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12 Key Sanskrit Words Defined to Make Yoga More Clear

IMG_0768_Small©ChristineHewittWords and sounds are an integral part of a group yoga class.

The music in a group yoga class if often music that has evolved over the past 30 years in the American yoga culture. One of the most prominent voices is Krishna Das (formerly Jeff Kagel of Long Island). His signature deep voice sings Americanized versions of Hindu devotional mantras. Many yoga practitioners love his music. In recent years, more styles of yoga music have been recorded, and  DJ’s play hip-hop and rock versions of these same themes.  More than half of the music you may hear in a yoga class is in the Sanskrit language.

Sanskrit is a very old Indian language – the origins of Sanskrit can be traced to 1700 BCE! – and for those of us who know only western languages, some can be very hard to pronounce or remember.

Personally, I much prefer music in a language I understand. The Americanized Hindu devotional music can be very repetitive. I do not feel that the underlying message goes against any of my personal faith or beliefs. Most of the Sanskrit phrases translate to messages of goodness, love and kindness. I just don’t care for the music and really enjoy the few yoga classes I have attended with great American or classical music. This is my opinion and I welcome yours.

The reason Sanskrit language is almost always part of a group yoga class is because of the sound element, the vibration of the devotional mantras is believed to be a key part of the benefits.

Yoga postures are often described in Sanskrit, and it can be confusing!

For example, a forward bend with legs apart goes like this:

“Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana”

Pronounced: Dan-da-yamana Bib-hack-tapada Pashimoat-than-asana……

It makes me long for a simple name, maybe “forward bend with your legs apart”?

For the sake of clarity and understanding in yoga classes, here are a few quick notes about common phrases used in a yoga class. Don’t get to picky about the pronunciations because I have heard qualified yoga teacher use a variety of different pronunciations. Use this as a guide to better understand what is going on in your yoga class.

Namaste (pronounced Nam-a-stay) is a word of recognition and appreciation. The person who says “Namaste” is indicating respect for the goodness of character and spirit in the person or group they address. A yoga teacher will often say this at the end of class, and the class will reply back. There are slightly varying definitions of this word and like many terms in yoga it gets a bit muddled. So think of the word Namaste as a pleasant greeting.

Asana – (pronounced a-sen-nah with a “soft a”)  is the Sanskrit word for yoga posture. Many asanas are named after animals, objects or shapes.

Hatha – Hatha is a very broad description of the physical practice of yoga. To see the word hatha in a yoga class description is vague and can mean any combination of yoga postures and yogic breathing.

Pranayama – (pronounced pra‧na‧ya‧ma), is the Sanskrit word for different methods of yogic breathing as well as the specific breathing exercises.

There is a variety of pranayama. Indian wellness and healing traditions focus intently on breathing. Western medicine tends to focus more on the heart. Breathing is also central to many forms of meditation. In yoga, the various forms of pranayama require attention to execute properly and foster the mind-body connection that many people find when practicing yoga. Many adult Indians practice pranayama as their personal yoga practice. The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, credits his pranayama practice for his ability to function at a high level with only four hours of sleep.

IMG_5192-Edit_Small©ChristineHewittOne of the most common forms of pranayama is Ujjayi breathing (pronounced oo-jigh-ay). This form of breathing constricts the throat slightly making more effort in each breath and subsequently more body heat. Ujjayi breathing makes a noise similar to the breathing sound of Darth Vader in Stars Wars except the sound from Ujjayi breathing should be quiet enough to travel only a few feet.

To start practicing Ujjayi breath place your palm a few inches in front of your mouth and breathe out like you are trying to fog a mirror. The slight constriction you feel in your throat is the correct position for Ujjayi and, is also the source of the Darth Vader noise. Now close your mouth, lower your chin so that your teeth are separate while your mouth is closed and, breathe through your nose with your throat in the “fog the mirror” position. Breathe long and smooth. Ujjayi breathing by itself is a slight exertion and will warm-up your body at the start of practice. As a session of yoga practice continues, Ujjayi breath becomes a modulator to help your movements stay slow and steady, in the sense that you could not sprint while doing Ujjayi breath. Ujjayi breathing through yoga postures requires and develops concentration.

Controlling your breathing while doing yoga is a key part of “trying the right way.” If a student pushes too hard and starts to pant or gets to a point of rapid nostril breath, this may result in an after effect of feeling agitated rather than, the restored and relaxed effect that yoga is famous for.

Drishti – Gaze, where your eyes should be looking when doing a yoga posture.

Bandha – These are areas of the body that are constricted, locked up and tightened to add strength and support to various yoga postures. Bandhas are a more complex part of the physical asana practice of yoga and should be learned correctly and practiced safely with a good teacher. Leslie Kaminoff (a best-selling author and 37-year yoga teacher) presents clear information about bandhas in his book Yoga Anatomy.

Saying “AUM.” Some yoga classes start and/or end with the group all saying AUM (pronounced OHM) together. AUM is described as the universal sound that helps us connect to the world. It is not a religious invocation. The parts of yoga designed for healing are very reliant on the use of sounds, and that is somewhat strange to many westerners. You don’t have to join in or participate, yet it is important to know there is no secular religious connotation to saying AUM in a group. It sets the feeling in the room with a group participation; like singing a song together brings people together.

Philosophy or spirituality aside, when 30 people say “AUM” together three times in unison, it creates very natural sounding noise and you do feel the vibration. An unusual, but pleasant way to start a group exercise class.

Mantra – A short phrase in Sanskrit, repeated in mediation with the intention to have spiritual or physiological effects. The actual sound of the words in a mantra can also have significance. Saying “AUM” repeatedly is a mantra.

Shanti – Peace

Guru – A very senior and highly regarded yoga teacher. Historically, until about 100 years ago, yoga was taught one-on-one from Guru to student. Most senior yoga professionals in America have a couple of teachers they continue to learn from, and this is most simply referred to as my teachers.

The definition of Yoga varies as one reads and researches. The best definition I have found is that of a “yoke,” that creates a more harmonious and healthy mind-body connection. Yoga is a very healthy practice, and that is paramount to any definition.

Many yoga teachers were taught to refer to yoga postures in the Sanskrit language. It is a discipline or a habit that can be confusing to new students.

A good yoga teacher should explain the meaning of any Sanskrit words or phrases used in invocation, chanting or general conversation and also be open to explaining why or what is going on in class. Yoga students should only repeat Sanskrit words that they feel comfortable saying and understand. Be careful of a teacher who is not willing to explain.

Please offer your insights and comments. We want to hear from you!

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