Sanskrit. You’ve taken any yoga class or you’ve paid attention to popular culture in the past few years and you’ve heard it. Think Namaste—the traditional greeting exchanged at the end of a yoga class simply meaning I honor and bow to the divine in you. You’ve probably heard more Sanskrit than you realize.
I’ve had my own internal debate about the usefulness of Sanskrit in a yoga class and it boils down to what I always want to avoid: a power differential. Yes, I’m leading a yoga class, but I’m not living your life and in the very personal process of yoga I believe that the practitioner knows themselves best. So, if I’m piping off poses in Sanskrit, am I marginalizing students? Am I creating a dynamic of the one who knows and those who don’t? To some point, yes. But the more I’ve sat with Sanskrit, the more I’ve come to honor and use the language much like the medical community uses Latin.
Sanskrit is a dead language and a language that was used almost exclusively in ritual and prayer. It is said that the language is based on primordial sounds and that these sounds bring us closer to the vibrational frequency of the greater universe. There is something to the sound of Sanskrit—it is very sing-songy and some poses are just fun to say. But—here’s where I get confused. No one is a native speaker of Sanskrit and no one has been for hundreds of years. Many of the poses were named and chronicled by Iyengar and come from the bastardized English versions. The name of downward facing dog comes from the Sanskrit words adhas (अधस्) meaning ‘down’, mukha (मुख) meaning ‘face’, śvāna (श्वान) meaning ‘dog’,and āsana (आसन) meaning ‘posture’ or ‘seat’. So, it becomes clear that the Sanskrit did not come first, but was applied to the postures which have a varied history as well. This isn’t good or bad but takes away from the supposed integrity of the language.
And then comes the use of Sanskrit in Buddhism versus Hinduism. Both camps expanded upon yoga at about the same time and who’s to say who has a better path? Both are in the same family and Christianity has even taken a seat at the mediation table—it’s a very powerful table indeed. Sacred and powerful practices often have languages and rituals of their own to set them apart from everyday practices. While being mindful in everyday rituals, yoga can be elevated to the devotional and add Sanskrit and you’ve got a pretty neat church contained within your body.
Here’s what it seems to boil down to: yoga is spiritual. You can call it fitness, you can add weights, you can Americanize, market, sell, and morph it all you want. But, anyone that has practiced yoga for any amount of time knows that yoga transcends the physical and brings us to a greater awareness. So, why not assign the postures some Sanskrit names? Sanskrit is said to be one of the original languages and is contained within some original spiritual practices. Let’s harken back to the beginning and set aside this yoga, these spiritual practices, as something that is greater than ourselves. Let’s elevate a practice that can bring us closer to a higher consciousness.