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Teaching Yoga

The Debate: Teach With English or Sanskrit Pose Names?

It's a central debate in the West: should we use the Sanskrit names when we teach? You may be surprised to learn just how many reasons there are to do so.

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yoga teacher training

It’s a central debate in the West: should we use the Sanskrit names when we teach? You may be surprised to learn just how many reasons there are to do so.

During my teaching training, one of the most common debates centered around calling poses by their Sanskrit names. My fellow trainees wanted to know whether they should memorize and use these names, or whether that practice was elitist and would put off certain students. At the time, I didn’t realize that using Sanskrit names didn’t have to be an impossible task for teachers or for students. I now know that, armed with a basic understanding of the way different students learn, most teachers can incorporate those names into their teaching quite easily and with good results.

The best teaching takes into account that every student has a preferred learning style and offers different cues for different students. This practice—known as experiential learning—includes something for Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic learners. When you use Sanskrit in the studio, keep in mind that auditory learners want to hear the word, visual learners want to see the word or visualize the spelling, and kinesthetic learners want to do the pose and say the word, or perhaps write it down. To fulfill the needs of a range of learners, make sure to include different expressions of the word during class.

“It’s important to remember that we are not only teaching poses, we are also teaching language,” says Diana Damelio, Manager of the Kripalu Yoga Teacher development, which uses an experiential model for teaching. “Every student learns differently, so if there are 30 people in a class I assume there are 30 different classes going on. Don’t assume that people learn the way you do. Only 20 percent of people are auditory learners. The rest of us are visual and kinesthetic learners.”

“My job is to teach in many different ways,” Damelio continues. “Visual learners go bonkers unless it is written down, so we have a story board that keeps information visible.”

When you begin to introduce Sanskrit names in the studio, recognize that it will be overwhelming at first. Take small steps. “We tell new students that every pose has the word “asana” in it so a student can immediately say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I know something!'” says Damelio. Kimberley Healey, a French Professor at the University of Rochester and a teacher in the Iyengar tradition, reminds us to be patient. “It takes a long time for someone to learn a foreign language,” she says. “If my yoga students don’t know the Sanskrit terms after three years it’s frustrating, but I don’t expect it any sooner. They only see me 1.5 hours a week.”

But the gradual introduction of traditional names can teach your students more than you might initially think. Dr. Douglas Brooks, Sanskrit scholar and Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, believes one of the best reasons to use the Sanskrit terms is to stir up interest and nurture curiosity. The Sanskrit suggests there’s more to yoga than athletic activity, Brook says. “If you think yoga is only stretching, don’t learn the names,” he says. “But if you really want to teach, you need to know where the references come from.”

If you—or your students—start using Sanskrit names more regularly, it may inspire you to learn more about the language of the yogic tradition. Sanskrit has been called the mother of all Indo-European languages. It is considered to be one of the oldest languages on Earth; predating Greek and Latin, arising from the Proto Indo European language spoken 7000-8000 years ago. The word “sanskrit” itself translates to perfected, polished, or refined. And that translation is appropriate, given the healing power the language is thought to have.

According to Jay Kumar, a Sanskrit scholar and yoga teacher who has produced a CD and manual on how to pronounce Sanskrit, each of the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are thought to have a sound frequency with a specific therapeutic benefit. “When you tap into the sound of yoga you really experience Yoga with a capital Y,” said Kumar. In Vedic belief, each word is encoded with consciousness. To put this simply, the pose name and the effect of the pose are one. So by simultaneously saying or hearing the Sanskrit name and performing the pose, we can feel the “click” of unity between sound and body.

“The symbolic aspect of the pose is in the name,” says Iyengar teacher and Open Sky Yoga director Francois Raoult. “Listen to ‘bhastrika’ [the Sanskrit name for Breath of Fire]. There is a lot of wind in the sound when you speak it, like breath.”

But if there is a power in the sound of the language, does mispronunciation counter it? Michael Carrol, senior member of Kripalu faculty, thinks it might. “We’ve gotten very sloppy with Sanskrit. In ancient times a mantra was a spiritual invocation. If you didn’t pronounce it exactly, nothing would happen.”

Michael says he is happy if students can remember the names. But, he adds, “I equate learning the pose with saying the pose correctly.”

One way to deal with this challenge is to remember that Sanskrit was an oral language for thousands of years. “We chant Bu-Bu-Bhujangasana and put a melody to it,” says Damelio. “The students repeat back, so we also teach by call and response.” Through repetition and chanting, your students can come to learn the correct pronunciation over time.

Another approach to learning and teaching the pose names is to remember that yoga is a system with its own lexicon. Think ballet, HTML, cooking, or football.

“Every system has its own vocabulary that outsiders may not get,” says Aimee Brooks, Affiliated Anusara teacher. “But after you work with the code for a while it becomes ‘parlance.’ You can shorten it and intensify its meaning which makes it easier to learn.”

Raoult confirms that understanding yogic lexicon can make teaching and learning easier. “When you start to get more mature as a practitioner, there’s a lot of cross references between poses that are helpful. You can hear ‘create the actions of Tadasana in Sirsasana’ instead of a whole mess of instructions. It makes the teaching clearer. It gives more refinement because you can cross reference and explain one pose in terms of another pose.”

And there are other benefits as well. For one thing, Sanskrit breaks down the barriers between people who speak different languages. “The beauty of the Sanskrit terms is that they are a universal reference,” says Raoult. “No matter where you are on the planet, you have the Sanskrit terms so you don’t have to worry. Whether you say the word “plie” [to reference a ballet movement] in Japan or France, it means the same thing.”

This universal language creates a deeper, more spiritual connection. Because Sanskrit names communicate meaning through sound and yoke sound and sensation, they reveal to each individual the universal experience of the pose. Knowing the Sanskrit and connecting it to our practice roots us in tradition and gives us a common vocabulary. This is the first step in seeking that connection that is yoga’s promise.

If you’re ready to start teaching names, bear in mind one simple rule of thumb. “When you begin to introduce the names, is it in the spirit of an inviting in?” asks yoga teacher Aimee Brooks. “Or is there an ‘I know the secret word and maybe if you are around long enough you will too’? If you keep your teaching in the spirit of an invitation, you will arrive at this truth: The faster you can teach your students what the words mean to you, the faster you can begin to talk to each other and share in your understanding.”

Marget Braun is the author of DES Stories and past food columnist for Yoga Journal.