Yoga Terminology

This page is intended for a beginning student of Aikido-Yoga who wants to gain a quick overview of some of the more important Yogic concepts and terms.

There is no need to unduly concern yourself with memorising every Indian or Sanskrit word in the dictionary – you will learn all the terms you need to know naturally as a result of regular class attendance. True understanding, however, can only be attained by training under someone who can effectively facilitate an awakening of the fundamental principles of Yoga in you without the use of words.

“Eight limbs” of Yoga Integrated into Aikido-Yoga:

1. Yama: Ethical Discipline – The discipline of focusing on inner-treasures rather than outer-pleasures, resulting in good character, attitude and behaviour. Kind, caring, unselfish, non-destructive, honest, fare, responsible, respectful, integrity, compassionate. Specifically, the principles of Non-injury, Non-violence and Non-hurtfulness: ie. refraining from causing harm to others, physically, mentally or emotionally.

The yamas actually refer to being aware of, and not allowing ourselves to become susceptible to the five main negative characteristics of the human condition:

  • AhiMsaa:nonviolence, harmlessness, and no injuring anything – When we have negative, hurtful, oppressive or violent thoughts or act in such destructive ways against either ourselves or others. The concept of not harming ourselves or others naturally extends to not harming the rest of creation because everything in the universe is connected. Everything that happens to any individual thing has an impact on the whole system. If you prick your finger your whole body knows about it! With the knowledge and understanding that everything is a part of us and we are a part of everything, we will become more careful not to harm anything. Non-violence is a natural result of feeling united with the whole of creation.
  • Satya:Truth – When we are untruthful to either ourselves or others. We lack integrity when our thoughts, words and deeds are not in harmony with each other, or when our minds, speech or actions are influenced by external forces that lead us away from our core values and moral judgment. When we base our words or actions on a distorted view of reality and cause hurt or pain to either ourselves or others, or when our thoughts, words and actions either keep us ignorant or move us further away from the truth. The principle of truthfulness is not just about being honest with yourself and others, but also has a lot to do with a commitment to constantly striving to see the truth. A clear awareness of the fundamental underlying truth or reality frees us from the pain and suffering brought about by beliefs and actions that have there basis in ignorance. For example, once we realise that their is a part of our inner-being that is steadfast and unchanging, we will cease to cling to or identify with the many impermanent things, like youth and beauty, that reflect the dynamic, ever changing aspect of our external, material existence.
  • Asteya:Non stealing – When we take that which is not rightfully ours: – be it things, the ‘limelight’, ideas, someone else’s time or taking advantage of someone’s trust, the opportunity to allow someone to fail, or the opportunity to allow someone to give. Gratitude arises from being completely satisfied with what you have – in the present moment – and not always wishing that things were better or different from what they are at the moment. It also imply’s not regretting what has happened in the past. Envy and anger comes from the comparisons we make between ourselves and others qualities or possessions.
  • Brahmacharya: Chastity – When we do not align our thoughts and actions to truth we lose perspective of the big picture, or the fundamental truth of our reality. Unchecked lust and desire tend to obscure the truth. It’s about being emotionally intelligence enough not to allow our lusts and desires to obscure our ability to act in accordance with our highest virtues. Attachment or obsession with either things or desires shuts down our intelligence. We lose perspective, and with it correct judgment. We then allow our senses to rule, and remain trapped in the material realm of existence. Self awareness, and our ability to move from a material to a spiritual plane of existence requires us to be able to master and override our desires and attachments that lead to obsessive behaviour. We then empower ourselves to focus on more loftier goals than immediate physical or emotional gratification.
  • Aparigraha: Declining – Wanting more than we need. More than what is necessary. When we accumulate excess material possessions, wealth or even unnecessary thoughts, we enslave ourselves. We are truly possessed and controlled by the things we process – like material possessions AND the negative or hurtful things that we take on board that people have either said or done to us. Selfishly holding onto things or harboring negativity narrows our generous and loving spirit. The objective is to simplify our lives, and simplify our thoughts.  Greed manifests in action by not being able to listen, a lack of interest or compassion for other peoples thoughts or feelings and our inability to just be still – alive in the present moment. Jealousy, resentment and anger arise from constantly comparing ourselves and our circumstance with others. All these negative emotions clutter our minds and hinder our progress towards spiritual growth.

