What’s Sanskrit? Why Sanskrit is Used in Yoga

San·skrit : ˈsanˌskrit/ : noun 
…an ancient Indic language of India, in which the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poems are written and from which many northern Indian languages are derived.

One of man kind’s oldest spoken words, Sanskrit is said to be the mother of all Indo-European languages and is the dominant classical language of the Indian sub-continent. Yoga also originated in India thousands of years ago and is mentioned in some of Earth’s most ancient written documents, the vedic texts: written in the language of the Vedas, an early form of Sanskrit. Therefore, the use of Sanskrit and yoga go hand in hand.

Because yoga was an oral tradition for thousands of years, passed from teacher to student, it is only natural that yogic postures and practices would have Sanskrit names: yoga itself was created using the ancient Indian language. Traditionally, the purpose of descriptive names for postures was as a tool for memory. Students were encouraged to practice at home and by memorizing the names of the postures, they could replicate what they had practiced while in the presence of their teachers. These subtle verbal cues were passed on through generations of teachers, honoring the most ancient forms of the practice and connecting with gurus of the past.

In contemporary times, as yoga has spread throughout the world, away from the Indian sub-continent, practiced in various cultures with different languages, styles, and traditions, Sanskrit has been used less and less. The original names for poses have evolved into a diverse array of substitutes in order to make the oral tradition of yoga more accessible to those who do not speak or understand Sanskrit. But usually names are still verbal cues and indicative of the nature of the posture itself. For example:

IMG_0230
Savasana

Savasana – a posture who’s Sanskrit name is still widely used today – translates into the English ‘corpse pose’ in that a practitioner lays flat on the back, limbs extended, like a corpse. ‘Sava’ meaning corpse and ‘asana’ meaning pose. Maybe because of the familiar pronunciation, brevity and easy cadence of the word, Savasana has maintained its usage in modern, non-Sanskrit speaking countries.

 

Pincha Mayurasana
Pincha Mayurasana

Pincha Mayurasana : Feathered Peacock Pose. Pincha = Feathered. Mayura = Peacock. Asana = Pose. If you’ve ever tried Pincha then you know, it is a proud, challenging and intimidating pose, much like a fully exposed and flamboyant peacock. This descriptive name has also been converted to Flight of the Peacock, Bent Arm Balance, Forearm Stand and maybe even others.

No matter the translation or flat out change in a name, because of yoga’s oral tradition, the name will usually reflect the shape and nature of a pose and be used as a verbal cue for communication between student and teacher. Many Shalas or studios (Shala = Home in Sanskrit) and teachers choose to respect the yogic tradition by using Sanskrit during class. At Evolve, we encourage our teachers and students to practice this tradition and in so doing, maintain clarity about postures whose Sanskrit names may not translate perfectly.

Other than the above aforementioned reasons: tradition, honor, clarity and respect, there are also a few bonuses a student may get from understanding sanskrit terms.

  1. The healing power of sound. The melodic version of Sanskrit verbal cues are said to be calming, meditative and all around healing. We sometimes forget that sound has a sensual power over our bodies and minds, but many will be familiar with the use of music during yoga class, maybe chanting or Tibetan bowls. All of these audial tools can be used to draw your energy closer to your physical practice and align your senses to the benefits of yoga in a very healing way.
  2. The universal yogic language: Sanskrit. For those of us who enjoy travel and practicing yoga around the world, Sanskrit can be an excellent resource for accessing yoga classes and teachers who, on the daily, speak another language. If every teacher were to cue a class with Sanskrit terms and every student had been previously exposed to and familiar with the traditional names, there would be no barrier to communication on the mat. Imagine the possibilities!

 

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