A is for Asana: A Beginner’s Guide to 39 Must-Know Yoga Terms
PHOTO: DANE WETTON VIA UNSPLASH
New to yoga? Congratulations! Starting a new yoga practice is like saying ‘yes’ to a life-changing journey. As with any adventure worth going on, it can be helpful to keep a field guide handy. This article features 39 popular yoga terms - and a few memorable situations - that beginner yoga students are likely to encounter on and off the mat.
How These 39 Popular Yoga Terms Can Help Your Practice
Spoiler Alert: Skip this section if you enjoy being caught off guard, especially when it comes to surprise bodily functions.
And, now, for your reading pleasure, a shortlist of yogi rites of passage.
It might sound hard to believe, but you’ll look back on these very moments and smile one day. In the nearer term, it’s nice to get a glimpse of what’s to come.
This guide includes definitions - and a handful of videos - that explain 39 popular yoga terms, including Sanskrit translations, common instructor cues, and a few foundational yoga principles. Getting familiar with these terms can help bring more clarity, safety, and comfort to a new student’s practice.
Have a favorite letter in the alphabet? Use the table of contents below to jump around a bit!
Popular Yoga Terms A-E
A is for asana, Ashtanga, and anxiety.
A is for Asana.
Asana is a Sanskrit term meaning posture, pose, or seat. If your teacher uses Sanskrit in class, you will notice that each pose ends with the suffix -asana. Mountain Pose, for example, is Tadasana. Triangle Pose in Sanskrit is Trikonasana. And, of course, classes typically end with Corpse Pose or Savasana.
A is for Ashtanga.
Asthanga is a distinct style of yoga in which teachers lead students through a fixed sequence of poses. That’s right, a fixed sequence of poses. Here’s what this means: if you take an Asthanga class in Nashville, Tennessee, today, and another in Kathmandu, Nepal, tomorrow, you will move through the same sequence of poses in the same order in each class.
Can beginners participate in Ashtanga yoga? Sure! The best thing that beginners interested in trying Asthanga can do is learn more about what to expect in class before they take it. A few quick examples:
Want to learn more about Ashtanga? This is a great resource.
A is for Anxiety.
Anxiety is a persistent state of worry that exists whether or not there is an actual immediate threat. Maybe you are familiar with this? Perhaps you are not. I include it in this collection of popular yoga terms for two related reasons.
- 1Thich Nhat Hahn referred to anxiety as ‘the illness of our time.’ I appreciate this addition to the definition above because it acknowledges that anxiety is omnipresent. Everywhere. But, what does anxiety have to do with yoga, specifically? A recent survey of over 10,000 yoga practitioners found that 1 out of 3 students practice yoga to help manage a specific health concern. 55% of those respondents listed anxiety as a reason why they practice yoga.
The fact that students are looking to yoga as a means of anxiety relief is the reason why I created an online yoga and mediation retreat called The Anxiety Relief Retreat.
Beginners who enroll in that retreat learn much more about yoga specifically as a tool for managing anxiety, but, for now, know this: if you are a beginner coming to yoga for anxiety relief, welcome, you are in excellent company.
B is for breath, beginner, and Balasana.
B is for Breath.
A breath is the inhalation of air into and out of the body. A breath can be voluntary or involuntary. What does a breath have to do with yoga? Oh, golly. Everything. Yoga is the practice of uniting the body and the breath in movement. When we practice yoga, we pay attention on purpose to this thing that keeps us alive.
B is for Beginner.
In the context of yoga, a beginner is someone who has recently started their practice. Everything is fresh to the beginner yogi. The poses. The sequences. The styles. What yoga “means” to them, personally, and what it might mean to them in the future. The Beginner is in a learning phase that is both exciting and challenging. Here is a secret from someone who has been doing yoga for twenty-three years:
If you are doing it right, you will always feel like a beginner.
B is for Balasana.
Balasana is the Sanskrit term for Child’s Pose, a resting asana. Beginners should know that they are welcome to rest in Child’s Pose during any class, regardless of which pose an instructor is currently cueing.
C is for cue, Cat-Cow, and Chaturanga Dandasana.
C is for Cue.
A cue is a short collection of words that yoga teachers use to help students move into and out of asanas. Below are a few examples:
Some days, we instructors have a clear grasp on our cue vocabularies. Other times, our minds and lips just can't get it together, leading to unclear mat navigation. Bear with us, laugh it off with us, we are human.
C is for Cat-Cow.