2. Niyama: Convention – The discipline of focusing on continual self-improvement and purification of mind and body. Mental and physical health and hygiene. Modest, content, grateful, positive, emotional intelligent, good posture and diet. Aware, astute studious and reflective. Trust, faith and acceptance.

The niyamas actually refer to five main personal behaviors and observances:

  • Tapas:Concentration or meditation – The development of a deep respect for the ‘temple’ that supports our consciousness and being by practicing misogi, or physical purification – health practices and spiritual austerities that generate heat in the body and purify the mind.
  • Samtosa: Satisfaction – Gaining the vast reserves of power contained in contentment, modesty, and an acceptance of how things and circumstances unfold with a certain sense of equanimity.
  • Saucha:Purity – Developing habits of cleanliness, and purity of body and thoughts.
  • Svadhyaya:Svadhyaaya: Self-StudyAllowing time for self-reflection. To develop excellent journaling skills, and study oneself through reflection. To also study and learn from others.
  • Isvara Pranidhana: Pranidhaana: God attention – Coming to the realisation that there is a greater life-force in existence than ourselves. And coming to the realisation that we are not in control of our fleeting existence, and owe our continued existence to forces way beyond our control. We truly exist by the grace of nature and the creative life-force that animates us into life.

3. Asana:Postures – The discipline of focusing on developing unity of mind and body through various body postures. Dynamic balance between movement and stillness. Mental and physical preparation for the discipline and rigor required for pranayama (science of breath.) and meditation (science of the mind.)

4. Pranayama:Suspending the breath – The mental and physical discipline of controlling the breath and accumulating, balancing and re-distributing vital-energy (prana.) The oxygenation / combustion / heat associated with breathing are referred to as “the inner fire of purification”. The physical and mental power derived from these first four limbs of yoga is a prerequisite requirement before attempting the more advanced mental and physical exercises.

5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal – The discipline of detachment from external stimulants while in a state of sensory deprivation. Awareness and perception beyond the sensory input of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. To train the mind to be continuously aware and unfettered (imaginative, creative, agile, free) in order to operate more effectively in the real world. Emotionally and physiologically balanced. Inner-peace, harmony and tranquillity. Maintaining emotional and physical balance in order not to waste vital-energy by either suppressing or intensifying feelings or desires. Stopping sensory input long enough to allow direct awareness of how our mind works; thereby understanding the nature of happiness and unhappiness, and thus transcending them both.

6. Dharana: Holding – The discipline of being able to hold, or sustain concentration or focus of attention in one direction. Immovable concentration of the mind. A state of mind that is conducive to effortless sustained intention on one thing without any dissipation or fragmentation of the thought process.  This is a prerequisite ability in order to facilitate further, deeper purification and healing by directly experiencing the physical and mental blocks and imbalances that are in our system. Strong psychological health and personal integration are prerequisite requirements to support our ability to concentrate on specific energy-centres (chakras) that may be impeding the flow of vital-energy.

7. Dhyana:Meditation – The discipline of being able to sustain a state of restful alertness (called  meditation). The objective of this unrelenting river of sustained intent is to gain a clear insight the difference between mind and pure consciousness, and then actively inquire into the nature of this higher intelligence. Realisation of the true nature of this higher intelligence, however, requires us to merge with it. To become one with it.

8. Samadhi: Concentration of mind – This is a state-of-being not a discipline. This state-of-being cannot be forced, but must simply be allowed to happen by creating the right set of conditions to facilitate a realisation of oneness with “higher intelligence”. The sense of isolation and separateness that we feel that exists between ourselves and the universe dissolves as we re-unite with “infinite intelligence”.

Other important words, terms and principles :

Dharma: Moral merit– “Right action” – implying correct human conduct that governs spiritual growth. A simplistic definition could be truth in action, righteousness, morality, virtue, duty or code of conduct. To “live your unique purpose.” Posing the question; “how to find meaning and fulfillment in ways that are congruent with who we really are – in order to best serve and contribute to the world?”

