Glossary of yoga terms
This is a list of yoga terms that come up in yoga philosophy texts and discussions that you may not be familiar with. If you have anything else that you would like to be included please let us know.
Abhyasa / vairagya
Practice/detachment. Said to be the two wings of any Sadhana. The Sadhaka must employ strong and consistent efforts, yet, must also not become attached to these, which only builds the ego and sense of separation.
Advaita (see non-dual)
Asceticism was the original spiritual method found in early religious texts after ritual and supplication. It involves the denial of the body and religious ends to transcend the suffering inherent in material reality. On the other hand, tantra takes a more positive view of the world and the body. Instead of denying the body and world, it embraces it.
Therefore, here we often find complicated practices for the sake not of transcending the word but rather enhancing our experience of it. This usually is related to the cultivation of the power of ‘siddhis’.
One of the four primary paths is the ‘margas’ of yoga; bhakti, jnana, raja, and Hatha. Although, there are also others, as well as ad-mixtures of these. Bhakti is the path of devotion, it’s entire text then is the Bhagavad Gita, the majority of Bhakti Yogis wish for a personal relationship with Krishna.
Not to be confused with ‘Brahma’ the creator god (part of Indian ‘Trimurti’ of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), Brahman is the underlying truth of the whole universe; it is the ultimate principle in which everything shares and everything also returns to.
This means view/look. Hence, we have the Darshana of our guru leading to spiritual benefits. However, we find it refers to the six distinct Vedic philosophies- six ‘views of the world. Whilst these share more in common than they differ, the following is a brief overview of the six.
That there are two, not one; god and is, us and the material world outside. Indeed, better and worse, truth and illusion.
These are the laws that govern the material universe. There are no exceptions to this. No one can exist outside the influence of the Gunas. There are 3 Gunas;
- Rajas (activity/desire),
- Tamas (inertia/ignorance),
- Satva (balance/clarity)
Whilst the nature of these qualities is to change place with each other constantly, the spiritual aspirant tries, through practice, to lessen Rajas and Tamas, to spend more time abiding within the quality of Satva where spiritual development may occur.
This refers to an active, somewhat physical method of attempting yoga. Involving disciplined effort, Hatha comes from the root meaning ‘force’. Initially, these techniques combined breathing exercises and bodily ‘locks’ (bandhas). It was only later that physical positions also started to be mentioned.
One of the four major yoga-marga, Jnana, is the yoga of knowledge and is closely affiliated with the Samkhya philosophy of inquiry, although it may also take other forms. That is, by logically breaking down the nature of reality, one can start seeing through it to the ultimate truth lying behind.
The yoga of action. This could then be a synonym for hatha-yoga as an active soteriological technique whilst being broad enough to encompass more or less any physical methods.
Patanjali famously defines Kriya yoga as that of ‘tapas, Upadhyaya, Isvara pranidhana’ (discipline, self-study, devotion). Kriya yoga is also a particular school of yoga founded by Lahiri Mahasaya based on certain esoteric practices.
Scientific and material, it believes the only way of gaining liberation is through the knowledge attained through the five senses.
Non-dual / Advaita
There is only one (as opposed to two). Everything is then one; god is within us, and the world is also non-separate from us. Hence there is no right or wrong, truth or falsity. Instead, there is only oneness.
Orthodox / non-orthodox
Signifies whether a text bases its instruction on The Vedas or not. For example, Buddhism and Jainism are considered ‘non-orthodox’ schools of teaching, or non-Hindu in simple terms.
Matter/spirit. This is the primary concern of Samkhya; to make clear to the aspirant what is true, unchanging and eternal – Purusha. This is found in our spirit (atman) and gods. Everything else is Prakriti, matter, to be seen through and disidentified.
An ultra-orthodox viewpoint, it believes that liberation lies in closely following the Vedas and its ritual observances.
Essentially the path of meditation. This is not necessarily separate from other yogas, yet, it is emphasised as the highest path. For example, the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika teach subsidiary practices, yet they finally teach Raja Yoga.
The fundamental philosophical underpinning of most Indian thought. Samkhya means ‘numbering’; its basic methodology comprises in separating the true from the false; material from spirit by categorisation. Samkhya is hence known as ‘jnana’ yoga, the knowledge of the rational inquiry.
Shruti / Smriti
What is heard/what is remembered? Worth a mention, as the sacred texts are generally said to be without an author. They are instead, revealed by divine revelation. The Vedas and Upanishads are an example of this, whereas the Yoga Sutras are ‘smriti’, the reflections of the mortal individual, Patanjali.
Sadhana / Sadhaka:
Sadhana is any path or method of behaviour/practice that the Sadhaka follows to realise their spiritual goals.
Shaivism / Vaishnavism
The term most obviously pertains to the choice of god, whether followers of Shiva or followers of Vishnu. Practically speaking, it is not always so easy to make a clear differentiation between the two regarding practices and beliefs. However, in a very general sense, one might say that Vaishnavism is more concerned with devotion (bhakti yoga) and the person of god. Whereas In Shaivism, we find more diverse approaches, wherein there is more emphasis on the tantric methods pertaining to hatha yoga, and less orthodoxy regarding ritual and scriptural authority.
A Sanskrit word of ‘sva’, self and ‘dhyana’, to meditate upon, this term is usually translated as ‘self-study’. It is often used to signify periods of reflection and internal observation and its primary application is that of meditation.
Sanyasa / renunciate
A Sanyasi is one who has entered into the fourth stage or Ashrama of traditional Indian spiritual life. This last stage involves renunciation of the world, desires, commitments and worldly possessions. The other steps are;
- Brahmacharya = the student
- Grihasthra= the householder
- Vanaprastha= retired
A grouping, lineage or particular ‘school’ of practitioners sharing the same practices and aims.
Literally ‘one who practices ‘Sadhana’, the term ‘sadhu’ is most commonly used to denote a wandering renunciate of Sanyasi. There is a considerable proportion of these in India, all belonging to their sect or lineage. Affiliated to certain monasteries, they spend most of their year visiting different holy sites and festivals (such as the largest and most well-known, The Kumbh Mela).
Most well known for their war-like fierce asceticism, it is within the Sadhu tradition that we find the preservation of the more tantric approaches to hatha yoga.
These texts qualify and explain the dense, symbolic language of the original Vedas. They are concerned with philosophical interpretation. Authored over a very considerable period by many different sages, we can find a vast discrepancy between viewpoints. There are generally agreed ten principal Upanishads with over 100 minor ones.
Dealing with metaphysical issues or cosmology, this view holds that the universe’s energy is reducible to a certain number of atoms, Brahman being the fundamental cause.
Vaishnavism (see Shaivism)
Believing in the supreme authority of the Vedas, Vedanta means ‘end of the Vedas. Or, in other words, the philosophical part generally contained in the Upanishads (texts that qualify the Vedas). Vedanta is a broad umbrella under which exists several qualified positions. However, all of them emphasise the supreme principle of ‘Brahman’.
This means that the thoughts or principles have their origins or concur with those found in The Vedas. The Vedas is the name given to a large body of religious texts that comprise the oldest spiritual scriptures of India. They are four in number, with the Rig being the oldest and probably the most important. They cover all matter of concern in life as well as religion and philosophy. Much of their interest is regarding sacred rituals.
The word ‘yoga’ has been used as far back as the Upanishads to denote a state of union or transcendence of our mundane. everyday consciousness. This may be Union with god or with ourselves. Always involving some method, originally, this was generally meditation; postural yoga only started to get a mention in the medieval era.