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History of Yoga

What Do You Do When a Pose Name Is Problematic?

The common translation for Pāśasana (Noose Pose) is not only controversial, it's also inaccurate. Here's what we learned when we tried to untangle the Sanskrit word’s true meaning.

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It’s an editor’s job to find just the right words to express an idea. (In fact, it’s one of my favorite parts of the job.) At Yoga Journal, that often includes translating ideas and concepts from Sanskrit, an ancient, versatile, and complex language.

Many Sanskrit words have a variety of meanings depending on context. One of my favorites is the lyrical lila, which can be translated as “play,” “sport,” “spontaneity,” or “drama.”

As editors, we constantly have to find ways to translate things that have no direct translation into English at all. We rely on South Asian yoga experts and Sanskrit scholars, who are kind enough to help the rest of us understand the subtle meanings (not to mention the pronunciations) of the words we use. In our articles, we often balance using Sanskrit with using the English terms that have become commonplace in yoga classes so that we can reach the widest range of readers.

But once in a while, we come upon a term that represents a particular challenge. Pāśasana was one of them. It is most commonly referred to as “Noose Pose,” a translation that conjures a number of images and, frankly, many of them troubling. We wondered, Is there a better way to refer to this complex pose that is honest, honorable, and non-harming? 

What is Pāśasana?

In its physical practice, Pāśasana is a squatting twist with a bind. You will find the pose in the intermediate series in Ashtanga yoga. Traditionally, only people who have permission from their instructor to advance to the second series practice this pose. Because it requires a great deal of flexibility in the shoulders, back, arms, hips, and feet, you may not see it taught or practiced in many yoga spaces.

“People who have strong extension in their arms can reach around and hold their hands behind their back,” says yoga instructor and author Indu Arora. “We create a tie around the abdominal region to churn the gut brain and release the attachments to deep-seated conditioning, samskaras, and subconscious desires.”

What’s in the name?

Arora, author of Yoga: Ancient Heritage Tomorrow’s Vision, and “a forever student of yoga and Ayurveda,” explains that the Sanskrit word pāśa may mean many things: snare, noose, lasso, tie, bind, bond, web, or entanglement. Like many Sanskrit terms, its interpretation depends on the context.

“Definitions of Sanskrit words are like that,” says Cheryl Oliver, a yoga teacher based in Scottsdale, who has studied Sanskrit deeply for the past 20 years. “There’s almost never a one-to-one English cognate. So in some ways, it is incorrect to say that a pāśa is exactly ‘noose,’ because it’s not. It’s all of these things.”

The word is rooted in pāśu, the word for cow, she says. “A cow is a symbol of wealth [in Hindu culture],” she says. “So anything that is related to cattle is very important. A lasso obviously, is something with which you can hold on to some cattle, something with which you could hold on to your wealth.”

Arora says, “When we translate it in another language (in this case, English), that translated meaning itself has several contexts in the language and can be misunderstood if taken out of context. In the context of yoga, the words always have a symbolic, deeper, contemplative meaning, beyond posing.” In yoga philosophy, pāśa means a tie or bond that keeps us trapped in the world of physical, emotional, and ideological attachments, Arora says.

Lost in translation

But in the same way that we must consider symbolic and practical context when we use a Sanskrit term, we also have to consider the meaning of a word in the context of present-day society.

In the U.S., the noose is on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols. “The hangman’s noose has come to be one of the most powerful visual symbols directed against African-Americans,” according to the ADL. It’s connected to acts of violence against Black people dating back to the post Civil War period. They were used as symbols of intimidation during Reconstruction, re-emerged during the Civil Rights Movement and, unfortunately, still show up on campuses and in workplaces today.

The noose has another hurtful association: Research shows hanging has been the most common method of taking one’s life. These connotations are troubling—and not in alignment with yoga. Arora says that pāśa is not a word that represents causing harm or staying in harm. “The very first step of yoga is ahimsa (non-violence),” she says. “Any connection to violence is misinterpretation and is a result of taking something out of context.”

Oliver suggests that the inaccuracy of the translation is reason enough to change the English name of Pāśasana. But the negative connotations also bothered us enough to seek out an alternative.

Jeremy Engels, a yoga teacher, yoga scholar, and communications ethicist, affirms that we should consider the translation in the context of social and racial justice. “I definitely think that calling it ‘noose’ pose is inappropriate, especially given that the majority of American yoga practitioners are white,” he says. “We don’t need a bunch of white people running around practicing how to do a noose!”

We agree.

“I’d recommend any of the other possible translations for this pose—tie pose, snare pose, bond, or bind pose,” says Engels. He says they all have interesting connotations that teachers can.

How we settled on a new English name for Pāśasana

We grappled and debated internally with a word that didn’t evoke danger or harm, and that was etymologically correct. “Lasso” seemed to evoke the Wild West, which didn’t seem to be the energy we’d bring to a yoga class. Ditto “snare,” with its association with hunting and trapping.

Ultimately, we decided on Rope Pose, because it’s the only term that captured the image of the arms wrapped around the body, but didn’t seem appropriative or violent. A rope is a neutral object that can be used in many powerful and helpful ways. The term rope also leaves room to honor the symbolic meanings of pāśa that Arora describes.

Rope symbolism is also plentiful in images and descriptions of Hindu deities. Oliver says a rope is an attribute of Shiva or Yama, the god of the underworld. He carries a coil of rope to capture the souls of people who are about to die. In Vedic literature, Varuna, the Hindu god of the sea and protector of moral law, carries a rope, as well.

You’ll also see images of Ganesha holding a rope that is used to pull you closer to your higher goal, according to The Hindu American Foundation. The New Indian Express says Ganesha’s rope is “spiritual knowledge which helps us remove ourselves from the samsara, material world, that we are entrenched in.” 

We realize it might be some time until noose pose is dropped from yogis’ lexicon, but readers won’t see this translation in Yoga Journal moving forward. In fact, we are going a step further and purging our digital archive of this name, as well.

“Knowing that it was once called ‘noose’ pose can be a useful consideration for yoga teachers, since it broaches an important conversation about our past and future,” Engels says. “If we are going to make our spaces welcoming for all races, then changing the name of poses like this is essential.”

He adds, “It speaks to the work we have to do right now to ensure that yoga is a practice that meets the demands of the present moment.”

It is work that we are honored to do.

See also: A Gentler Approach to Ashtanga