Cat-Cow is a dynamic movement often used as a warm-up and cool-down in practice. To perform Cat-Cow, begin in Table Top position. The shoulders are above the wrists. The hips are above the knees. Knees are hip-distance apart.
On an inhale, gently lower the belly toward the mat as the head and tailbone lift just slightly toward the ceiling. Cow.
On an exhale, move the spine back to Table Top, then past it, softly rounding the spine toward the ceiling as the tailbone and chin tuck in towards the belly. Cat.
Repeat, inhaling as the belly drops into Cow and exhale as the spine rounds toward the ceiling in Cat.
C is for Chaturanga Dandasana.
(pronounced chat-urh-AAN-guh daan-DAH-suh-nah)
Translated from Sanksrit, Chaturanga Dandasana means Four-limbed Staff Pose. To move into Chaturanga Dandasana, begin in Plank pose, sometimes referenced as the top of a push-up.
Note! In yoga, Plank looks differently than it does in other fitness formats. In Plank, the shoulders and hips are level. The hands are located beneath the shoulders and the weight of the body is evenly distributed between the hands and feet.
From Plank, take an inhale and, on the exhale, shift the weight of the body forward just slightly. This is done so that the elbow can make a 90-degree angle as the body lowers down to hover just a few inches above the mat.
It can help to perform Chaturanga Dandanasa with the length of the body parallel to a mirror. This way, you can check for this 90-degree elbow angle and, while you’re at it, make sure that the elbows are tucked in tight to the ribs as the body lowers down. Beginners might also find that they feel more stable by bringing the knees to the mat before lowering down into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Watch the video to see all of this in action!
D is for Downward-Facing Dog and Drishti.
D is for Downward-facing Dog.
(pronounced ah-doh moo-kah sh-vah-NAHS-suh-nah)
Downward-Facing Dog might be the most recognizable asana in the West. In it, the body makes an upside-down V. Downward Dog or Adho Mukha Shvanasana is a fixture in Sun Salutations and is often used as a transition pose in any flow class. Beginners might be delighted to hear that, over time, Downward-Facing Dog begins to feel like a resting pose.
D is for Drishti.
The English translation of Drishti is focused gaze. In class, an instructor may say something like, “Find your Drishti point.” This wording is a cue to find a fixed object to direct your attention to.
You’ll likely hear this cue when you are in a balancing pose like Tree or Eagle, but, in terms of staying centered, it can be helpful to have a Drishti point even in seated postures like Easy Pose. Note that a Drishti gaze is not an intense, laser-like focus with the eyes. It’s more like a soft level of steady attention.
E is for External Rotation.
Let’s talk about what it means when a yoga instructor says something like, “Externally rotate the shoulders”.
The rotation of any body part relies on our muscles and our joints. Rotation, specifically, can occur at pivot joints like our neck and at ball and socket joints like our hips and shoulders. Whether a rotation is external or internal has to do with whether the resulting rotation is toward or away from the midline of the body.
LET'S TRY SOME EXTERNAL ROTATION NOW, SHALL WE?
Raise both arms straight above your head with the palms facing forward and fingers spread wide apart. Your thumbs should be pointed toward each other.
Now, turn the shoulders away from each other. You’ve just externally rotated your shoulders. Your palms and the insides of your elbows should now be facing each other. The thumbs should be pointing behind you. Great! Release the hands back down.
Now, assuming you are in a seated position in a chair, place both feet firmly on the ground. Turns your thighs away from each other. This external rotation of the hips results in the knees splaying out and away from each other.
Popular Yoga Terms F-J
F is for Flexibility.
When we talk about flexibility with respect to yoga, we tend to think of how limber or stretchy the physical body is. In reality, flexibility in yoga has much more to do with how limber or stretchy the mind is. What makes a mind limber? Curiosity. Playfulness. Openness. Willingness. So, please, tell all of your friends: flexibility of the physical body is not a pre-requisite for yoga practice. Physical flexibility is a side-effect of yoga practice.
G is for Graceful and Gas.
G is for Graceful.
Much like flexibility, gracefulness as a requirement for yoga practice is a myth. To be graceful is to move with controlled ease. Just as every prima ballerina worth his, her, or their leotard has twitched, wobbled, shaken, and fallen, every "graceful yogi" worth his, her, or their mat has done the same. In yoga, grace should be considered an every-now-and-then-thing, not the thing.
G is for Gas.
Are you ready for it?
Practicing yoga involves alternately stretching and strengthening the core. It involves gently moving the body in unison with the breath. During yoga practice, the muscles, ligaments, fascia, and joints softly release. This is the kind of physical soiree that the parasympathetic nervous system just can’t resist. It shows up and shows out.
