There’s a lot to take in when you try a new yoga class. Even if you’ve been a longtime practitioner, getting used to new spaces and new instructors takes time. Add in the varying methodologies of instruction that exist, along with how much Sanskrit in yoga and meditation classes is used, and it can be a little disorienting. Luckily, there are a few words and phrases that are simple to remember. And, knowing a little more about how many schools instruct cueing can help, too.
Common Words from Sanskrit in Yoga and Meditation Classes
Many yoga teachers use Sanskrit in their classes. And many yoga instructors don’t use Sanskrit. There are no universal, hard and fast rules about how or when yoga teachers should use foreign languages in their yoga classes. But in general, here are a few terms that are commonly sprinkled through yoga classes. Mind is the Master has a great expanded list, too!
“Namaste” is an Indian salutation that literally means “the light in me honors the light in you.” In Western yoga, it’s a phrase that often begins and ends yoga classes.
Breath practice is pranyama. There are multiple types of breathwork, and instructors will guide you through the particular practice they want to invoke in their yoga class.
“Asana” refers to the physical postures of yoga. The literal translation is closer to “seat,” but in Western yoga class, an asana refers to yoga poses.
“Shanti” means peace. It’s usually chanted along with OM at the end of yoga class.
“Om” isn’t a word so much as an invocation. Many classes will chant OM using a full breath, resulting a resounding, echoing AUM that fills the room. The sound is believed to resonate at the same vibrations as the universe.
In balancing postures, a yoga instructor might cue yoga students to “… find a drishti” to help them focus. A drishti refers to a focused gaze as a way to develop concentration.
Manta = to think. A mantra can be a word or phrase that yoga students repeat to themselves to help develop focus or concentration. Common mantras include an “I am…” statement, or may simply be a word that they want to invoke in their life like “Peace” or “Patience.”
Mudras are symbolic hand gestures thought to seal in energy during a practice. Western yoga typically focuses on mudras with the hands–like bringing your thumb and forefinger together–but Buddhism and Hinduism theologies use other parts of the body as well.
Chakras are energetic centers throughout the body. You’ll typically see them represented as a kind of wheel at different areas of the body, specifically the muladhara (root, tailbone), svadhisthana (sacral, just below the belly button), manipura (solar plexus, above the belly button), anahata (heart, chest), visuddha (throat, neck), anja (third eye, between the eyebrows) and sahasrara (crown, top of the head). Check out my other post on the chakras for more info.
The bandhas, or locks, are specific parts of the body that collect energy. Focusing on different bandhas consolidates energy there. Commonly, during a pose requiring a lot of core work, an instructor might refer to your ‘uddiyanna bandha’ or a lifting of the diaphragm. Other bandhas include muladhara (contracting the pelvic floor), jaladhara (keep the chin slightly aloft), and maha (contracting all the bandhas at once).
Sanskrit in Yoga Enhances the Practice
I can’t imagine a single instructor who would rely on using Sanskrit in their classes as a way to intimidate students. But, I remember in my early classes being told to engage my ‘uddiyanna bandha’ or ‘find a drishti’ and things like that, and having no idea what it meant. Most instructors should follow up with an English translation… and if they don’t, ask!
Yoga is for the people, and that means clarifying when necessary. As an instructor, trust me: it’s worth asking versus assuming students understand exactly what you’re asking them to do.