How yoga poses like “downward dog” get their names (and what “yoga” means exactly)

You can buy yoga mats in grocery stores and take yoga classes at gyms, hospitals, or even malls. It may have originated in India, but yoga is now practiced worldwide through variations of traditional physical and mental disciplines. For some it is a type of medicinal exercise, while for others it is simply a way of chilling out and keeping lean.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that implies a union or a yoking with the Supreme Spirit. In Hindu religious philosophy, it is believed that this union is obtained through ascetic practice, meditation, and mental concentration.

For over 2,000 years, the educated classes in India have used Sanskrit for literary and religious purposes. The asanas, “yoga postures or positions, practiced by yogis,” have Sanskrit names.  (A yogi is a yoga practitioner. The feminine form, yogini, is used infrequently.)

Many asanas are named for animals, such as the tortoise, heron, pigeon, crow, or fish poses. Perhaps the most well known pose is named after man’s best friend: downward-facing dog pose, downward dog or simply down dog. In this position the yogi forms an inverted V-shape, with the hands and feet on the floor and the legs and arms straight and hip-width apart. If you’re new to this pose and prone to tight hamstrings, down dog might make you want to howl.

Easier on the hamstrings but equally challenging is tadasana, or mountain pose. This very basic standing pose is believed to have a number of benefits, including improving confidence.

Hanumanasana is an extreme version of the splits. The name derives from Hanuman, a demigodwho resembles a monkey. The pose honors a legend in which Hanuman made a giant leap from India to the Lankan islands. Note to beginner yogis: don’t try this one at home.