Sanskrit: Learning the Language of Yoga

Sanskrit text
Photo by Isadora Christel

Remember the muted-trombone teacher talk in Peanuts cartoons (bwah-bwah-bwah)?  That’s what I heard the first several times I listened to yoga instructors announce poses like Tiryam Mukha Eka Pada, Hasta Padangusthasana, Paschimottanasana, etc. during class. Learning how to associate the unfamiliar sounds to movements or actually pronounce them myself once seemed inconceivable! But over time, I realized that there’s more to Sanskrit than meets the ear. Here’s why you should listen up—and maybe even learn to say a few Sanskrit words:

Sanskrit, the language of yoga, was standardized in the 4th century, with beginnings stretching back more than a thousand years. Many English words have Sanskrit roots—for example, “suture” comes from sutra, “slogan” from sloka. Mantras, hymns, poetry, treatises and epics like the Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita were written in Sanskrit, which means (according to some scholars) “refined” or “consecrated.” Classical Sanskrit is precisely designed—and yet rich with layers of meaning that give us a window into the past.

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Transliterating Sanskrit—turning Devanagiri script into the Roman alphabet used in the West—is not always precise or consistent, and you’ve probably encountered a confusing variety of spellings for Sanskrit words. Some consonants are interchanged (w/v, m/n, d/t), and the diacritical marks used to indicate special sounds are often replaced by diphthongs, like the “sh” in Shavasana. Add to this the fact that Sanskrit today is largely a ceremonial language (rather than conversational), and it’s not surprising that many Western yogis are unsure about pronunciation or even resistant to using Sanskrit at all, viewing it as “foreign,” pretentious or even cliquish.

Yet learning a little Sanskrit can assist your practice in some surprising ways. While yoga traditions and schools sometimes refer to poses by different “popular” names, the Sanskrit names are more consistent and recognized by students worldwide, no matter their native tongue. Uttanasana is Uttanasana, whether you are practicing in Paris, Perth or Pittsburg. Most asana names are descriptive, and learning a few words and roots (hasta = hand, eka = one, pada = part or foot) can help you remember the mechanics of a pose, its appearance (svana = dog, sarpa = serpent), or the stories associated with it (Virabhadra was the warrior-general of Shiva’s army).

Sanskrit is not just handy for traveling yogis—it can be therapeutic and even profound. Pronouncing Sanskrit words involves the hard and soft palate, and the resonant sounds create inner vibrations that are said to affect the central nervous system and the flow of prana. You might find that Sanskrit mantras create a natural entry into meditation. The yoga of sound, Nada Yoga, combines practices like therapeutic mantras with the philosophy that the cosmos is based on vibration rather than matter. This idea isn’t incompatible with quantum physics … or religious doctrine (John 1:1—In the beginning was the Word….). The concept of namarupa (name-form) suggests that pronouncing the name of something conveys both its true essence and its physical form, the divine union that underlies all existence.

Learning Sanskrit helps reinforce the study of energy anatomy and the chakras, whose petals and designs provide a mnemonic (memorization device) for a vast body of yogic knowledge. Even recognizing and writing Devanagiri isn’t as insurmountable as it might seem (see teacher Rebekah Bhavani Crisp’s video lessons), and connecting with this spiritual ancient language—even in minimal ways—is a profound way to move deeper into your current yoga practice. Every great journey begins with small steps—so start by pronouncing asana or chakra correctly, and who knows? Someday you may be reading the Yoga Sutras in classical Sanskrit.

What do you think about yoga teachers using Sanskrit in class?

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