Know Your Yoga Asana: Demystifying Sanskrit Posture Names

By: 
Nina Zolotow, RYT 500

So far, in Part 1 we learned about how English and Sanskrit are related, so some of those mysterious words you’ve been hearing will actually be easy to remember if you connect them with the corresponding English words (for example, “sputa” for “supine” and “kona” for “corner/angle”). Then in Part 2, we learned some of the Sanskrit words for different body parts that commonly appear in pose names (for example, “pada” for “foot” and “mukha” for “face”). 

Today we’re going to look at modifiers that frequently appear either at the end or beginning of pose names. We’ll start with the ones at the end because there are only two (that I can think of, anyway) and they’re both very important. Then we’ll look at the ones that come at the beginning.

Ending Modifiers

Asana/Pose or Seat: This originally meant “seat” because most of the ancient poses (or maybe all?) were seated poses for meditation. However, eventually, it came to mean “pose” as in any yoga pose or, as we often still say, “asana.” And you probably have noticed by now that almost every Sanskrit pose name ends with “asana.” Some pose names we have already translated include:

  • Paschimottanasana (Back Body Intense Stretch Pose)

  • Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)

  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)

  • Padangusthasana (Extended Big Toe Pose)

  • Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)

There are others we haven’t translated yet because they are based on animal or plant names or the names of a yoga sage. These also include “asana” though:

  • Vrksasana (Tree Pose)

  • Salabasana (Locust Pose)

  • Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

  • Marichyasana (Marichi’s Pose)

  • Hanumanasana (Hanuman’s Pose)

So one way to make a pose name easier to understand is just to translate the “asana” part first.

There are a few exceptions of poses that don’t include the word “asana.” One is Viparita Karani (Inverted Lake). I do not have an explanation for why this is.

Uttana/Intense Stretch: When “uttana” is combined with “asana,” there is a contraction, so instead of two “a’s,” there is just one. The most obvious case of this is in the pose name Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Pose).

In addition, the whole word “uttanasana” is added on to a whole lot of other pose names, creating another contraction where the “u” is removed. Examples:

  • Paschimottanasana (Back Body Intense Stretch Pose)

  • Parsvottanasana (Side Body Intense Stretch Pose)

  • Purvottanasana (Front Body Intense Stretch Pose)

  • Prasarita Padottanasa (Widespread Legs Intense Stretch Pose)

 

            Pachimottanasana (Back Body Intense Stretch Pose)

Beginning Modifiers

Now we’re going to go through the words that often appear at the beginning of pose names. Some will sound familiar to you from previous lessons, but we’ll go through them again so you can see how they relate to other terms. This should help them sink in too.

Supta/Supine: This is used for poses that are the reclined version of another pose. Examples:
 

  • Supta Baddhakonasana (Supine Bound Angle Pose)

  • Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Big Toe Pose)

  • Supta Virasana (Supine Hero Pose)

  • Supta Konasana (Supine Angle Pose)

 

                      Supta Virasana (Supine Hero Pose)

 

Paripurna/Full: For some poses there are both “full” and “half” versions. So this modifier tells you which of the two the pose is. Examples:

  • Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose)

  • Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Full Matsyendra’s Pose) (Yes, it exists, I did it a few times back in the day.)

  • Paripurna Ustrasana (Full Camel Pose) (Haha, you thought you were doing full Camel Pose already? Nah, that’s Half Camel Pose. In Full Camel Pose, your head is all the way down and touching your feet, while your hands are on your knees (it’s a lot like Pigeon Pose). 

 

                    Paripurna Navasana  (Full Boat Pose)

 

Ardha/Half: We see this modifier more often than we see “paripurna” (full), because the full pose name often doesn’t include it, but the “half” version does. Or, as in the case of Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), maybe there is no full version. Examples:

  • Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose)

  • Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)

  • Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana (Half Downward Facing Dog Pose)

  • Ardha Halasana (Half Plow Pose)

  • Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose)

  • Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Matsyendra’s Pose)

 

        Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Matsyendra's Pose)

 

Salamba/Supported: This means using your hands to support your body, rather than using a prop. So a propped version of a pose is not “salamba.” Examples:

  • Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand Pose) This is the way most of us practice the pose, with our hands supporting our backs. 

  • Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand Pose) This is the way most of us practice the pose, with forearms on the ground or just hands and top of the head on the ground (Tripod Headstand).

  • Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx Pose) You are supporting Cobra Pose by putting your forearms on the ground.

 

         Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand Pose)


Nirlamba/Unsupported: This is the version of the pose with no hands! Examples:

  • Nirlamba Parsvakonasana (Unsupported Side Angle Pose) This is the version of the pose where you clasp your hands behind your back rather than putting one hand on the ground (or block). 

