Ashtanga Yoga Vocabulary You Should Learn

Yoga is full of specialized terminology, some of it in Sanskrit, some anatomical, and some philosophical. Although there are many types of yoga, the vocabulary generally transfers pretty well between styles. Some classes may prefer the Sanskrit names of poses while others stick to English, and there are often slight variations in what the poses are called. But words like om and namaste run through like threads, connecting different evolutions of asana tradition.

However, Ashtanga Yoga, the vigorous and regimented style founded by Pattabhi Jois in the tradition of Krishnamacharya, does have a number of specialized terms that haven’t come into usage elsewhere. Learn this vocabulary to speak Ashtanga like a pro when you head to the shala for Mysore practice (but not on moon days).



Yoga in Mysore. India
Melissa McManus/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Mysore is the city in India where the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI, aka ground zero for Ashtanga yoga) is located. Jois taught the many students who flocked here from around the world until his death in 2009. His daughter Saraswathi and granddaughter Sharmila now lead the KPJAYI.

Mysore is also the term used for the self-led variation of Ashtanga yoga, done without a teacher calling out the order of poses. Students practice at their own pace and level of ability, mastering each pose in an Ashtanga sequence before being instructed in the next pose by their teacher. This is how most of the classes are taught at the KPJAYI, although led classes are still popular elsewhere, especially for beginners. Mysore sessions tend to be held early in the morning since that was Jois's recommendation for the best time to practice.



Shala means house in Sanskrit. The term is used in Ashtanga yoga to mean a house of yoga, that is, a yoga studio.


Moon Days

In Ashtanga yoga, you are encouraged to practice six days a week, except on moon days. On the days of the full and new moons each month, Ashtangis take a day off to rest. Pattabhi Jois believed moon days were dangerous and that to practice on these days increased the risk of injury. Many of Jois's principles are detailed in his classic book Yoga Mala.


Ladies' Holiday

This term is used to describe the recommendation that women take the first few days of their period off from practicing asana. According to a 2007 interview with Saraswathi Jois, the ladies' holiday stems from the Brahman tradition that women rest during the first three days of menstruation.


Surya Namaskar A and B

Lots of yoga teachers, in many styles, make use of these two sun salutation variations. But the "A" and "B" nomenclature comes from Ashtanga. Surya namaskar A is a classic sun salutation, jumping from the front of the mat directly into a vinyasa, moving through downward facing dog and then jumping back to the front. Surya namaskar B adds an utkastasana and a warrior I to the flow. 

Bonus word: Both sun salutations begin and end in samasthiti, which is Ashtanga for mountain pose (tadasana).



Chakrasana is a backward roll that is introduced in the Ashtanga primary series as a way to move from poses where you're lying on your back directly into chaturanga.



Bandhas, which are internal locks, have significance in a number of modern practices but are given particular attention in Ashtanga. Mula bandha and uddiyana bandha are engaged to support many poses and transitions, particularly the jumping through to seated that occurs throughout the series.



Drishti is where the gaze should rest (i.e., where you should be looking) in each pose. This is touched upon in other practices but is an integral part of every posture in Ashtanga. It is just as important as the positioning of the limbs. A fixed Drishti helps focus the attention and keep the mind from wandering.


Ashtanga Counting

If you watch videos of Pattabhi Jois or take led classes with certain Ashtanga teachers, you will notice that they count off the poses in a sun salutation in Sanskrit. In fact, this system of counting was used by Jois all the way through the primary series. Numbers one through nine will get you through a surya namaskar A. They are:

  1. Eka (raised hands pose)
  2. Dve (standing forward bend)
  3. Treeni (flat back)
  4. Chatvaari (chaturanga)
  5. Pancha (upward-facing dog)
  6. Shat (downward-facing dog)
  7. Sapta (flat back)
  8. Ashta (standing forward bend)
  9. Nava (raised hands)

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.