So you want to try yoga? Or maybe you don’t – but a friend, colleague, or health professional suggested it and now here you are exploring.
Welcome! And congratulations on trying something new – yes, I know there hasn’t been any actual yoga yet – but you showed up and, believe me, that’s the hardest part.
As with anything new, it can take some time to get used to terminology and just the general ins and outs of something you haven’t done before. Much of this newness can be overwhelming, especially when paired with the idea of meeting new people in a new environment, like a gym or yoga studio.
This article covers some basic yoga terms that are often in beginner oriented yoga classes and is paired with a free YouTube series which can be used to ease your way into the practice from the comfort of your own home.
The more you hear the terminology and practice getting into and out of the poses, the more comfortable you’ll feel exploring – you may even want to check out a local studio! Or not, you can successfully practice yoga without ever stepping foot in a studio or putting on stretchy pants. So find what works for you and go with it.
Let’s get started with some general phrases and terms that you’re likely to hear in yoga and which may raise an eyebrow if you’re not familiar.
Yoga – Why not start at the beginning? What is Yoga? In short, yoga means “to yoke” or “union.” So, what are we joining? Ourselves. Just us. It’s very simple, but it’s not always easy. Through yoga we join our mind, to our body, to our spirit. Yoga is a philosophy and practice of integration – a way to bring the self into harmony. One of the methods yoga employs to do this is Asana – or movement/positions/poses. So, if you’re here to do yoga, you’re likely here to practice the physical expression of yoga: Asana.
Practice – Just like any instrument or sport you might play, yoga is a practice. It’s going to look different for everyone – because of differing skill level, body type, energy level, and interest. Your experience is unique to you and, although there are some growth milestones to celebrate, there’s no point of arrival – the “practice” is an individual journey of exploration of yourself.
Pose – Position, or asana (ahh-sa-nah) – these are the shapes we move our body into. Some have fancy names – some people like to use Sanskrit names but it’s not necessary for you to understand the Sanskrit or English naming cues to move your body, you can just move. An experienced instructor should offer cues (instructions) based on anatomical names that you’re familiar with – if they don’t, or you’re not following – look up, look around, look confused – usually this will clue the instructor in to let them know you need a demo, different descriptors, or some other kind of assistance. It’s the responsibility of the instructor to meet your needs at your level so don’t stress about not knowing something, your teacher is there to hold space for you, help you understand what’s going on, and translate it into a movement in your body.
Holding space – This is a popular term in yoga and many other helping modalities (methods). It means creating a safe learning / existing environment. One of the primary responsibilities of an instructor is to hold space – or create a safe and accessible environment – for you to learn, experience, and grow – exactly as you are with no judgment and all the help you may need.
If it’s available – This is a yogic phrase that helps us be honest about what is good for our bodies at any given moment without slipping into a negative thought cycle of “I can’t” or “I’m not good enough.” Part of yoga is learning to meet yourself where you are and accept that – when you hear an instructor cue a pose (even if they don’t use this phrase) know that you are ultimately in charge of your experience and you decide, based on feedback from your mind and body, what variation of a position you’ll practice on any given day. This is a choose your own destiny adventure and, ultimately, you know best what you need – so trust yourself – and if your gut tells you to lower the intensity or take a modified version of a pose, listen.
Modification or Variation – There are many expressions (variations/or versions) of poses and your instructor should cue several options for differing body types and skill levels. Using blocks is a common way to help stabilize the body or create space in a position as your body begins to learn. There is no such thing as cheating in yoga and it is best to err on the side of caution: it doesn’t have to hurt to be effective. In fact, it shouldn’t hurt. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to knock it off. So, while you may feel some intense sensations, it’s important to differentiate intensity or discomfort from pain and take action to relieve any pain to avoid potential injury.
Cactus arms – If you’re familiar with American football, picture a goal post – this is a way to expand the arms out without hitting your neighbor if you’re in close confines – or just a fun way to switch it up from arms straight out to your sides or above your head. Looks like the shrug emoji with hands straight up toward the ceiling. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Namaste – (Nah-mah-stay) You’ll often hear this word at the beginning and end of class; it’s frequently accompanied with a bow or hand gesture. This greeting means something along the lines of “I bow to you” or “I honor you” and is simply a way to show respect and reverence to each other in the practice. My favorite explanation or expression of Namaste is:
My soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty, and peace within you because it is also within me. In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one. -Anonymous
Prayer Hands – Or hands to heart center. The heart is viewed as the center of the being in yoga – the place where we intake and outpour love, as well as bring in and let out the breath. When you hear these phrases the intention is placing both of your hands together in front of you, palm to palm, resting your thumbs against your sternum (or at another height that is comfortable for you.)
Mudra – (Moo-drah) Hand position. That’s it. Prayer hands are common. You can also touch the index finger or middle finger to the thumb. Your instructor may walk you through something specific but feel free to experiment and find something that feels right for you.
Contraindication – (contra-indication) Limits – or conditions for which a particular movement is not recommended. If you have pain, injury, or are pregnant there may be some movement in class that could easily push you too far. This is part of why it’s important to be candid with your teacher and honest with yourself – so that you can be guided into a safe experience that fits your specific body needs.
A few examples are:
Hamstring injury: avoid deep folds or bend the knees during folds. This reduces the pressure on the muscles connective points and provide gentle stretching access while limiting risk of re-injury.
Pregnancy: avoid lying on the belly or crunch-like actions, substituting lying on the side or back. This reduces pressure both directly on the baby and avoids adding strain to the already challenged muscles in the core of the body which have expanded to accommodate the baby and limits risk of strain on the lower back or lumbar spine.
High Blood Pressure: Avoid inversions – or any pose where the heart is above the head, substituting seated bends. This limits the addition of any pressure in the head and neck which can cause dizziness and discomfort for those with high blood pressure.
Drop in / come in to your breath – Be here now. Our breath is, in many ways, a gateway to understanding our experience internally and externally. Noticing the cadence of the breath and becoming familiar with how deep or shallow our breathing is – can give us a window of insight into our emotional and physiological state. Practicing various breathing techniques can further allow us to guide our minds and bodies where we want them to be. Dropping in or coming into your breath is simply a reminder to be mindful of the immediate present.
There you have it – now you know more – and, I’ll let you in on a secret: you’re ready! Even if you don’t feel like you are. By its very nature yoga is for everyone.
There will only ever be one scary first time, after that it’s just practice – so pluck up your courage and make the time for yourself to have that first time experience.
If you’re not ready for an in person experience please join me for at home practice via my free 7 day Yoga for Beginners series on YouTube.