Beginning a Yoga Practice (Part 1): The Language of Yoga

Welcome to the first post in a new series about beginning a yoga practice. Friends and family who are thinking about beginning a yoga practice have asked me for tips on beginning a yoga practice ever since I decided to do yoga teacher training. Wondering how to get started? Then read on!

In this first post, I plan to go over some of the vocabulary you might hear when looking into getting started with yoga. I’ll also have a few pointers on the poses I address in this post. I’ll have even more poses for the beginning yogi next week, so be sure to subscribe and check back for more!

The Language of Yoga

The first thing you are likely to notice when beginning a yoga practice (besides all of the crazy photos of people twisted up like pretzels!) is that yoga has its own vocabulary. You might already know that yoga emerged out of the Vedic tradition of India. As such, the basic tenets and postures were originally written in Sanskrit. The good news is that most yoga resources and teachers will refer to a pose with both the Sanskrit and the English translation whenever possible. However, there are still a few Sanksrit terms that you may hear more often than others.

Savasana

One of the Sanskrit words you will hear most often is savasana. This is the pose taken at the end of almost every yoga class to relax and restore the body. Many teachers prefer to use the Sanskrit for this pose rather than the English translation. The reason is pretty straightforward: the English translation is “corpse pose”. Many teachers feel that this translation sounds rather macabre, and therefore avoid it. Savasana certainly has a more pleasant, musical lilt! Over time, you may find it becomes one of your favorite Sanskrit words. It is certainly one of my favorite things to hear at the end of a long class.

The pose itself is deceptively simple. You lay back on the mat in a comfortable position and let your body relax. You might be surprised, though, at just how hard it can be to truly relax. Many beginners are self-conscious about splaying their arms and legs out on the floor. They also often keep tension in their shoulders, hunching them up by the ears, or clench their jaw or forehead. As you enter savasana, take the time to really make yourself comfortable in the pose. Let yourself settle in, and take stock of the body, consciously letting go of any tension you might find.

Beginning a Yoga Practice: Savasana
Savasana in the fresh air. They need to cut the grass at our apartment complex!

Once you are comfortable, it’s time to settle in and focus on your breathing. For some people, this is actually the hardest part of their yoga practice. Thoughts of the responsibilities and worries of life creep in and steal the peace the pose is intended to bring. If you find your mind wandering, simply let it go and come back to focusing on the breath. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to truly relax and enjoy the pose.

Chaturanga or Chaturanga Dadasana

Chaturanga, or chaturanga dadasana, is another new word you will likely encounter when beginning a yoga practice. You will most commonly hear it referred to as the shortened “chaturanga”. This is because it is much shorter than its English counterpart, “four-limbed staff pose”. Believe me, when you are trying to hold yourself in the pose while the teacher cues it, you’ll be grateful for those few extra seconds of difference!

Chaturanga is the position you would be in towards the bottom of a push-up. Coming from plank, which would be the top of the push-up, you simply lower down by bending your elbows until your triceps are even with your back. When doing the full version of the pose, the knees will be fully lifted off of the ground. However, beginners can easily modify the pose by placing the knees on the ground.

Beginning a Yoga Practice: Chaturanga
Chaturanga can be modified easily for beginners by simply placing the knees on the mat.

Vinyasa

Vinyasa is another Sanskrit term you will probably hear often during your practice. This refers to the transition between poses. Specifically, the most common vinyasa is the transition from plank, to chaturanga, to upward-facing dog, and finally to downward-facing dog. If you hear a teacher say, “Take your vinyasa,” this is almost certainly what they mean.

Asana

Asana is the Sanskrit word for “seat”. In the original yoga tradition, all yoga was practiced in a basic, seated asana. As the tradition and practice of yoga evolved, so did the various asanas. Asanas are the physical postures, or poses, of yoga. You will sometimes hear a teacher use the word “asana” interchangeably with “pose” or “posture”. You might also notice that the word appears in the Sanskrit names for the various yoga postures, as it does in savasana and chaturanga dadasana above.

Namaste

Namaste translates into English as, “I bow to you”. Many yoga classes will end with the teacher saying, “Namaste” to the class, and the students will respond back with the same, “Namaste”. It is a gesture of mutual respect between teacher and student.

Getting the Basics

II know it can be intimidating to hear new and unfamiliar phrases for which you have no translation or basis. It is my hope that as you start your practice, you will now have some foundation and familiarity with these new words and phrases. And please feel free to ask in the comments if you come across another word or phrase I haven’t mentioned!

Over the next few weeks, I hope to build on this post and get you well on your way to beginning a yoga practice. As I said in the beginning, next week I will be covering some good poses for new yogis. I also have a post planned to give you a primer on what to expect when you attend a class at a yoga studio. For those who aren’t ready for a class, I will also have a post on some of my favorite resources for beginning a yoga practice in your own home. Thanks so much for reading, and I can’t wait for you to get started on your own yoga journey. Namaste!