Asanas, Bandhas, Ujjayi, Oh My! – Common Yoga Terms

By Samara Manges

Understanding common yoga terms.

Does it ever feel like sometimes when you go to a yoga class your teacher is speaking a different language? Asana, pranayama, ujjayi, bandhas, uh come again?

Well, if it seems like a different language that’s because it is. Yoga, as we know it today, originated in India and is part of a 5,000 year old philosophy. Because of the lack of a written record we aren’t exactly sure how old the physical practice of yoga is, but the first mention of the word is in the Rig Veda. This ancient text, developed by the Indus- Sarasvati civilization, originated in Northern India and dates back 5,000 years.

A lot can happen in 5,000 years and over time and cross-culturally the practice of yoga evolved and morphed into more than 10 types of yogic practice/philosophy that we see today. If you are looking to get your yoga on but are just starting out, it can be really intimidating trying to decipher sanskrit terms, the sacred, ancient language of India, let alone understand them.

I’ll break down some of the major styles of yoga and then decipher some common yoga terms that are used in a class but may not be fully explained.

common yoga terms - yoga cabarete

Hatha Yoga

The term hatha means union through discipline, but in the western world we use the term as more of an umbrella definition for a yoga practice with physical postures. There are several subcategories of hatha yoga but typically this class has a cohesive flow where poses are held for longer amounts of time. This is a great class for beginners because students can start to unify the breath with movements of the body a little more easily, as there is more time to discover each pose.

Iyengar Yoga

This branch of yoga was founded by B.K.S Iyengar and is focused on the specific alignment of the body in postures. You will typically find many props used in these classes such as blocks, straps and blankets. This ensures that the poses are entered and exited in a safe way to minimize injury.

Kundalini Yoga

These classes are a little harder to find, and are focused on releasing the kundalini energy that resides in the base of the spine. To awake and release this energy breathing exercises are matched with faster paced body positions and might also include mantras, chanting or meditation.

Ashtanga Yoga

In Sanskrit, ashtanga means eight limb path. This practice, created by Sri. K Pattabhi Jois, of yoga follows specific sequences that can be more physically demanding than other forms of yoga. There are several levels of sequences ranging from standing positions through to advanced series. Ashtanga yoga places importance on unifying movements of the body with the breath.

Vinyasa Yoga

These classes seem to be offered the most in studios. Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word meaning place in a certain way or flow. Here, it is up to the teacher to create their own sequence of postures. Like Ashtanga, these classes place an importance on matching movement of the body with the breath. Because this is such a general term it is important to to find out as much as you can about the teacher/class design because the amount of variety between Vinyasa classes can be enormous.

Yin/Restorative Yoga

Technically these are two different types of yoga but they are different from the others listed above because of their slower pace. In a Yin yoga class you might only do five postures over the course of the hour, increasing flexibility. In Restorative yoga you may do more postures but the focus is just like the name indicates, to restore the body. Both of these types of yoga calm the nervous system and are more gentle on the body.  

So now that you’ve picked your style of yoga we’ll go over a few key terms to know once you start a class.

Asanas

Asana means posture. Even notice how many times teachers say it? Uttanasana, Bakasana, Tadasana (forward fold pose, crow pose, mountain pose). Each pose has a sanskrit name that ends with asana.

Bandhas

You have three bandhas, or locks, in the body. These locks are sets of muscles that you contract during a physical practice to stabilize and deepen postures.

Mula-  pelvic floor (perineum)

Uddiyana- belly button in towards the spine

Jalandhara- tucking the chin in to the chest

Pranayama

The Sanskrit term for breath control. This can involve several advanced exercises such as breath retention, but you may hear some teachers mention ujjayi pranayama. This type of breath control is ideal for all physical classes. Also called victorious breath, this is when you make the breath sound like an ocean and match the length of the inhales to the length of the exhales.

Mudra

Hand gestures that carry specific meanings

Drishti

Sanskrit word that means gaze or point of focus. This can be something tangible like the palm of your hand or your knee but it can also be internal such as the third eye (the space between your eyebrows).