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Want to dive deeper into yoga philosophy and asana with the study of Sanskrit? Join Richard Rosen—author, YJ contributing editor, 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!
Are you ready to confidently stroll into your yoga class with a bit more than “namaste” in your vocabulary? Pronunciation is a great place to start expanding your Sanskrit repertoire. That’s because, in this complex language, where you place the accent in the word ananda, for example, can literally make the difference between bliss and sadness, as Richard Rosen, who leads our Sanskrit 101 course, points out.
Sanskrit words are authentically rendered in their own alphabet, called Nagari. Through the process of transliteration, where the characters of one language are represented by the characters of another, Westerners get the word rendered in a way we can read. But because there are 48 Nagari characters and just 26 roman letters, it’s not a one-to-one ratio. That’s why sometimes you’ll see Sanskrit words written in Roman letters with straight or squiggly lines or dots over or under them, like in Adho Mukha Śvānāsana. These are called diacritical marks or signs. And they’re one way of getting more than one sound out of a single letter.
To be able to pronounce Sanskrit words correctly, you’ll need to know which sound each combination of Roman letter and diacritical mark represents. Here, Rosen shares a few sounds common in the standard yoga vocabulary.
An Ṛ in a transliteration of Sanskrit, like in “Vṛkṣāsana,” is what’s known as the ṛ-vowel. Yes, vowel. The Ṛ followed by another consonant is actually pronounced like it’s followed by an I, as in the name “Rick,” making it “vrik-SHA-sa-na.”
A C in a transliteration is pronounced like the CH in “church.” Sometimes you’ll see the H included in the transliteration to help English readers, other times not. A few common yoga words with the “CH” sound: Ardha Candrāsana (“are-dah chan-DRA-sa-na”), Cakra (“cha-kra”), Marīcyāsana (“mah-ree-chee-AH-sa-na”).
Conversely, TH in a Sanskrit transliteration is never pronounced like the TH in “the,” but rather like the Ts in “light.” The correct pronunciation of the word “hatha” for example is “ha-ta,” not “ha-tha.”
4. Ṣ, Ś, S
Pronunciation: “SH” or “SA”
Both Ṣ and Ś are pronounced like SH in “shut.” For example they sound the same in Vṛkṣāsana (“vrik-SHA-sa-na”) and Śavāsana (“sha-VAH-sa-na”). S without a diacritical mark is pronounced the way it looks, as in āsana (“AH-sa-na”).
Pronunciation: “VA” or “WA”
If a V is at the beginning of word like Vasisthasana, it’s pronounced the way we’d pronounced it in English like the V in “valley.” If, however, it follows another consonant, as in Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, it’s pronounced like a W (“ah-doh moo-kah shwa-NAH-sa-na”).