In "The Language of Yoga," Nicolai Bachman suggests deciphering the Sanskrit names of yoga poses by breaking them down into individual words. Understanding each part of the name, he writes, will deepen your appreciation of the richness of yoga's Sanskrit heritage. You don't have to learn the whole language. In fact, with just a small Sanskrit vocabulary, you can decode most yoga pose names.
Almost all yoga pose names end with the word "asana," a Sanskrit word that literally means "seat," although it's often translated as "pose." Many pose names feature Sanskrit numbers. "Eka" is "one," "dwi" is "two," "tri" is "three" and "chatur" is "four." So, for example, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana is One-Legged King Pigeon pose, Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana is Upward-Facing Two-Foot Staff pose, Trikonasana is Triangle pose and Chaturanga Dandasana is Four-Limbed Staff pose.
Not surprisingly, terms for body parts figure prominently in asana names. "Hasta" means "hand," "pada" means "foot" or "leg" and "angustha" means "big toe," as in Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, or Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe pose. "Mukha" is "face," as in Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog pose. "Anga" means "limb," as in Chaturanga Dandasana. "Sirsa" means "head" and "janu" is "knee," so Janu Sirsasana is Head-to-Knee pose. Other poses are named for common objects, at least for ancient yogis: Dandasana is Staff pose and Dhanurasana is Bow pose.
Many poses are named for animals or plants. Kapotasana is Pigeon pose; Ustrasana is Camel pose; Tittibhasana is Firefly pose; Garudasana is Eagle pose; and Matsyasana is Fish pose. Vrksasana is Tree pose. Several poses are named for sages, such as Marichyasana and Bharadvajasana. Other Sanskrit words that show up frequently in pose names are "utthita," or "extended"; "parsva," or "side"; "parivrtta," or "rotated"; "adho," or "downward"; and "urdhva," or "upward." "Uttana" means "intense stretch," "kona" means "angle," "ardha" means "half," and "baddha" means "bound."
Putting it Together
Once you know a few Sanskrit words, you'll be able to make sense of even long, complex names. For instance, Utthita Parsvakonasana is Extended Side Angle pose, Parivrtta Trikonasana is Rotated Triangle pose and Adho Mukha Vrskasana is Downward-Facing Tree pose, or Handstand. If your yoga teacher uses Sanskrit names for poses, she can be a great resource for you. Ask her after class about any names you're unfamiliar with and add them to your repertoire.
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.