Curious about the Sanskrit words that get thrown around your yoga studio? Ready to dive into this 3,000-year-old language? Richard Rosen, leader of our Sanskrit 101 course, has handpicked the following 10 words as the best place to start. Namaste!
It’s obvious why this one takes first place on this list. Usually translated as “to yoke,” yoga comes from two different senses of the word yuj: one in the sense of samādhi, or concentration, and one in the sense of to yoke or to join. There’s a widespread misconception that the word yoga only means “union,” but it also means “method or technique.” “The goal of the practice is the realization that of the eternal oneness of ātman and brahman that we mistakenly believed are separate,” Rosen says. “Yoga doesn’t create a union, it reveals that it’s been there all along.”
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, avidyā is the reason we practice yoga in the first place, so it seems like an essential. Usually translated as not knowing, Avidyā comes from the root word vid (to know, to see) and is related to English words like view, vista, video, evident. The prefix a- is similar to the English un-, making avidyā then not knowing, not seeing. Avidyā really refers to a kind of self-ignorance, ignorance of the essential Self, which is the root cause of the other four kleshas, which are afflictions or personal obstacles.
Guru made the list because it’s a word we use frequently in English and in the old days nobody learned about yoga without a Self-realized teacher, or guru, Rosen points out. The word can be translated literally as weighty, heavy, of much account. In yoga we use it to mean the weighty, heavy one, overripe with spiritual knowledge, ready to be plucked by the right student and lead them from darkness to light.
Most Westerners first know yoga as solely the physical poses, or āsana, though they are only one aspect of the eight-limb practice outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The word āsana is often translated as seat. “The asanas outlined in the Yoga Sutra were only seated; non-seated asanas didn’t appear for at least 900 years after Patanjali,” Rosen says. The root word ās, however, means to be present, to sit quietly, to celebrate, to continue to do anything without interruption.
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Most modern schools of yoga stem from the haṭha yoga tradition, making this a key word to know. It’s also important to note in this context that it is one of the most commonly mispronounced Sanskrit words. It should be ha-ta, not ha-tha, as it’s so often said.
Hatha literally means force, which can be interpreted to mean that haṭha yoga is forceful yoga—storming the gates of enlightenment with its powerfully transformative practices. Or you could interpret haṭha yoga as the yoga of the force, or Kundalini, the arousal of which is one of the traditional practice’s main goals.
A commonly mispronounced Sanskrit word, cakra should sound like cha-kra, not sha-kra. It comes from the root word car, to move. A cakra is literally a wheel or circle, which in yoga refers to the seven vortexes of subtle energy in the body.
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Mantra closely follows āsana in popularity. The word can be translated as an instrument of thought from the root words man (to think) and tra (instrumentality). A mantra is literally an instrument of thought of spiritual matters. They are believed to be tools for accessing the divine power of an associated deity. Practically speaking, mantras can take the form of everything from single-syllable to sentence- or paragraph-length chants—and can be intelligible or unintelligible. The sound is often said to affect the listener’s consciousness.
Mudra ranks alongside mantra, closely following āsana, in popularity of practices. It can be translated as a seal, which in yoga means an energy seal or conduit. Mudras at the throat (jalandhara) and anus (mula) are used to keep prana from leaking out during breathing practice.
See also Sanskrit Top 40: Must-Learn Lingo for Yogis
Samādhi is the eighth step of the eight-limb practice outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Samādhi literally means putting together or combining with. In yoga, we can interpret that as combining one’s consciousness with an interiorized object of meditation until the difference between matter and Self becomes clear.
Prāna makes this list because it is the primary energetic driver of all yoga practice. Literally, prana translates as to breathe forth. The word can be interpreted as the vibratory power that permeates the universe and supplies energy for life to all.