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Secrets of Sanskrit

By learning the ins and outs of the Sanskrit language, you can transmit the teachings of yoga on a deeper level.

By Molly M. Ginty

girl writing

Teresa Thompson was tongue-tied.

"When I started studying Sanskrit last year, I was shocked by how many words in the original language of yoga were ones I'd learned incorrectly from seemingly accomplished teachers," says Thompson, a vinyasa instructor at Barefoot Works in Lexington, Kentucky.

Thompson isn't alone in realizing the Sanskrit she first learned was substandard.

"As they deepen their practice, many yoga instructors discover that the Sanskrit they studied in teacher training just isn't enough," says Jay Kumar, the San-Francisco based creator of the instructional CD The Sacred Language of Yoga. "More people are coming to understand that there's a deep, rich philosophy behind yoga practice—and that Sanskrit is the language by which that philosophy lives, breathes, and flows."

Teach this rich but relatively simple language to your students, and not only will it help them follow your directions in class but, energetically, it will help them get the most out of every class. Each Sanskrit word is believed to have its own consciousness, and pronouncing that word is said to tap you into that consciousness. "This is especially true for mantras, chants to purify the mind," says Nicolai Bachman, the Santa Fe-based author of The Language of Yoga. "A mantra's whole effect is based on its sound, and to get the right effect, you have to get the sound right."

If your students want to delve into yoga philosophy as well as hatha practice, Sanskrit can help them understand that philosophy in greater depth. They can have a direct reading of yoga's philosophical sutras or "threads," like the one that prompts us to learn Sanskrit by performing svadhyaya, or "self-study." In Sanskrit, your students can also comprehend and express spiritual concepts that are not readily conveyed in English. "No language in the world can as effectively translate the mystical, transcendent, and divine," says Graham Schweig, the Newport News, Virginia-based author of The Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord's Secret Love Song. "There are dozens of words for love, all with different nuances, from rati, or passionate love, to prema, pure love with a sweet selflessness to it."

Does your Sanskrit flow as it should? If you're uncertain—or want to improve your use of the language—opportunities to hone your skills abound. By turning to the CDs, books, and other resources listed below, you can better grasp Sanskrit and pass it on to your students, enabling them—and enabling yourself—to have a more authentic experience of yoga.

How much Sanskrit should you use in class? "Seek guidance from your studio managers and teacher trainers, and meet your students where they're at," advises Jo Brill, an American Sanskrit Institute instructor in Peekskill, New York. If you're teaching at a gym, you may want to go light on or even skip Sanskrit. But if you're working at a spiritual center that focuses on the history of yoga—or if you're working with advanced practitioners who have an interest in yoga's spiritual element—a more in-depth analysis will likely be welcomed and helpful.

From the beginning, it's crucial to avoid the Sanskrit mispronunciations that are rampant in the West. Only correct pronunciation will help you and your students tap into the consciousness of Sanskrit—and glean the full benefit of its energetic vibrations. Sanskrit's Devanagari alphabet has 50 letters (nearly double the number in English), and when linguists transliterate it, they place symbols around English letters—abbreviations that, like Sanskrit consonants and vowels, too many English speakers bungle. Despite what you may hear in yoga studios, the th in hatha should have a hard t as in tummy and not a soft th as in thin. The ch in chakra should sound like the ch in chat, not the sh in shine.

As you explain Sanskrit's basic vocabulary and pronunciation, you may also want to tell your students about its rich history, noting that it predates Greek and Latin and stems from proto-European languages spoken in India 7,000 years ago. Passed down orally for centuries, Sanskrit was first written down around 1,500 B.C. in the form of the oldest-known yoga scripture, the Rig Veda. Around 500 B.C., a scholar named Panini established the rules that define classical Sanskrit, the language we use in yoga today.

To make it accessible for your students, you can point out that many Sanksrit words are the roots of words in English, which borrowed from Sanskrit heavily over the course of its own evolution. Bandha (or "lock"), for example, is related to the English word bound, while Navasana (Boat Pose) is related to "navy."

Despite these similarities, Sanskrit is different from English in one key way: The language of yoga is much easier to learn. While English is a phonemic language, with the same letters sometimes pronounced in different ways (think of the o in love versus the o in open), Sanskrit is phonetic, so every letter is always pronounced the same. While English has erratic rules, Sanskrit's grammar is more straightforward and thus simpler for newcomers to grasp.

As you lovingly introduce new Sanskrit words, repeat them often, as it takes seven repetitions of a word for most people to remember it. Build your students' vocabulary by referring back to old words as you continue to introduce new ones. "Break each word into syllables and pronounce it slowly, one syllable at a time," advises Manorama, director of the New York City-based School of Sanskrit Studies. This will help your students improve their comprehension and pronunciation.

"To deepen my students' understanding of yoga, I like to break Sanskrit pose names down and explain how the elements fit together," says Linda Spackman, who studied with Bachman and teaches Iyengar Yoga at YogaSource in Santa Fe. "I tell them that for Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), utthita means 'extended,' parsva is 'side,'' kona is 'angle,' and asana is 'posture.' When they understand this, they suddenly get Sanskrit and also get the pose, automatically forming the correct angle between the downward press of the back heel and the outward reach of the side arm. A light goes off, and together, we're all enjoying a deeper experience of yoga."

Sanskrit Study Resources
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Reader Comments

ahsdh

good 1...i agree with you.

Yog

An interesting article to those who are uninitiated and new to India/Sanskrit/Hinduism/Yoga; all of which are inseparable and one.

First thing is that there is no such thing as "proto-European" language. The euro-centric academicians are keen on denying the rich history of India and thus conjured up a precursor to Sanskrit called proto-Indo-European. I am curious as to why you left out the "Indo"! Also, there is nothing "European" about Sanskrit. All valuable knowledge was disseminated from Bharat (India) and thus Sanskrit is the oldest and most refined language in the world. The word Sanskrit itself means "that which is perfect".

Chris Wallis

On the whole, a nice piece, though peppered with inaccuracies. While the pronunciation of Sanskrit is relatively easy to learn from a good teacher, the grammar is perceived by most English speakers as monumentally difficult. It is true that the grammar is highly systematic, and therefore Sanskrit would be seen as easier than English from the perspective of a Mandarin speaker, say. But it is misleading to suggest that English speakers can read the Sanskrit originals without years of study.
Finally, English did not borrow at all from Sanskrit in its development; that is flat wrong. It simply has a common origin with Sanskrit, giving rise to cognate words with similar sounds (like dvāra and door). And Nāvāsana is definitely not related to navy. Someone just made that up. the root of nāvāsana is nau (boat).
Chris Wallis
Sanskritist, UC Berkeley

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