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As a Western yoga practitioner, you likely entered the yoga world through physical poses like Warrior II, Triangle, and Down Dog. But how about Virabhadrasana II, Trikonasana, and Adho Mukha Svanasana? If learning the Sanskrit names of asanas has never seemed as important to you as learning their alignment, you’re missing out on rich context. Exploring the root words of the names of common yoga poses and studying the meaning behind them often sheds light on an ancient backstory, which not only deepens the significance and experience of every practice of the pose, but is fascinating to boot. Here, Richard Rosen, who leads our Sanskrit 101 course, shares three examples to whet your appetite.
1. Staff Pose
Sanskrit Name: Daṇḍasana (dahn-DAH-sa-na)
Daṇḍasana’s root word, daṇḍa, means stick, staff, or scepter. “The ‘staff’ refers specifically to the spine,” Rosen says, “which stands for both the walking stick and the scepter.” The walking stick’s significance dates back to yogi ascetics’ treks across India from one pilgrimage site to the next. And the scepter represents the sovereign power of the self-realized yogi. With this in mind, the next time you practice this common seated pose, you may feel more supported and empowered.
2. Intense West Stretch Pose
Sanskrit Name: Paścimottānāsana (pash-chee-moh-TAHN-AH-sa-na)
Paścimottānāsana comes from the root words paścima, meaning west, and uttānā, meaning intense stretch. To understand how the pose got this name, you’d have to know that orientation was an important consideration in traditional yoga. The four cardinal directions and four intermediate points on the compass were each assigned a power, represented by a male and female guardian deity, an animal, a weapon, and a color. When practicing, ancient yogis generally faced east, the direction of the rising sun and a symbol of the dawn of spiritual knowledge. Thus in yoga, the back of the body became known as the “western side” and the front as the “eastern.”
So this seated posture got its name for its stretch on the entire back line of the body. And according to the Shiva Samhita, daily practice of this pose induces breath to flow west to the sushumna nadi that runs through the spine. Next time you practice this forward bend, consider facing your mat toward the east to honor the tradition of the the long line of yogis before you.
3. Adept’s Pose
Sanskrit Name: Siddhāsana (sid-DAH-sa-na)
Siddhāsana’s Sanskrit root word, siddha, has many meanings, among them: adept, accomplished, fulfilled, acquired, one who has attained his object, thoroughly skilled or versed in, perfected, beatified, endowed with supernatural faculties, sacred, illustrious, prepared, healed, and more. A siddha is a semi-divine being of great purity and perfection, said to possess the eight supernatural faculties and be immortal, living to the end of a kalpa, or a world age. A siddha can also be any inspired sage, prophet, or seer, anyone with magical or supernatural powers. Next time you practice this seemingly humble seated position, embody its blissful superhero spirit.
Want to dive deeper into yoga philosophy and asana with the study of Sanskrit? Join Richard Rosen—author and co-founder of the former Oakland- and San Francisco Bay-based Piedmont Yoga Studio—for Sanskrit 101: A Beginner’s Guide. Through this 6-week introductory online course, you will learn Sanskrit translations, refine your pronunciations, explore its historic highlights, and more. But, even more significantly, you will transform your practice as you begin to understand the beauty and meaning behind the original language of yoga. Sign up today!