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Understanding the Language of Yoga

by Courtney Capellan| October 16, 2015

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All systems have their own language and vocabulary, so when you begin a new field of study, whether it be mathematics or yoga, it means you’ll likely have to learn a few new words to immerse yourself in the practice.

The practice of yoga has exploded in the West over the last thirty years. It’s a wonderful way to get fit in both your body and soul. The numerous physical benefits coupled with its accessibility to just about anybody challenges even the trendiest, well-loved workouts.

A caveat about popular things: they’re not always complete or true. As yoga becomes increasingly popular, available, and sensational, some critics say it’s getting farther from its own truth and becoming harder to understand for its traditional essence.

However, there’s one thing to remember above all — yoga is a practice. It’s a conversation between mind, body and spirit. Let’s have a deeper look at the original language of yoga and how it translates for whenever we step on the mat.

Speaking of Sanskrit

sanskrit wheel

Sanskrit carvings from the Konark Sun Temple in India; Flickr

Yoga has been around for at least 5,000 years, back when stories were told and retold to be remembered through lineages in their retelling. The yoga we’re most familiar with was codified by a man named Patanjali in the language of Sanskrit. Still an official language in India, it’s widely used in Hindu ceremonies, rituals, and mostly heard as hymns and chants (but rarely used otherwise).

Whether you’re a dedicated yoga student or have taken a few classes, you might be thinking, hey wait a second, I know some Sanskrit. And doesn’t my yoga teacher know a lot of Sanskrit?

It’s a fair assumption. Your yoga teacher likely interchanges hanumanasa with “the full splits” and anjaneyasana with “high lunge” in group class guidance. Pretty quickly, the words become associated with the poses. As humans we learn by listening and doing.

Modern Language

Sanskrit Script

Sanskrit writing; Flickr

But you’re also wrong. Knowing the name of poses allows students and teachers to unambiguously refer to them. However, the languages themselves do not translate themselves perfectly. In fact, English and Sanskrit words are far from interchangeable.

Take for example the romance languages: Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Their form and function share a blueprint (of Latin origin) for conjugating verbs. The logic gives, say, a Spanish speaker, advantage in learning Italian over, say, a Mandarin Chinese speaker learning Italian. Mandarin and Italian are constructed very differently.

Sanskrit is constructed differently too, especially from English. The question is, does an imperfect translation of Sanskrit words negate the practice itself?

Some think the practice is totally misconstrued in the failure to translate the asanas (or “poses”) correctly. Since there are multiple translations into English of one Sanskrit-named posture, traditionalists argue subtle nuances are lost.

The Indian process of learning is based on viewing something from a variety of angles thereby seeing it for its completeness. When that something is fragmented into multiple meanings, the sound, vibration and essence doesn’t uphold itself. Simply put, detached from its name, asana is incomplete.

Sanskrit and asana

child's pose yoga

A yogi practices balasana, or “Child’s Pose; Flickr

As Western students we learn names of poses associated with sages or deities, while others are names of animals, body parts, movements, and more. From teacher to teacher they may or may not be consistent. Many find they benefit more from the asana by knowing its Sanskrit name.

Often we’re taught names of poses representing their very shape. Take for example, paripurna navasana: “paripurna” means “full” or “complete”, “nava” means “boat”, “asana” refers to “pose”. It’s beautiful off the tongue — it’s practically delicious to say. When you’re balancing on your seat, arms raised and abdominal muscles firing, you sort of look like a boat. But how boring is it to say boat pose when you can say paripurna navasana!?

Back to hanumasana – “hanuman” is a monkey god that supposedly crossed the ocean in a flying leap to save a kidnapped queen. In ancient lore, Hanuman represents devotion and commitment. Understanding these concepts and taking the same approach to the mat is an example of how practitioners can draw from their own focus and patience — inherent in the Sanskrit meaning.

A gymnast might settle her hips very easily into the splits, no problem. A teacher will often correct her because the “splits” in yoga is very different than in gymnastics. The hip flexors and iliopsoas muscles work together and in the full pose, the hips are internally aligned. The gymnast might be frustrated by her inability to settle in as far after the readjustment. This example shows how “splits” is understood as many different things. Perhaps the gymnast can find value in hanumanasana for what it is and not be so attached to the meaning of “splits.”

Learning and practice

Project Yoga Richmond

Never stop learning; Flickr

It’s easy to get caught up in the intricacy of a language that’s very unique to a (very popular) system. The study is humbling. In yoga, by all means, study and learn the Sanskrit, but don’t be so attached to think that a complete fluency makes you any closer to something arcane. Yoga is special not mysterious and once that is accepted you can speak your own language about it.

Finally, there are people out there who have taken a thousand and one yoga classes and never understood the meaning of the chanting aum (known to some as OM). However you endeavor to learn or disregard Sanskrit, it’s probably useful to know at least something for its true meaning. The primordial vibration made of four parts representing a complete cycle is aum:

  • a – the first letter in the alphabet, signals creation
  • u – before everything, after everything, during
  • m – the last letter in alphabet, signals destruction
  • silence – significant closing of the complete cycle

Don’t be overwhelmed or try to learn the entire yogic Sanskrit all at once. Your practice is just that – your own practice, so take it as slowly or as quickly as you feel comfortable. The divine in me appreciates and bows to the divine in you!

Image: Flickr

Courtney Capellan

Courtney is a well-traveled, technically creative writer. She’s a writer, yoga teacher, amateur photographer and  treasure hunter. Courtney’s approach to life draws on her ability to see the bigger picture and think outside the box. Away from the keyboard, she loves reading, golfing and the beach.

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