Seva: Service – An attitude of selfless service and contribution: – of giving without any expectation of personal reward, praise or even acknowledgement, empowers our yogic practice because, in addition to being a very powerful and practical form of worship, the conscious, deliberate act of selfless service, with heart felt empathy and compassion, turns the mind away from its obsession with the self. As our focus slowly shifts away from a narcissistic sense-of-self, we naturally start to let go of any unnecessary attachments, both physical and mental. This results in a less cluttered lifestyle and a much healthier, more balanced state-of-being. Therefore, both within the dojoenvironment and within the wider community, the genuine, conscious practice of seva, with an open and generous heart, underpin all of our yogic practices, and is an essential ingredient for our own personal and spiritual journey. Moreover, the snowball effect of the combined actions resulting from all this benevolent, abundant love acknowledges our inter-dependent role in the spiritual evolution of all of humanity. The practise of selfless service with a pure, honest, innocent heart then happens spontaneously as a natural result of the unconditional love that emerges from our own gradual spiritual awakening.

Sanskrit: Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world and is one of the 22 official languages of India. Yoga philosophy makes heavy use of Sanskrit. Like many Japanese concepts, many Sanskrit terms do not have a precise English translation.

Yoga: Communion or union – The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj”: meaning to “yoke”, to “join” or to “unite”. This union is a union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness by integration of mind, body and spirit. Over thousands of years, special practical yoga techniques have been developed to facilitate self-actualisation.

Absolute: Universal  Consciousness, The highest reality. The pure, untainted, unadulterated, changeless Truth.

Om or AUM: Sacred primordial sound / vibration that first emerged from the Absolute.

Asana: Postures – Static or dynamic yoga postures designed to strengthen and purify the body and develop an “immovable’, one-pointedness of mind.

Chakra: Wheel – Chakra comes from the Sanskrit word “cakra” meaning “circle” or “circle of life”.  Although documentation on the number of chakras varies, there are seven main ones at various positions in the body, aligned in an ascending row from the based of the spine to a point just above the head. Each chakra has a specific function, a specific aspect of consciousness and is associated with an element (ie. Earth, wind, fire, water, ether.) as well as other distinguishing characteristics. These chakras are thought to vitalise the physical body and operate on the physical, mental and spiritual planes. They are considered locus of life energy, or “prana” which flows through them along pathways called “nadis”. As well as esoteric and mystical in nature, chakras are also associated with physical parts of the body (ie. Pineal and Pituitary glands in the head; Thyroid gland in the neck; Thymus in the chest; Adrenal gland and the  Pancreas in the torso; the Ovary in women and the Testis in men.) This physical aspect of chakras has a scientific basis; for example: the pituitary gland secretes hormones that control the rest of the endocrine system, and also connects to the central nervous system via the hypothalamus – and the thalamus is associated with human consciousness.

Kundalini: A primordial cosmic-energy lying dormant in the “muladhara” chakra at the base of the spine. Through specific yogic practices, this life-force, called “Kundalini” travels upward through a central channel in the spine, passing through each successive chakra until it reaches the crown, or “sahasrara” chakra, where, it is said, the individual soul merges into the supreme Self and attains a state of Self-realization.

Prana: Life or vitality – In Indian philosophy, “Prana” is the vital life-sustaining force of everything in the universe, including ourselves. The Sanskrit word “nadi” comes from the root word “nad” meaning “ flow” or “vibration”. “Prana” flows along the “Nadis”. Two types of vital energy flow through the nadis: prana shakti (vital force / energy), and manas shakti (mental force / consciousness). Together these two constitute the meaning the life-force referred to by “Ki” (in Japan), “Chi” in China and in India by the Sanskrit term “prana”. Yoga asanas, pranayama, meditation, and other practices such as chanting are designed to facilitate the acquisition, retention and flow of prana throughout the subtle body.

