Getting to Know the Lingo: Yoga

by Elizabeth Millard
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Getting to Know the Lingo: Yoga

Technically, yoga is another language. It can be especially intimidating if the teacher begins throwing out the Sanskrit terms for poses or using shortcut language like, “You can vinyasa through this or go straight to downward dog.” Um…huh?

“Especially for those who haven’t done a good deal of yoga, it can be off-putting to be in a class where you feel like you don’t understand anything,” says Monique Maxwell, a Minneapolis-based yoga teacher. “You might feel like an outsider, and that’s the opposite of how yoga is supposed to be.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a degree in all things yoga to get on the inside track. Here’s a quick primer that can help:


The poses practiced during a yoga class. Traditional yoga has several aspects — called the “eight limbs of yoga” — and asana is one of them. The others involve tactics like breathing techniques, focused concentration and meditation. Most yoga classes focus mainly on asana, sometimes with breathing exercises incorporated into the mix.


Also called downward dog or downward-facing dog, this is one of the most common yoga poses. The body forms an inverted V-shape, with back straight and heels reaching toward the floor.


Used as hello and goodbye in some countries like Nepal, this word is often used to close out a class because it also means: I acknowledge you, I bow to the divine in you or I recognize the teacher in you. Basically, it’s a yogic way of saying, “You’re cool, I’m cool, I’m glad we got to hang out.”


This is a single syllable that is considered sacred in many religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Some believe that it’s the sound of the universe, with the power to transform the person who chants it. Whether you believe that or not, it’s a nice way to begin and end a class, similar to ringing a gong. Also, if you don’t feel like chanting it along with a class, no one will hold it against you, since it’s completely optional.


There are many disciplines of yoga, although most have several poses in common. You may see terms like hatha, ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, yin, jivamukti, power yoga and others. These are simply variations on the same theme, although they can be strikingly different from one another. For example, yin yoga has students hold each poses for 5–7 minutes, while power yoga is a very fast-paced practice in which you might hold a pose for only a few seconds.


Another limb of yoga, this is the formal name for breathwork. The root word “prana” also means “energy” or “life force.” In some class descriptions, you may see a phrase like “asana and pranayama will be covered.” That just means you’ll be doing poses and breathing techniques.


This very specific yoga sequence is used often in classes, because it’s said to strengthen all major muscle groups. It’s also a favorite as a warmup to more challenging poses.


This method of yoga relies on a flowing sequence, so one pose leads gracefully to the next. If a teacher says you can “vinyasa through,” it usually means that you can go from one pose to the next through a series that consists of plank, upward-facing dog and then downward-facing dog.


The word itself is often translated as “to yoke,” which means that you’re yoking mind and body together through specific movements and focused breathing. It’s considered different from just stretching because it involves staying aware of what your body is doing — and being conscious of your emotions and attention.


Someone who practices yoga regularly. Yogi is for males and yogini is for females, although it’s also common for all students to be called yogis.

Beyond these terms, feel free to ask your teacher or fellow students about any you might not know yet. “If there’s one thing about yogis and yoginis, they love to talk about yoga,” says Maxwell with a laugh. “You might be in for a  longer explanation than you wanted. But in general, a yoga studio is designed to be a supportive environment, so don’t be afraid to ask questions before or after class.”


  • Mary

    Thanks for the facts and definitions! I’ve been interested in yoga for a while, but shied away because it seems like it’s made for people who are already pretty fit. I just found a DVD series called “Heavyweight Yoga”, made especially for larger, overweight people, who might have more difficulty trying the poses than an average healthy beginner (I’m not a paid spokesperson or anything – I wish!

    • Mary – thanks for the info about “Heavyweight Yoga” – I’ve put it on my Amazon Wishlist – looks like a great resource.
      You might want to also check out the Peggy Cappy (seen on PBS) “Easy Yoga for Arthritis” and “Yoga for the Rest of Us” – she really focuses on stability and has 70-80 YO participants and people with all kinds of physical issues doing yoga with adaptations (with chairs, etc.)

    • Captain Jeff

      took up yoga almost 2 years ago. Im a guy, so was a true newbie. Most classes (unless specified) are for “all levels” so cater to everyone from the 15 year yogi vet to the, ” what the heck is yoga, anyway newbie”.
      Second, yoga is such a personal experience/practice nobody even knows you are there, no one is judging you…atleast from my own experiences.
      DVDs/videos are an excellent are an excellent practice tool, but i think all newbis should go to a few classes, so the the teacher can assist and put you in to proper posture so as not to injure yourself.

    • Miles Meyrow

      Hi Mary, I am a 280lb 60 year old male. Look for a yoga studio that offers Gentle Yoga. That is geared more to older and less fit people or people with a medical condition. The studio will have a lot of props and the instructor will show you ways of using them. It really helps to have an experienced person look at what you are doing. Even if you go to the studio once a week but practice mostly at home it really helps to have a professional to watch and ask questions of.