Do you know what body function kicks in when the parasympathetic nervous system comes alive? The digestive system. So, in addition to the muscles, ligaments, fascia, and joints, do you have any idea what else might release? Gas. Yes, gas. As in a cute fart.
Do not, I repeat, do not be embarrassed if (when) this happens to you. As I mentioned earlier, it is a rite of passage for any yogi. It’s something that long-time yogis understand and that beginners very quickly come to understand. Now, if you’d like to limit this sort of activity during class, I suggest you avoid eating anything within the two hours prior to the start of your class.
H is for Hatha.
In the West, Hatha yoga has become a sort of umbrella term for several styles of yoga classes. In Sanskrit, Hatha means effort or force, but the philosophy behind Hatha yoga is a balance of energy. So, a Hatha yoga class is a class that includes both energizing and relaxing poses that unite body movement with breath.
A key takeaway here is that because of the broad definition, a Hatha class that you take at one studio or from one teacher might be very different from another.
I is for Internal Rotation.
Internal rotation is the opposite of external rotation.
Remember how we talked about how rotation occurs at pivot joints like our neck, and at ball and socket joints like our hips and shoulders? And how external or internal rotation has to do with whether the resulting rotation is toward or away from the midline of the body? In internal rotation, the resulting movement is in towards the body.
LET'S TRY SOME INTERNAL ROTATION NOW, SHALL WE?
Once again, raise both arms straight above your head with the palms facing forward and the fingers spread wide apart. The thumbs should point toward each other.
Now, turn the shoulders in toward each other. Internal rotation of the shoulders here would result in the backs of the hands facing each other and both thumbs facing forward. Nice work! Release the hands back down.
Now, assuming you are in a seated position in a chair, place both feet firmly on the ground. Next, turn your thighs in toward each other. This internal rotation of the hips results in the knees and big toes falling in towards each other.
J is for Joy.
Joy is a feeling of deep and unbridled happiness. Your yoga practice has the potential to help you find more of it.
Popular Yoga Terms K-N
K is for Knees.
The knee joint is the largest joint in the body. When standing, the knees hold 80% of our body weight. The knees are also ‘home’ to many ligaments that help keep the body stable, including the ACL and MCL. Since the knees do so much crucial work on the body’s behalf, it’s important that special attention is given to them when practicing yoga. Here are three ways to do that:
Offer the knees a gentle bend throughout class, especially during the warm-up.
Offer the knees a little cushion by sliding a blanket under them anytime they will come into contact with the mat.
Ensure that, in standing poses where the knee is bent like Warrior I, II, and High Crescent, the knee stays directly above the ankle. This prevents excessive strain on the knee joint and ligaments.
L is for Laughter Yoga.
Although I have laughed out loud in many yoga classes, I have never taken an official laughter yoga class. For that reason, I’ll rely on a definition from Laughter Yoga International. Laughter Yoga is:
“An exercise program developed by Dr. Madan Kataria. It combines laughter exercises with yoga breathing techniques, which brings more oxygen to our body and brain making us feel more energetic and healthy. Ten to 15 minutes of LY exercises can reduce stress, make your immune system stronger and keep your mind positive during challenging times."
M is for Meditation and Music.
M is for Meditation.
Meditation consists of paying attention - on purpose - to the present moment without judgment.
When we think of meditation, we often conjure up the image of someone sitting propped up on a cushion with their back straight and eyes closed. While this is a form of meditation, so is taking a walk, painting, singing in the shower, or playing a sport. Any activity in which you find yourself fully taken with the moment - and without judgment - is meditation.
M is for Music.
Music can play an influential role in our yoga practice. Some students find it energizing or soothing, while others find it distracting. Some students who enjoy music have a strong preference for songs without lyrics, others prefer with.
Unless you are practicing at home, the music played in class is out of your control. If you know you have a strong reaction one way or the other, you can contact a studio ahead of time to find out whether a specific teacher uses music or not and, if they do, whether it’s typically with or without lyrics.
N is for Navasana.
Navasana is the Sanskrit term for Boat Pose. In it, the upper back, core, quads, and hip flexors like the psoas and sartorius are all firing to make a V-like shape with the body. There are several helpful modifications for beginners in Navasana, including lowering both feet to the floor and/or using the arms as kickstands by placing them back behind you on the floor.
Popular Yoga Terms O-S
O is for Om. [Which is actually Aum.]
In religious philosophies and practices around the world, sound is believed to be sacred and powerful. In the Hindu religious order, Om is said to evoke a sense of unity and oneness. Although we often see the term Om or Ohm, the Sanskrit term is actually Aum.
