Asian Art Museum | Education

The best of Asian art at the tip of your fingers for use in the classroom or at home.

Sign up

In My Resources you can save the content you like all in one place. Get started by creating an account.

Create a new account

Yoga Concepts and Vocabulary

Introduce students to key concepts of yoga through the story of Narasimha: The Man-lion.


Students will review key yoga's key concepts and vocabulary.

Resource Type: 

Yoga: Key Concepts and Vocabulary
In yoga, the body is both what must be transcended and the necessary tool for attaining enlightenment. Three tools that use the body are meditation, austerities, and asanas.

Images of deities, yogis, and enlightened sages in the act of meditating—seated with crossed legs or standing symmetrically with arms extended downward—are perhaps the most pervasive and recurrent visual motifs in Indian art. The meditating postures signify expanded consciousness, and the enlightened state beyond suffering, and they appear throughout the exhibition. Sculptures and paintings in this section show some of the practice’s less-obvious aspects and symbols.

Meditation as a means of transcending the suffering of existence emerged around the fifth century BCE. Hundreds of years later, in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali—a pivotal compilation of earlier yoga traditions framed by a rigorous metaphysics—meditation is a key practice in attaining enlightenment.

Patanjali identifies three phases of meditation: concerted fixing of the mind (dharana), effortlessly centered concentration (dhyana), and the state in which seer and seen are one (samadhi). With variations, such as focusing the mind on a deity, meditation becomes a pillar of most later yoga traditions.

Sages and yogis perform austerities—methods of denying the body—to generate a transformative, purifying heat and create spiritual knowledge and power. Fasting, celibacy, meditating for long periods in intense heat or cold, and immobilizing the body in difficult positions are classic forms of austerities.

Many yogic paths adopted austerities as methods for breaking bonds with society and generating the spiritual heat that enabled practitioners to “perfect” the body, expand consciousness, and gain supernatural powers. Later hatha yoga traditions also assimilated the austerities that immobilized the body in challenging positions, and refined them into yogic postures (asanas).

Yoga today is widely identified with bodily postures called asanas. The Sanskrit noun asana means “seat” or “the act of sitting down.” In yoga contexts until the end of the first millennium CE, asana referred to simple seated postures for meditation. This was true for all yoga traditions, from those rooted in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to the yoga of Tantra.

With the advent of hatha yoga, non-seated asanas gained prominence. Postures in hatha yoga were broadly meant to make the body supple and healthy, but they were also meant to yield supernatural powers and mystical experience.

Over time, the number of postures in hatha yoga treatises gradually increased. Some austerities and visualizations became reclassified as physical postures (asanas).

Medicine and Science
Today, it is widely recognized that yoga has quantifiable health benefits. The origins of this acceptance lie around the turn of the twentieth century, when Indian teachers and medical professionals began applying the concepts, vocabularies, symbols, and measures of science to the yogic body. Through rigorous physiological experiments that were illustrated and published, these doctors refashioned hatha yoga as a scientifically legitimized therapeutic regimen.

The pioneers of medical yoga were cultural nationalists who sought to vindicate hatha yoga by clinically demonstrating its physical benefits. It is telling that hatha yoga ascetics were not depicted in the publications. Instead, through juxtapositions and overlays, illustrations correlated the subtle body with the anatomical and neurological bodies of medical science. And in medically diagramed photographs, the practitioners are young, short-haired men without visible marks of religious identity. The photographs’ subjects, who were probably participants in the physical culture movement that was sweeping India at the time, embodied modern yoga.