Yoga Pose Names

Yoga Pose Names

Curve up like a snake in Cobra, exult like a choreographed Shiva in Lord of the Dance, stand tall and rooted in Tree. Yoga poses have colorful names in English to evoke the shapes and movements of a routine. In their original Sanskrit, some names are more finely layered, alluding to stories from ancient scriptures that demonstrate how to live a moral, balanced life. Call it Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward-Facing Dog, you still have to get your heels on the ground.

The Sounds of Sanskrit
Your yoga teacher may spin out a list of pose names for a sequence that leaves you scratching your head instead of reaching for your toes. The original names of yoga poses are all in Sanskrit, a 7,000-year-old Indo-European language. Hindus believe that the sounds of Sanskrit are themselves holy and that chanting or saying them aloud is a spiritual practice. A pose name is always an aggregate of more than one word in Sanskrit because it ends in "asana," which is the word for posture or pose. The beginning of the name describes the pose. So, Padanghustasana breaks down to Pad -- foot, Anghusta -- big toe, and Asana -- pose. Reach for your feet in Big Toe pose.

Not So Ancient
Yoga itself is thousands of years old. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are about 2,000 years old, but yoga developed as an oral tradition over several millennia before being written down. And what was written about yoga in the ancient scriptures and commentary were teachings and instructions for meditation, breathing practices and spiritual philosophy. Despite popular belief, those venerable names of historic yoga poses may not be anywhere near as old as early scriptures. Cambridge divinity scholar Dr. Mark Singleton, writing in "Yoga Journal," details his search for the origins of contemporary yoga poses. Singleton discovered that Krishnamacharya, the Indian sage who taught the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century, created a contemporary practice based on classical Hinduism, Western gymnastics, late-19th-century Indian wrestling exercises and poses he claimed to have learned from visions of a yogi ancestor and study with Brahmachari, a cave-dwelling yoga master.

Picture Poses
The hundreds of poses yoga practitioners select from today fall into several major categories, based on physical position. An effective sequence may draw from each category and will tailor the level of difficulty to the student or class. Categories include standing, backbends, forward bends, seated and twists, core, arm balances, inversions and restorative poses. Remembering a sequence gets easier when you realize the names create a picture for you. Happy Baby is a core pose in which you lie on your back, bend your knees and grab your toes with your fingertips. In Plow, an inversion, your body forms a plow shape as you balance on your shoulders, lift your torso and touch the floor behind your head with your extended legs. Side Plank is a one-arm balance in which you support yourself on one hand, raise the other arm to the ceiling and hold your body straight from head to toe.

Story Poses
Some yoga pose names come from scriptural stories that contain a hint about how to approach them. Marichi was the son of Brahma, the grandfather of Surya, the fiery sun god, and the great-grandfather of Manu, the proto-Adam of vedic scripture. Marichi means "ray of light" and the Marichyasana, the Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi, honors his complex nature and gifts of warmth, light and the human intellect. Breathe evenly as you move into the seated forward bend, one leg extended fully forward, foot flexed. The other leg bends at the knee, drawn close to the torso, foot flat on the mat. Head touches knee of the extended leg and hands are swept back and clasped behind you as you lengthen the torso. Mindful, steady breathing invigorates the internal organs, stoking the digestive fire as you hold the pose, even as attention to its intricacies calms the mind.