Nadi: River – Both Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine have defined 14 major nadis (Prana channels or meridians) in the human body. The Yoga Tantras list 72,000 of them, however there are three primary channels which run along the spinal column; the Sushumna nadi (the central channel which originates below the Muladhara (root) chakra at the base of the spine) and the Ida and Pingala nadis which run up either side of the Sushuma nadi along the spine.

The gross physical body (sthula sharira) is composed of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether), however the subtle or vital body (sukshma sharira) is made up of a vast network of nadis, chakras and specific elements of the mind-prana field [ ego (ahamkara), intelligence (buddhi), and consciousness (chitta) ].

Two types of vital-energy flow through the nadis: prana shakti, (vital force / energy) and manas shakti (mental force / consciousness). Nadis also receive and circulate Mahaprana (cosmic prana).

Ayurveda: Science of holistic health developed in India, and evolved over 5000 years. Ayurveda is a comprehensive holistic health prevention system that combines natural therapies with equal emphasis on balancing body, mind, and spirit.

Mudra: A seal or a sealing posture – Literally means “Gesture.” The simplistic definition is a physical, mental and psychic attitude which expresses and conducts cosmic life-force-energy within mind and body. There is therefore a lot more to Mudras than simple hand positions or body gestures. Mudras, when used in conjunction with specific yogic body postures (asanas), breath control, meditation, and/or sacred sounds / phrases, are designed to influence specific glands within the body as well as certain parts of the brain depending on the specific purpose or goal of the yogic practice. The Mudras therefore combine asana and pranayama with psychic exercises in order to expand awareness and consciously direct spiritual progress. In Sanskrit, the word Mudra translates to “seal” – put another way, to accumulate (seal in) the life-force energy in order to facilitate personal transformation and the attainment of higher state of consciousness. The use of sacred hand positions to facilitate these spiritual objectives directly relate to the flow of  prana (life-force energy) created when as aspirant adopts a particular asana (body posture) or performs pranayama (breathing practices), or produces sacred sounds, or repeats mantras (sacred phrases) etc.

Swami Niranjananananda Saraswati talks about MUDRA (attitude or gesture) in one of his books. He says that ‘attitude’ is something which is reflects mind in body, and body in mind. With a little observation we can therefore learn a lot about someone’s mental state by the way walk, sit, act and so on. A person who is frightened will walk quite differently from someone who is angry. This body talk is constant communication between the Annamya Kosha ( physical body) and other Kosha, via the network of Nadis in the Pranayama Kosha. Even simple hand or facial gestures will have corresponding gesture in the subtle body. Tantara has developed this knowledge into a system of MUDRA which are specific attitudes of the body relating to specific attitude of mind . The MUDRA may be a whole body position or a simple finger position, but the effect is transmitted through all levels of the Pancha Kosha(five subtle bodies), and the appropriate signal transferred from gross to subtle.

Nidra: Sleep – Yoga-Nidra is the practice of deep physical relaxation together with a heightened sense of awareness. Once completely relaxed physically but still remaining acutely mentally alert, with the mental activity of the brain below 14 Hz (alpha) and even below 7 Hz (theta), specific self-talk and self-awareness exercises, breathing, visualisation and meditation practice (either solo or guided) is undertaken – extending ones awareness beyond the physical self into the deeper, more subtle layers of energy known as koshas or sheaths of human consciousness.

Guru: Traditionally, knowledge of yoga has been directly passed down through the generations directly from teacher to student. The word “guru” translates to “teacher” in Sanskrit, and is similar to the word “Sensei” or “Shihan” in Japanese. However, if anyone actually does call themselves a guru, or insists that you call them a guru, then immediately turn and run, don’t walk, run in the opposite direction !

A true teacher, or guru, will not insist that you call him or her anything other than a fellow human being…


“The syllable “gu” means shadows (ignorance or darkness).

The syllable “ru” refers to he/she who disperses them.

Because of the power to disperse darkness the guru is thus named.”

(Advayataraka Upanishad 14–18, verse 5)
[ I would like to gratefully acknowledge Javad Khansalar for his valued comments and suggestions to selected terms.]

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