  • Nirlamba Sarvangasana (Unsupported Shoulderstand Pose) In this version you either have your hands overhead on the ground, or on the fronts of your legs. 

  • Nirlamba Sirsasana (Unsupported Headstand Pose) In this version you balance on your head only with your arms along the sides of your body.

 

   Nirlamba Parsvakonasana (Unsupported Side Angle Pose)

 

Eka/One: This is usually used with “pada” for a one-footed or one-legged version of a pose or with “hasta” for one hand. Examples:

  • Eka Pada Bakasana (One-Legged Crane Pose)

  • Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose)

  • Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Upward Widespread One-Foot Pose aka Standing Splits)

  • Eka Hasta Bhujasana (One-Hand Arms Pose aka Elephant Trunk Pose, a common arm balance)

​​

   Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Upward Widespread One-Foot Pose aka Standing Splits)

 

Dwi/Two: This is usually used with “pada” for a two-footed or two-legged version of a pose or with “hasta” for two hands. Examples:

  • Dwi Hasta Bhujasana (Two-Hands Arm Pose aka Two Legs Over Arms Pose, a common arm balance)

  • Dwikonasana (Two-Angle Pose or Double Angle Pose. This is the standing forward bend with clasped hands brought overhead—great shoulder opener!

  • Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Footed Inverted Staff Pose)

 

Dwi Hasta Bhujasana (Two-Hands Arm Pose aka Two Legs Over Arms Pose)

 

Parivrtta/Turned Around or Revolved. We often see this one as the “twisting” version of a common pose.

  • Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)

  • Parivritta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)

  • Parivritta Arda Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon Pose)

  • Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose)

 

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose)

 

Parsva/Sideways or Side of the Body: As opposed to a twist, “parsva” denotes practicing the pose to one side or stretching the side of the body.  Examples:

  • Parsva Upavista Konasana (Sideways Seated Angle Pose). Parivrtta Upavista Konasana is a different pose. In Parsva Upavista Konasana you turn to the side so that your front torso is facing your leg. In Parivrtta Upavista Konasana, your side body is facing your leg.

  • Parsva Bakasana (Sideways Crane Pose)

  • Parsva Sukasana (Side-Bending Easy Sitting Pose)

          Parsva Upavista Konasana (Sideways Seated Angle Pose)

              

Utthita/Extended: Because this word doesn’t really add that much to a pose name, many teachers (guilty as charged) leave it off the Sanskrit name.

  • Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)

  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)

  • Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

  • Utthita Hasta Padasana (Extended Arms-and-Legs Pose). Hey, this is the name for the prep pose you do before moving into Triangle, Extended Side Angle, and so on. In this case, including “utthita” is pretty important for the name.

 

          Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)

 

Prasarita/Expanded or Widespread: This usually means two body parts are spread away from each other.

  • Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Legs Intense Stretch Pose aka Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

  • Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Upward Widespread One Foot Pose aka Standing Splits)

  • Urdhva Prasarita Padottanasana (Upward Extended Legs Intense Stretch Pose)

 

Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Legs Intense Stretch Pose aka Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

 

Urdva/Up or Upward: We see this used alone as well as with “mukha” for face. Examples:

  • Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)

  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Hands Pose)

  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

 

      Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

 

Remember when I talked about how knowing the Sanskrit helps eliminate confusion? I saw Urdhva Prasarita Padottanasana (on your back with legs up) translated four different ways:

  1. Upward Extended Feet Pose

  2. Raised Stretched-Out Foot Pose

  3. Upward Stretched Legs

  4. Upward Extended Legs

Down or Downward: So far, I’ve only seen this with “face.” Examples:

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

  • Adho Mukha Virasana (Downward-Facing Hero Pose, with your arms along the floor)

  • Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Downward-Facing Tree Pose aka Handstand)

  • Adho Mukha Dandasana (Downward-Facing Staff Pose aka Plank Pose)

 

       Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

 

Wow, this turned out to be a long post! And you now have quite a long list of common Sanskrit words to remember. However, even if you remember only a few of them, I hope you will at least be less afraid of the language. Because, as I hope you’ve learned, the vocabulary in the pose names is actually very limited and the pose names are very logical. 

CHALLENGE: Translate this pose name into English and see if you can figure out which pose it is (I bet you've done it). See here for the answer and a photo.

Parivritta Prasarita Paddotanasana

Learn more about Yoga for Healthy Aging - Book Review: Yoga for Healthy Aging - A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, written by Nina Zolotow and Baxter Bell, MD.

Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Healthy Aging.

 

Nina ZolotowNina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional well-being, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.