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Sanskrit

Should Yoga Teachers Use Sanskrit?

Using Sanskrit is a personal choice for yoga teachers and students. Here's the complicated history you should consider while deciding whether or not to use it.

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When you read or say the word “Sanskrit” (संस्कृत) you probably pronounce it as “san-skrit.” But the correct pronunciation is actually “Sum-skruth-ah.” Surprised? 

Given the translation of Sanskrit and yoga philosophy across cultures over time, some mispronunciation is understandable. But every yogi should learn about Sanskrit—its pronunciation and its difficult history. 

See also 40 Sanskrit Words Every Yogi Should Know

Sanskrit, Colonialism, and Cultural Appropriation

When India was overtaken by colonists in the 1800s, accents and spellings in the English language washed away much of India’s roots—including Sanskrit. 

Under British rule, India went through significant pain and change. The losses and benefits are topics debated by some of the world’s leading politicians and scholars. I’m not an expert, but I immerse myself in conversation, research, and readings, and am grateful to share some of what I’ve learned. 

There was longstanding brutality during British colonization of India, and remnants of oppression continue. For example, India, with Ghandi’s guidance, achieved independence on August 15, 1947.  But the city of Mumbai was  called “Bombay” (the name used by the British when they took control of the city in the 17th century) until 1995. The English spelling of “Calcutta” didn’t revert to “Kolkata,” its original Bengali spelling, until 2001. 

The movement of Indian people to seek independence from colonization in their own homeland took almost one hundred years of peaceful fighting and endurance of violence and loss.

Under colonial rule, certain activities—including yoga—were restricted or banned, and items including teas, spices, and dyes were appropriated. Spiritual teachings in yoga were regulated and reconstructed. Some details have been lost forever, because books written during British rule were authored by the colonists in power, not India’s indigenous people. 

Open scripture in Sanskrit
Photo: iStock/liubomirt

Should You Use Sanskrit in Yoga? 

Choosing to use Sanskrit is an individual and mindful decision to make, no matter who you are or where you’re from. I have Indian-born and Western-born friends and colleagues who choose not to use Sanskrit because of its oppressive history. I also have Indian and Western friends and colleagues who advocate for conscious use of Sanskrit by all.

Those who argue against its use point to anthropological study and anecdotes which tell us that, prior to colonist invasion, there were already existing power struggles in India related to Sanskrit that created division. The language was reserved for people from particular communities in India—those considered “scholars,” who were usually male. Records and traditions in India were often passed down orally, so we can’t always collect hard facts, but scholars suggest that colonization worsened already existing exclusions.

Friends and colleagues who believe Sanskrit should be liberated hope to collectively honor India by recognizing this painful history. They seek to transform its evolution and inclusivity today. They recognize the power and healing in Sanskrit and believe we should be able to learn and use the language with care. 

Both groups recognize Sanskrit has a time-transcending power. Dedicating ourselves to really understanding the richness and history of Sanskrit before offering surface-level explanations or insertion of Sanskrit words in yoga can be healing. Offering explanations based on one interpretation without doing any deeper study can create discomfort and harm. For example, did you know that prior to British colonization, India was known by its people as “Bharata Khanda” until it was forcibly changed? This historical understanding reminds us why we are revising our understanding and use of yoga practice to be more mindful, respectful, and accurate to its origins. Our intention determines whether that power is destructive or healing.

For this reason, I’m honored to share this historical context and offer clarification on Sanskrit words we commonly see in yoga. I invite you to study, reflect, and continue the process of deciding.

Note: I’d like to thank my parents for their loving offer of help with Sanskrit spellings, pronunciations, and defining words that are not always so easy to define.

Rina Deshpande is a teacher, writer, and researcher of yoga and mindfulness practices.