August 25, 2008
The Yoga Lexicon Illuminated LANGUAGE
By Jaimie Epstein
'At the beginning of class, we stood at the front of our mats and let out a long, dirge-like moan," the first-time yoga student recollected. "Then the teacher yelled, 'Chili-pepper pasta,' and everyone hit the floor." Sanskrit, the language of yoga, is said to unite sound and meaning; that is, saying the word gives the experience of its meaning.But for the novice yogi , that experience can be as elusive as an overnight parking spot in Manhattan. Thus, chaturanga dandasana (four-legged staff pose, which looks like the bottom of a pushup, your body hovering inches above the floor) might become "chili- pepper pasta" if you've got dinner reservations at the latest outpost of the latest fusion craze. And the ear-twisters don't end there.
First off, that "moan" at the beginning of class was the mantra Om . It's the vibration that existed at the birth of the universe and is all-pervading still and is chanted as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all life - human, animal, plant, insect, mineral, etc. A mantra is a word or phrase that protects the mind. From what? Well, from itself, because a mind has ... a mind of its own. A mantra helps keep it from wandering during meditation by giving it something to focus on. Not that it still won't wander - that's the nature of the mind.
Most of the yoga on the menu at your local studio or gym is a form of hatha ("ha" = sun, "tha" = moon) yoga, whose goal is to harmonize and channel opposing forces - positive/negative, yin/ yang, male/ female - in the body in order to achieve yoga , union of the self with the divine (supreme consciousness), otherwise known as enlightenment.
The word hatha (pronounced "ha," as in "that's funny," and "ta," as in "see ya." ) is often employed to denote "gentle" when in fact it is a vigorous physical practice and means "the path of force": Its present-day roots go back to the Nathas, an Orc-like breed of mercenaries in medieval India who resurrected the methods of hatha yoga in the hope of developing the supernatural powers, like invisibility, associated with it ; in the process, the Nathas became so enlightened that they didn't wanna go to war no more.
Hatha is like an old-growth redwood, and among the many branches extending from its massive trunk are Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Integral, Iyengar and Jivamukti , each with a unique methodology, philosophy and pace. Pace spans the spectrum from static to vinyasa , but ask a hundred yogis to define vinyasa , and you'll get a hundred answers.
In popular usage, it has become the descriptor du jour for any kind of flowy class, although since "flow" comes in flavors like "flow,""gentle flow,""hatha flow,""vinyasa flow" and "power flow," the class could trickle like a creek or rage like a river during spring runoff. Still, the essence of vinyasa is conscious intention, usually expressed as breath linked with movement, the two helixed like RNA and DNA. For example, surya namaskar , or sun salutation, the warmup in most hatha classes, is a vinyasa (inhale: arms up; exhale: hands to floor; inhale: step right foot back; exhale: step left foot back; and so on).
Although how they connect or deconstruct the postures may be different, most branches of hatha use the same nomenclature for them, and during your first intrepid forays in any yoga class, all your ears may pick up is some static ( tryskchrrrcki !) plus asana , regardless of which pose you are being instructed to do.
That's because asana is the suffix glommed on to the descriptive term. It means "seat," describes your connection to the earth (that is, which body parts are supporting the posture from the ground up) and is idiomatically translated as "posture" or "pose." Thus, tadasana, that bit of standing tall at the front of your mat, is mountain pose, virasana is hero pose, trikonasana is triangle pose.
After an hour or so of pretending you're three-cornered and sitting like a hero, you'll get to play dead in savasana , corpse pose, which isn't a gruesome nod to slasher movies but a way of allowing you to experience the lightness of total surrender. Once that is accomplished and before you leave the studio, your teacher is likely to contort him- or herself into padmasana , lotus pose, bow to the class and say, Namaste , which means, in short, "The divine in me honors the divine in you," and is a lovely way, in my humble opinion, to acknowledge that we're all doing the very best we can at this moment.
Well, I hope you enjoyed class. Namaste , everybody!
Jaimie Epstein is a writer and a certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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