by Jessica Young | Photography by Stacie Scott
If doing yoga feels like learning a new language, that’s because it is! Learn the Sanskrit names to some of your favorite poses!

Downward Dog, Pigeon, Tree, even Corpse pose: all your favorite yoga poses have Sanskrit names. If you’ve ever been in class and heard your teacher offer you a mouthful of syllables that you couldn’t repeat, you know how complicated some of those names can be. Sanskrit is the ancient Indian language in which all of the sacred texts of yoga are drafted. Almost every pose has in its name the word asana, which literally means pose, posture or seat. Sometimes these names have many components. Poses are named after animals, plants, shapes, even characters from Hindu mythology. But don’t be intimidated! Learning the Sanskrit counterpart to a yoga pose is more than a badge of honor for the yoga student: it’s fun! Here are a few examples. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a test!)

Adho Mukha Svanasana
Say, “Ah-dough MOOK-ah Sva-NAH-sah-nah”
Adho+Mukha+Svanasana = Downward+Face+Dog+pose

This pose gets its name from its similarity to the shape our canine friends make when they’re stretching. Check out your dog sometime, he knows the value of a good spinal stretch. Learn how to master the downward facing dog pose.

Say, “Vrick-SHAH-sah-Nah”
Vrksa+Asana = tree+pose

Vrksasana is named for the similarity you bear to a tall, majestic tree when you’re in it. If you tend to wobble in this pose, no worries. The tree that does not bend and sway in the storm is bound to break, and be uprooted. Learn how to master the tree pose.

Say, “BOO-jang-GA-sah-Nah”
Bhujanga+Asana = cobra+pose

Can you see the cobra in this pose, stretching up and out, lengthening its back, ready to strike? If your teacher says to you, “Cobra has one tail,” she wants you to keep your feet and legs together, and tuck your tailbone to support the low back in this backbend. Learn how to master cobra pose.

Say, “Veer-AB-ha-DRA-sah-nah”
Virabhadra+Asana = Virabhadra+pose

The warrior poses (for there are many of them) are named after the Hindu warrior, Virabhadra. Legend has it that after Shiva was humiliated, in his rage he pulled out one of his locks, and threw it on the ground, whereupon it immediately turned into a fierce and loyal warrior who destroyed Shiva’s enemies. In your own practice, your battle is not with others, but with your ego.

Some English names of yoga poses are an approximation. For instance the pose known as Pyramid pose, in Sanskrit, is Parsvottanasana. Parsva=Side, Uttana=Intense, Asana=Pose; the literal translation for this pose is intense stretch for the sides of the body. This is such a strong pose, it stretches everywhere! Likewise, Paschimottanasa is often called Seated Forward fold, but literally means intense stretch for the east side of the body, which is your back side: hamstrings and back. Other poses don’t always have Sanskrit names, because they’re more contemporary creations. For instance Cat Pose and Cow Pose, a common spinal dynamic warm-up, are technically called Marjaryasana and Bitilasana, respectively. Marjar means cat and bitil means cow, but most teachers don’t use the Sanskrit term, and just stick with the shorter, more memorable “cat-cow.”

For some, yoga’s a good work out, or a stress release, for others it’s a practice of devotion. Whether you commit to learning the Sanskrit names for your yoga poses, or are content to learn them in English, it’s good to remember the rich cultural foundation yoga has. Next time you kick up into Adho Mukhsaa Vrksasana (Downward Facing Tree Pose, or more commonly, Handstand) or surrender into Eka Pada Raja Kapotanasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), remember the beauty of the language, as well as the beauty of your own practice.