the way you’ll hear a chuckle or a grunt of acknowledgement from a student to confirm that you’re making some kind of connection with them. Connection is in large part built just by seeing the class and speaking to what you see, in a way that is meaningful but most of all, useful, to the people in class. But when I was teaching today, someone asked me to repeat the name of a pose I had referred to in Sanskrit and it got me thinking about how many things you might hear in a yoga class where you have absolutely know idea what the teacher is referring to.
So, having said that, here’s a list of some of the more common terms you might hear in a yoga class and what they mean. I’ve tried to write out the definitions from my own experiences and not by looking them up (I might have referred to some information but generally speaking, these definitions are from my own experiences over the years with teachers and readings I’ve done)
Drishti: in yoga, you’ll hear your teacher say something like, “Set your drishti.” What he or she is referring to is your gaze. It means to set your eyes to one spot and don’t move them. It’s a pretty calming thing, to set your eyes at one spot, especially given how we’re usually looking all over the place. I find that when I run, I use the focused gaze of drishti to keep me in a meditative state and if I look at the people running towards me, it’s really easy to get caught up in their stories. “Oh, she looks fast.” Or, “wow, that person has a really strange gait.” Or, “ I can’t believe he just passed me!” These things tend to draw us out of the task at hand and into our brains where we tend to start to lose a connection to our bodies. When practicing yoga, we can do the same thing. We can get caught up in the story of the person next to us; we can start to compare our posture to the person next to us, or try to make our bodies look like their’s. We know on some level this is a futile thing but we do it anyway. Or, we can start to look around the room to see how others are reacting to class or to check out what others are wearing or … the list is endless. But honestly, all it does is in a way, is take energy away from what we’re trying to do, which is yoga. When we stop looking around, we often find we have lots more energy for yoga! And, we’re not so exhausted at the end of class. It can really transform your practice.
Uddiyana Bandha: In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language of Yoga, the word “Uddiyana” means “upward lifting” and a “bandha” is a lock. Ok, so what is an “upward lifting lock?” It’s basically the sensation of pulling your belly button in towards your spine and maintaining its position there. What that creates, and you can feel it if you do it right now as you’re reading this, is a sense of core strength. Now, the idea is to maintain this sensation during your entire practice but you’ll find it comes and goes (so what). The idea is to keep reminding yourself that you want to have this sensation and to just come back to it if you lose it. Uddiyaha is a great way to integrate the top half and the bottom half of the body and it also gives you a sense of moving from your center, outwards, which is really a wonderful sensation to have when practicing yoga. There are some times where uddiyana can be really useful, as in balancing poses where you’re trying to lift your body up onto your arms for instance. Or, when you’re trying to create a feeling of lightlessness, as in when you jump back to low push-up or jump forward to your half-way lift. The sensation also helps with your ujjayi breathing (see next term).
Ujjayi breathing: In Sanskrit , this word refers to “victorious” actually, and when you think about the breath, you probably never thought of it as “victorious.” But, think about the way your breathing sounds when you’re running or doing something athletic. It has a sound, a rhythm and an awareness to it that makes it different than other kinds of breathing. It’s really, first, and foremost, that you’re aware of it, versus how you breath regularly throughout the day, which for most of us is rather unconsciously (unless we’re having a panic attack or we’ve just climbed the stairs instead of taking the elevator– in those instances, we’re very aware of our breath) So here, in ujjayi, we’re aware of it, we’re doing it with a rhythmic pace and we’ve begun to engage our core lock or uddiyana bandha, so we’re keeping it in the upper part of our chest, instead of letting it disseminate in our lower bellies. Like our uddiyana bandha, we may lose a sense of our breath, but if so, we just return to it, without making it a big deal. This kind of breathing may not work for you while running or doing other athletic endeavors but it is great for creating a mind-set in yoga towards attention to the task at hand. It’s also pretty soothing to hear ourselves breathing, which we usually don’t do.
Namaste: This is usually said at the end of class. I like to think of it like “Aloha”, in that it’s used rather interchangeably as a greeting and a closing phrase. It’s most often heard at the end of class, when bringing your hands together over the middle of the chest, over the sternum. It’s typically done after a chant or two and is a way to end the class. It’s symbolic of really acknowledging the whole class for practicing together, because yoga is really an individual activity. But when we practice together, it’s a way to say, “Hey, thanks for practicing with me.” Loosely translated, it means “my spirit bows to you.” If that’s too much, just consider it’s a way in Sanskrit to say, “Thank you.”
Om: So, you finally got up the nerve to go to a yoga class and right out of the gate, the teacher says you’re going to start chanting with “three Oms.” Bummer. You thought this was going to be a good workout and now you’re realizing there’s going to be all sorts of weird spirituality in it too. Ok, well relax. First of all, you don’t have to chant “Om” if you don’t want to. Secondly, if you listen and don’t participate, it’s a pretty cool sound. I always find that after a class where everyone really seems to be connecting, the “Oms” are crystal clear and everyone is on key. It’s really quite magical, even for someone that isn’t musical. “Om” like saying the word “ Namaste” is a way to close out the class in a way that binds the group and acknowledges that “Hey, we all practiced together, let’s close with a few sounds to just acknowledge that we’re all not that different and we’re glad to have shared this practice with each other.” From a spiritual perspective, one interpretation I read stated that it’s the sound that was made when the universe was created and that sounds pretty neat to me. Now, I also was raised on musicals, so it’s nothing for me to break out in song at a moment’s notice. But even if you’re not musically inclined, it’s just a way to first, join in as a group, and then at the end of class, acknowledge that we practiced together. Remember, if you’re not into it, don’t do it. But don’t let your worry about being off key phase you. It’s pretty empowering to chant and can be quite relaxing.