I once read that Aum is the background hum of the universe and that when you chant Aum, you open a gateway to connect to the creator of all things. I think that sounds lovely. Here’s how to sound Aum:
Start by making an Ah sound with the mouth wide open.
Transition the mouth from wide open to making an “o” with the lips and, as you do, make an Oh sound. The "o" sounds like the "o" in "go".
- 3Transition the lips from making an Oh sound to gently closing them and making a vibrating Mmm sound. The "m" sounds like the "m" in "rum".
P is for Prana.
Prana is the Sanskrit word for life force; it refers to breath.
Q is for Quality of Presence.
Quality of presence refers to how fully you are experiencing the present moment.
If you are soaking up the sights, sounds, and other sensations of a moment, that indicates a high quality of presence. If you are distracted or unaware of what is taking place where you currently are, that indicates a lower quality of presence.
Yoga helps us practice keeping our mind and body in the same place, leading to a more consistent high quality of presence.
R is for Rest.
Rest is your right during any yoga class. Feel free to opt-out of any pose and come to rest in Child’s Pose on your mat. You can catch up with the class later.
S is for Savasana, The Shakes and Sweats, and Sun Salutations.
S is for Savasana.
Savasana is the final resting pose in a yoga class. It looks easy, so easy that it’s also known as Corpse pose. BUT. While there might not be a lot going on in Savasana physically, it takes a tremendous amount of mental effort for us modern humans to stay put, to not do anything other than be.
As an instructor, I see a lot of fidgeting in Savasana. I see a lot of wide eyes staring at the ceiling or peeking around the room. I have had several students quietly get up and leave after just a few minutes of Savasana. When it comes to Savasana, I have two recommendations for beginners.
Fight the urge to get up and leave. I don’t say this out of instructor’s ego. You are welcome to leave any instructor’s class at any time. That is your right. However, if you have stayed until the end of class, do yourself the service of the final resting pose for at least 5 minutes. Yoga is more than a physical practice, it is mental and emotional, too. Skip out on Savasana and you rob yourself of that.
If you struggle to keep your mind on the mat in Savasana, try taking a detailed mental inventory of how the body feels from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Acknowledge sensations in each toe, at the heel, the ankle, the shin, and upward. This way, you are still occupying the mind with the body.
S is for The Shakes...
Shaking is a popular occurrence in a yoga class. To a degree, it’s totally normal. The Shakes tend to happen in poses like Side Arm Balance, Chaturanga Dandasana, Navasana, etc. when our muscles are working hard to support us in the pose.
While some mild shaking or quivering is normal, shaking or quaking that causes (or is caused by) pain, discomfort, or the involuntary movement of the joints is not normal or safe. If this is happening, come out of the pose, raise your hand, and ask your instructor for modification options.
...and The Sweats.
Oh, The Sweats! It’s very normal to sweat in yoga class. I’ve seen beads of sweat fall from foreheads and land on the tops of feet where a band of “we oozed out of the top of this guy’s foot!” sweat beads already lays in wait.
Sweating is the body’s way of cooling itself down. That said, if the body loses too much water via sweat, dehydration becomes a risk. To avoid this, stay hydrated during and after class. And, if sweat becomes a distraction during class or is causing you to slip around, bring two towels into class. One small one to wipe your face and chest and another to place on top of your mat.
S is for Sun Salutations.
A Sun Salutation or Salute to the Sun is a specific sequence of roughly twelve asanas linked together by the breath. I use the word ‘roughly’ because I see slight and not-so-slight Sun Salutation variations from instructor to instructor.
To add to the Sun Salutation milieu, there are several different Sun Salutation sequences - A, B, and C, for example. Sun Salutation A consists of Tadasana, Raised Hands Pose, Standing Forward Fold, Half-Way Lift, Chaturanga Dandasana, and Downward-Facing Dog.
It sounds complicated, and it kinda is, but you have probably performed several Sun Salutations and just not known that that was what you were doing. Have a look at the video below!
Popular Yoga Terms T-V
T is for Tadasana.
Tadasana is also known as Mountain Pose. It is a standing pose performed at the top of the mat. While it might not look like a whole lot is going on in Tadasana, it can be a highly energetic pose requiring activation of the quadriceps, glutes, core, and upper back.
To really feel the energy in Tadasana, try the following:
Root both feet down into the mat.
Imagine a beam of energy is extending down along the lengths of both arms and out through the fingertips towards the floor.
