The Tutorial

What Namaste Actually Means: The Meaning Behind Those Sanskrit Words You Hear In Yoga

Prana, chakra, asana: We know we aren't the only ones who could use a quick tutorial on the meaning behind Sanskrit terms you hear amidst your downward dogs and crow poses.

Have you ever been in a yoga class when all of a sudden, between cues to breathe and lengthen your spine, the teacher throws out a word that you’ve never heard before? If the answer is yes, don’t worry — you’re not alone! Most yoga students, especially those beginning their practice, have experienced that “what the heck did she just say?!” moment within their classes before.

Usually, these words are in Sanskrit (the traditional language of yoga), and they can be confusing to understand when we don’t have any background information on their significance within our practice. Here, I’ve listed a few basic Sanskrit terms, along with their meanings and pronunciation, to help guide you towards discovering their significance — and perhaps gaining a deeper understanding of your yoga practice.

Prana (pronounced prah-nah) From the Sanskrit an, meaning “movement,” and pra, meaning “constant,” prana means “constant motion,” and refers to the idea that vital or life force energy is always dynamic. The term is used in Hindu and yogic philosophy to refer to all the energy in the universe, present in both living beings and inanimate objects.

Prana is often understood in relation to the physical body, and health and wellness, through the chakras. It is thought that when someone is well and balanced, prana flows freely through the seven major chakras. However, when there are blockages or imbalances, they may manifest as physical or emotional issues.

Chakra (pronounced chuh-kruh) The Sanskrit word chakra literally translates to wheel or disk. In yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda, this term refers to wheels of energy throughout the body. There are seven main chakras, all of which align the spine, starting from the base of the spine through to the crown of the head. These swirling wheels of energy correspond to massive nerve centers in the body. Each of the seven main chakras contains bundles of nerves and major organs, as well as our psychological, emotional, and spiritual states of being. Since everything is moving, it’s essential that our seven main chakras stay open, aligned, and fluid. If there is a blockage, energy cannot flow.

To visualize a chakra in the body, imagine a swirling wheel of energy where matter and consciousness meet. This invisible energy, called prana, is vital life force, which keeps us vibrant, healthy, and alive.

Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai) A type of breathing technique commonly translated as “victorious breath,” which been used for thousands of years to enhance yoga practice. Also commonly referred to as the “oceanic breath,” the sound that ujjayi provides helps us to synchronize breath with movements during yoga, making the entire yoga practice more rhythmic. Commonly used in hatha and vinyasa yoga practices, ujjayi has a balancing influence on the entire cardiorespiratory system, and helps calm the mind and body.

To preform ujjayi breathing, seal your lips and start to breath in and out through your nose.
Take an inhalation through your nose that is slightly deeper than normal. Exhale slowly through your nose while constricting the muscles in the back of your throat. The breath should feel textured and make an audible, ocean-like sound.

Asana (pronounced AH-sah-nah) This term is used for any physical posture of yoga (or “poses” as we commonly refer to them). It is the third limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga, following after the yamas and niyamas. Asana practice is considered important by yogis because it helps to keep the physical body healthy. Given that the body is the vehicle for the spirit, looking after the physical body is important for spiritual development. Practicing asanas can also have a range of emotional and energetic benefits, increase discipline and concentration, and ready the mind for meditation.

Mantra (pronounced muhn-truh) A mantra is a sacred word, sound or phrase, usually in Sanskrit, which is believed to have spiritual and psychological power. Meaning “tool of thought” in Sanskrit, a mantra is often used in meditation as a way to harness and focus the mind.

Mantra yoga uses repetition and chanting of mantras to encourage the mind to enter into a meditative state, so that the practitioner may begin to connect with the Divine within themselves. It is said that in choosing to chant mantras you are changing your vibration and evoking a higher level of consciousness.

Namaste (pronounced nah-mah-stay) Namaste is derived from the Sanskrit nama, meaning “bow,” and te, meaning “to you.” A common salutation and valediction in the Hindu culture, namaste literally means, “I bow to you.”

On a more profound level, namaste signifies one soul recognizing and honoring the holiness of another. The salutation is often offered by yoga instructors at the beginning or conclusion of a class. In this sense, namaste is invoked to acknowledge the spiritual connection, or oneness, achieved by souls experiencing the practice of yoga together. The significance of the word namaste goes far beyond its use as a term of greeting; namaste is an acknowledgement that we are all divine and that we are all ultimately connected.

(Definitions pulled from here and here.)


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