Asana: In Sanskrit, “asana” means pose or literally, “seat.” You’ll notice that when your teacher calls out the pose names in Sanskrit, they end in “asana;” things like Virabhadrasana (Warrior 1) or Trikonasana (Triangle). So, what does a “seat” have to do with yoga? Think about it. Coming into your body is like taking a stand, finding your feet, grounding down through your foundation: it’s like “taking your seat.” It’s a powerful metaphor for what standing firmly in yoga pose can conjure up from a sensation perspective. But it’s also about feeling comfortable in your skin, no matter what physical condition you’re in, or how long it’s been since you have practiced, or even if you’ve never practiced before. When I hear “take your seat” from a teacher, it says to me, “You’re powerful and strong so own that 100 percent!”
Mudra: A mudra is another Sanskrit word that means, translated, a seal or mark or gesture. You may hear your teacher call out several different names of mudras during class but certainly one of the more common ones is anjali mudra, which means an “offering.” When you bring your hands to your heart center, which is typically when you will see this mudra positioned, it’s a chance to build a connection between your body and mind. It’s also a symbol of offering something up, so sometimes you may hear your teacher suggest to you that you “offer something up” to the universe. Now, maybe this means nothing to you, or you’re not sure what you’d offer up to the universe, and you’re not really sure what the universe would do with it, or this starts to sound like new-agey talk, which starts to annoy you. That’s ok! Remember, everything you hear in a yoga class will be filtered through your own set of experiences and wisdom. You are the best teacher for yourself but one of the tenets of teaching is to stay open. So, in hearing something like this is an opportunity to give it a shot. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you on a literal or intellectual level. Much of what we feel in a yoga class is meant to be felt and not understood literally. I hear a wonderful teacher recently refer to explaining how you feel in yoga a lot like explaining falling in love. It’s hard to explain but there is certainly a lot of “feeling” involved. So, back to the mudra and the idea to give up something: what I usually do is think of a habit or a feeling or a burden I’m carrying in my heart. Maybe it’s jealousy towards someone or anger towards someone or maybe it’s resentment or something unproductive. I literally send that up with the power of my thoughts and, just like you’d make a wish, I give it away. Conversely, sometimes I want to seal in a feeling. Something that I want more of in my life. Love, happiness, peace, for instance. So, I try to feel what it feels like in my body to be at peace for instance, and I use the physical senation of my palms pressing together to literally “seal” in the feeling. If you give yourself up to the feeling (again, a lot like falling in love) you can really open up and start to allow these feelings in (or out).
Alignment: So, this isn’t a Sanskrit term but you hear it a lot in yoga class. What the heck does it mean to “align?” I think a lot about my background in physical therapy when I practice and teach yoga. Building a yoga pose is based on biomechanics but let’s face it, many of us don’t know what that means and don’t have a physical therapy or medical background so we don’t really understand terms like “alignment.” But, we know how we feel when we’re stressed and we know how it feels to be unstable in a yoga pose. We also know how it feels to be grounded and stable and strong. If we can pull some of the structural techniques or positioning from those instances where we feel solid in our bodies, we start to understand what alignment means. If we also think about how we build things (this will make sense to the structural engineers) we know that if we stack things, they are stable and strong. When we look at the beams of a bridge or the foundation of a house, we see a foundation and then something is placed on top.
So, when we build a pose in our bodies, we try to build body positions where the joints are stacked one on top of the other. This creates stability so we can press down, length things, stretch them before we twist them and create the sensation of stability. Since many of feel unsteady in our daily lives, it can be pretty wonderful to feel grounded in the body.
Savasana: By the time most of us get to the end of yoga class, the teacher could ask us to come into “Jello Pose” and we’d probably not even notice. Our bodies are tired, our brains are full and while we know we need to exercise, most of the time the energy and resistance we need to push through in order to get there is almost too much. So, by the time we get to the end of class, we’re ready to rest. Savasana, again, in Sanskrit, means “corpse pose” which, while kind of morbid, really does reflect the ultimate rest. The end of class can be a time where many of us find rest without sleeping; relaxation without medication, peace without anything other than a hard wood floor beneath us. For some, this can be a bit stressful as well, to lie on the ground for an extended period of time. Sometimes I see people in savasana with their eyes wide open. The challenge with this pose, like any other, is to stay, regardless of the sensation, not to the point of complete frustration and aggravation but to allow ourselves to feel what it’s like to stay with something that is uncomfortable and watch what happens. For many, it’s a time when they can calm their minds and seal in the feeling of their yoga practice. Whatever you do, resist the urge to get up and leave. This happens rarely but sometimes a student short on time for class, leaves right before savasana. It’s the pose that kind of gets a bad rap, because you’re not ‘working out.’ But believe me, it’s an important one! So, if you ever do need to leave class early, leave during the final hip sequence, or whatever closing series the teacher is doing. That way, you don’t disturb the whole class with your exit. But remember, the end is just as important as the beginning and the middle and really, it just feels good. Whatever you have to do can wait five minutes.
So, there it is. A list of what you might hear in a yoga class. I hope you’ve found this helpful. If there are terms you don’t know and you want a more anecdotal definition instead of what you might gather on the internet, please let me know. And remember, it’s not so much that you know what things mean but that you allow yourself to feel what these poses are like in your body. Yoga is a great chance to acknowledge what you already know and build on it. It’s a great chance to relax as well as get strong and of course, a wonderful way to decrease stress and increase one’s ability to focus.
Enjoy your yoga!