Engage the core to “grow long” in the spine.
U is for Utkatasana and Ujjayi Breath.
U is for Utkatasana.
In Sanskrit, Utkatasana translates to fierce seat. In my mind, it translates to my least favorite asana of all-time, but don’t let that sway you. You may love it!
In Utkatasana or Chair Pose, the feet touch, the knees bend deeply, and the arms and torso lift up, up, you! The rear end? It burns like wildfire as you make like you are sitting down in an imaginary chair. Three nice modifications options for Utkatasana for beginners (or long-time haters like me) are to:
Move the feet to hip-distance apart.
Extend the arms straight out in front of you instead of up towards the ceiling.
Straighten the legs a bit so the bend in the knee is not as deep.
U is for Ujjai Breath.
You might hear an instructor use the term Ujjayi breath. Ujjayi is an ancient breathing technique. In this technique, the lips are gently closed.
On an inhale, breath is slowly drawn in through the nose. On the exhale, breath is slowly expelled through the nose and with special attention paid to the back of the throat.
Sometimes Ujjayi breath is referred to as ocean breathing, this is because of the tide-like sound this style of breathing makes.
V is for Vinyasa.
Vinyasa yoga is class style that, like Hatha, is broader in scope than you might expect. While both Hatha and Vinyasa classes emphasize linking body movement with breath, here are a few features that can help distinguish a Vinyasa class from a Hatha class:
- 1In Vinyasa, the instructor will heavily emphasize the transition work between poses by offering lots of transitionary cues, including specific guidance on when to inhale and exhale.
Whereas poses are held for longer in Hatha, you are likely to find a faster flow in a Vinyasa class. Some students are drawn to Vinyasa because of its cardiovascular benefit.
Ashtanga is a subcategory of Vinyasa, which makes sense because Ashtanga, too, is marked by a rigorous flow.
Popular Yoga Terms W-Z
W is for Warrior I and II.
W is for Warrior I...
Warrior I and II are frequently visited asanas that stretch and strengthen the feet, ankles, legs, shoulders, back, and arms. Warrior I and II have a similar “base body” or alignment from the hips down. In both asanas, the front leg is bent, with the knee stacked over the ankle.
In Warrior I, the back leg is extended back behind the body with the back foot planted at a 45-degree angle on the floor. The torso turns to face the front of the mat and the arms are extended straight up toward the ceiling. Common cues you will hear in Warrior I include: track the hips toward the front of the mat, engage the core, and melt the shoulders down and away from the ears.
...and Warrior II.
In Warrior II, the back leg is extended back behind the body with the back foot planted parallel to the back of the mat. The torso opens to face the long side of the mat. Instead of sending the hands toward the sky, one arms extends out over the front leg while the other extends toward the back leg. The gaze, or Drishti, is out over the front fingertips.
Common cues you will hear in Warrior II include: stack the shoulders over the hips, tuck the tailbone under, and melt the shoulders down and away from the ears.
X is for eXhale.
An exhale is an out-breath. The quality of an exhale is just as important as the quality of an inhale. In fact, one of the best ways to ensure a slow, deep, high-quality inhalation, is to begin with a full out-breath.
Try it now. No matter how much breath you have in your lungs at the moment, expel it all out as if you were blowing out a birthday candle. Feel what happens next.
Y is for Yin.
In a Yin yoga class, poses are held for longer periods of time than in a traditional flow class, say, 2-3 minutes. This extra bit of time in each pose allows the ligaments, joints, and fascia to release. This makes sense, as the goal of Yin yoga is to open up any disruptions in the flow of energy through the body.
Yin is often confused with restorative yoga, but they are not the same. Although postures are held for longer periods of time in both classes, Yin involves active stretching, and poses often require students to use muscle strength. In restorative yoga, the stretches are more passive, and gravity tends to do most of the work, not the muscles.
Z is for Zen.
I’m going to quote author Noah Rasheta here because he answers this so succinctly and elegantly. Noah's words:
Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. It’s notable for its focus on meditation, including extensive zazen, or “seated meditation.” Many Westerners think of Zen as being synonymous with Buddhism or even use the word Zen to mean “calm”, “relaxed”, or “being in the moment."
Wrap-up: 39 Popular Yoga Terms
Yoga can offer sweet release to a tense body, mind, and spirit. It can provide strength and courage to a wounded heart. Of course, as both a yoga instructor and someone who has benefited tremendously from yoga practice, I sincerely hope that you choose stick with it. And, if this list of popular yoga terms offers you the confidence and clarity to do that, then, wonderful.
The Comments Section
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