Did you know you can already understand some Sanskrit? by Brett Parris 

By the time you’ve taken your first yoga classes you are likely to have heard some Sanskrit words, even if it’s just the greeting namaste from the teacher, maybe a long oṃ to finish the class, or that sweet relief of śavāsana. The names for yoga poses almost all end in āsana, which originally just meant ‘seat’, but has come to mean ‘pose’. The rest of the name can be a single word, like an animal, or it can be a longer phrase. Let’s have a look at a few examples: 

Brett Parris
Author demonstrating aṣṭāvakrāsana – eight-angled pose. Photo: Laura Coutts Photography 

Animal pose names are usually simple but imaginative: Bhujaṅga, snake or serpent, gives us bhujaṅgāsana, cobra pose. Uṣṭra, camel, gives us uṣṭrāsana, camel pose. You may also recognise poses named after bheka – frog, garuḍa – eagle, kapota– pigeon, matsya – fish, mayūra – peacock, śalabha – locust, svāna – dog, vṛścika – scorpion, and tittibha – firefly. The word used for ‘cat’ in cat pose is a fun one: mārjāra literally means ‘one that cleans itself’. Another you may be familiar with is the arm balance ‘crow pose’, usually called bakāsana. But baka actually means ‘crane’, while the word for ‘crow’ is kāka. Plants are also sometimes used, as in padma – lotus, vṛkṣa – tree, and daṇḍa – stick or staff. 

Other poses use directions or shapes, such as adho – downward, dhanu – bow, koṇa – angle, parivṛtta – revolved or twisted, parśva – side, prasārita – wide stance, sālamba – supported, supta – supine or reclining, tāna – extended, tulā – balance, ubhaya – both or together, upaviṣṭha – seated, ūrdhva – upward, uttāna – intense stretch, straight or extended, and utthita – extended or standing. Then we have body parts, such as aṅga – limb, aṅguṣṭha – big toe or thumb, hasta – hand, janu – knee, mukha – face, pāda – foot, and śīrṣa – head. But how many body parts or angles? Usually in yoga we focus on ardha – halfeka – one, dvi – two, tri – three, catur – four, or aṣṭa – eight. 

Now we can see how some common pose names are constructed:  

  • tri + koṇa + āsana gives us trikoṇāsana, triangle pose 
  • adhomukha + svāna + āsana gives us adhomukhaśvānāsana, downward facing dog 
  • catur + aṅga + daṇḍa + āsana, gives us caturaṅgadaṇḍāsanafour-limbed staff pose 
  • utthita + hasta + pāda + āṅguṣṭha + āsana, gives us utthitahastapādāṅguṣṭhāsana, standing big toe hold. And that’s why you’ll rarely hear the Sanskrit for that one! 

Try reconstructing the names of some other poses from the words already given.  

Some poses are simply named after famous sages, such as Marichi, giving us marichyāsana (seated twist), Vasiṣṭa, giving us vasiṣṭāsana (side plank), Viśvāmitra, giving us Viśvāmitrāsana, and Kauṇḍinya, giving us kauṇḍinyāsana (sometimes spelled koundinyāsana). Aṣṭāvakra is an interesting case of a sage whose name is a compound meaning ‘eight-bends or angles’ reflecting the physical disabilities he apparently had in his limbs. From his name we get aṣṭāvakrāsana, eight-angled pose.  

Another great name is naṭarājāsana – dancer’s pose. Naṭarāja refers to Śiva in his form as the cosmic dancer surrounded by a ring of flames. Vīrabhadrāsana (warrior’s pose), a staple of modern yoga classes, is made up of vīra – hero, and bhadra – great or distinguished. 

Lastly, utkaṭa, which gives us utkaṭāsana, means fierce, mighty or powerful. Normally in English we call it ‘chair pose’, or sometimes ‘fierce pose’. The Sanskrit is much richer, since an utkaṭa, can also mean an elephant in rut, and more specifically, the fluid dripping from its temples when it’s in rut. So next time your teacher is holding you in ‘chair pose’ for too long, and the sweat is dripping from your temples, instead of imagining a boring chair, try visualising the power of a horny elephant!  

Dr Brett Parris studied Sanskrit at the Australian National University, and completed a masters in Classical Indian Religion at Oxford University, where he is now studying for a doctorate in yogic ethics. He is an accredited RYT 1500 yoga teacher, and teaches at Seed Yoga + Wellness in Melbourne, and at Prana Yoga in Oxford. His website is: www.epektasis.com.au/yoga