Why Every Yoga Practitioner Should Study Sanskrit - Yoga Journal

Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

When it comes to Sanskrit, there are at least two camps of yogis—those who use it and those who don’t. Here’s why we’re with the traditionalists on this one.
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Sanskrit Deepens Your Practice

Learning Sanskrit can invite more meaning into your yoga asana practice. 

Want to dive deeper into yoga philosophy and asana with the study of Sanskrit? Join Richard Rosen—author and co-founder of the former Oakland- and San Francisco Bay-based Piedmont Yoga Studio—for Sanskrit 101: A Beginner’s Guide. Through this 6-week introductory online course, you will learn Sanskrit translations, refine your pronunciations, explore its historic highlights, and more. But, even more significantly, you will transform your practice as you begin to understand the beauty and meaning behind the original language of yoga. Sign up today!

Why go through the trouble of trying to roll that r in Vrksasana when you can just say “Tree”? Or twist your tongue into “pash-chee-moh-TAHN-AH-sa-na” when you can just say "Seated Forward Bend"? For one thing, Sanskrit provides 2,000-3,000 years’ worth of context for the yoga poses as we know them. Plus, studying the ancient language can be as invigorating for your brain as the physical practice is for your body. Let’s consider a few more reasons why studying Sanskrit can be valuable to you as a yogi.

1. You’ll feel more comfortable “talking yoga.”

Yoga is an ancient practice from a foreign land that can feel to the average Westerner not only mystical but also inaccessible. Some basic knowledge of Sanskrit can eliminate that intimidation factor. Learning the roots of common yoga pose names, philosophical terms, and other lingo will demystify the ancient language and deepen your understanding of the entire yoga practice. For example, the root word of āsana—which we usually translate as posture or seat—is ās, which means to be present, to sit quietly, to celebrate, and to continue to do anything without interruption. Doesn’t that shed a bit more light on what you’re doing on the mat?

2. It will reveal deeper meanings of common yoga poses.

No matter how long you’ve been practicing yoga, studying Sanskrit can provide rich context for the shapes you already know so well. For example, did you know Shoulderstand—now considered the “Mother” of asanas, thanks to B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga—didn’t start as an āsana at all? In fact, Sālamba Sarvāṅgāsana, which translates to “supported all-limb pose,” used to be known as viparita karani mudra, or “inverse action seal”? The now-common āsana actually originated as a body seal, or mudra, intended to preserve amṛta, the elixir of immortality, in the head. That’s why you might sometimes hear yoga teachers tout the pose’s ability to reverse the aging process.

3. It will illuminate new layers of yoga philosophy.

Yogis sometimes adopt the Sanskrit word for a Hindu concept that the English language can't easily describe with a single word. But without understanding Sanskrit or Hinduism, the word’s meaning can get twisted and morphed. So if you’ve ever struggled to grasp a philosophical concept like dharma, for example, it’s not your fault! You’ve likely heard it misused by fellow English speakers. Diving into Sanskrit can help, because you’ll learn that the word dharma comes from the root word dhir, which means “to hold.” Dharma, then, literally means that which holds, is firm, and the universal law holds together.

4. It will even teach you some things about English, too.

Did you know that that Sanskrit and English are relatives? Distant ones, yes, but it’s true. Both come from the Indo-European family of languages. That’s why some Sanskrit words you already know can offer you new insight into the English language. For example, you can probably guess that nāva means “boat” if you know the common yoga pose Nāvāsana (Boat Pose). But nāva is also related to our English words “navy” and “nausea,” which originated as a term to describe seasickness. 

Eager to learn more? Sign up now for Sanskrit 101: A Beginner’s Guide.