So you’re getting into yoga, enjoying the benefits it brings to your body when combined with your usual gym routine and feeling the calm it brings to your mind…… but perhaps you are not so sure about the mysterious rituals that go with it.
Does it sometimes seem as though the teacher is talking nonsense? The words are long and everyone else seems to know what they are doing.
The language of yoga is Sanskrit, an ancient Indian literary language in which the ancient philosophical texts which underpin modern yoga were written. Yoga teachers are still taught the pose names and yogic concepts in Sanskrit.
Om: Many yoga classes begin and end with the mantra “om”, chanted three times but what does it mean? Well, it has no simple translation, being more about the experience than the meaning. Traditionally, it is chanted during meditation. It can be described as the sound of the universe and the seed of everything in it. It is made up of four sounds, “aaaah-oooooh-mmm,” and then silence. On a practical level, it is good to know that a class which chants “om” together will breathe together and group focus will be drawn to the practice. At the end of the class, the chant is a declaration of respect for the practice, the teacher and he students. So next time the teacher brings in the chant, enjoy the feeling of the vibration of the three syllables of Om in your chest, throat and head, it is a good feeling.
Namaste: A greeting in which the teacher and student show their respect for each other, it can be translated as “the light/energy in me bows to the brahman (universal energy) in you”. Hands are brought together at the chest and the head is slightly bowed.
Shanti: Directly translated as ‘be calm’, shanti means peace, rest, calmness, tranquility, or bliss. It is used in mantras and your yoga teacher may invite a chant of “om shanti” at the end of a class.
Ujjayi breath: Known as “the ocean breath”, this form of breathing technique (pranayama), is used throughout the asana practice and your teacher will probably remind you to switch on your ujjayi breathing as you begin to warm up. It involves inhaling and exhaling through the nose (in yoga you always breathe in and out through the nose unless the teacher specifies otherwise) with a slight constriction at the back of the throat. Benefits include strengthening the diaphragm, helping to warm the body and focusing the mind on the practice.
Bandha: Literally translated as to lock, bind or tighten. Bandha is an action, a direction of energy through the body. There are three bandhas. The first is Jalandhara Bandha, which to describe physically is the slight tucking of the chin and drawing up of the upper chest, thought to stop the upwards flow of energy out of the body. Secondly, Uddiyana Bandha is the drawing inwards and upwards of the naval to engage the lower abdominals, said to direct energy upwards but also useful to give lift, protect the lower back and provide stability during asana practice. The third is Mula Bandha which is an engagement of the muscles of the perineum, often felt at the end of an exhale and useful for giving grounding and stability during your practice.
Prana: Life force or vital energy. In yoga, the aim is to increase prana and allow it to flow freely through the energetic or “astral” body.
Pranayama: Breathing control techniques, often practised at the beginning or the end of an asana class and broadly aiming to lengthen the breath and calm the mind.
Chakra: Energy centers throughout the body. We have seven, the base chakra, sacral chakra, solar plexus chakra, heart chakra, throat chakra, brow (aka “third eye”) chakra, and crown chakra.
Hatha: The yoga of forceful effort, all physical forms of yoga from restorative to dynamic, are developed from Hatha yoga.
Vinyasa: Literally, “flow”, it can mean slightly different things in different contexts. It can describe a free flowing, dynamic form of yoga where the asanas are directly linked. It can refer to the connection between breath and movement in an asana class. If a teacher directs you to “take a vinyasa”, she or he is referring to a sequence to move from one asana to another, usually in order to raise the heart rate and keep the class flowing.
Asana: In yogic texts, the word refers to a steady position for meditation but in a physical yoga class, it commonly refers to the names of each position or pose taken.
Ashtanga: An athletic and traditional practice focused on progressive pose sequences tied to the breath. The Primary Series, made up of about 75 poses, takes about 90 minutes, is always practiced in the same order and is continuous, without any breaks.
Drishti: Directly translated as “vision”, in a yoga class it refers to the outward focal point of the inward gaze, a soft focus. Each asana traditionally has a prescribed drishti point such as tip of the nose, navel, hand, toe, to the sky. These directions should not be taken literally but as a guide for good alignment of the head and neck.
Inversion: The teacher says, “so everyone, time to take your chosen inversion” and you think, “what?!” All she/he means is, it’s time to go upside down, in shoulderstand, headstand, or in fact any position in which your head is below your heart. All good teaches will approach the teaching of inversions with care and you should always tell your teacher if you haven’t done one before.
Mudra: Meaning seal, mark or gesture, mudras are performed with the hands and fingers and are said to redirect prana back into the body which would otherwise be dissipated. Mudras are usually taken in seated poses while meditating or practicing pranayama.
Yin Yoga: A slow-paced, meditative practice, Yin gives muscles a break and allows gravity to do the work. Yin aims to lengthen connective tissue as a complement to strength-based classes.
So now you know a little more, go and do some beautiful yoga. Om, Shanti, Namaste.
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