The gradual introduction of traditional names can teach your students more than you might initially think. Dr. Douglas Brooks, Sanskrit scholar and Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, believes one of the best reasons to use the Sanskrit terms is to stir up interest and nurture curiosity. The Sanskrit suggests there’s more to yoga than athletic activity, Brook says. “If you think yoga is only stretching, don’t learn the names,” he says. “But if you really want to teach, you need to know where the references come from.”
If you—or your students—start using Sanskrit names more regularly, it may inspire you to learn more about the language of the yogic tradition. Sanskrit has been called the mother of all Indo-European languages. It is considered to be one of the oldest languages on Earth; predating—Greek and Latin, arising from the Proto Indo European language spoken 7000-8000 years ago. The word “sanskrit” itself translates to perfected, polished, or refined. And that translation is appropriate, given the healing power the language is thought to have.
According to Jay Kumar, a Sanskrit scholar and yoga teacher who has produced a CD and manual on how to pronounce Sanskrit, each of the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are thought to have a sound frequency with a specific therapeutic benefit. “When you tap into the sound of yoga you really experience Yoga with a capital Y,” said Kumar. In Vedic belief, each word is encoded with consciousness. To put this simply, the pose name and the effect of the pose are one. So by simultaneously saying or hearing the Sanskrit name and performing the pose, we can feel the “click” of unity between sound and body.
“The symbolic aspect of the pose is in the name,” says Iyengar teacher and Open Sky Yoga director Francois Raoult. “Listen to ‘bhastrika’ [the Sanskrit name for Breath of Fire]. There is a lot of wind in the sound when you speak it, like breath.”
Raoult confirms that understanding yogic lexicon can make teaching and learning easier. “When you start to get more mature as a practitioner, there’s a lot of cross references between poses that are helpful. You can hear ‘create the actions of Tadasana in Sirsasana’ instead of a whole mess of instructions. It makes the teaching clearer. It gives more refinement because you can cross reference and explain one pose in terms of another pose.”
And there are other benefits as well. For one thing, Sanskrit breaks down the barriers between people who speak different languages. “The beauty of the Sanskrit terms is that they are a universal reference,” says Raoult. “No matter where you are on the planet, you have the Sanskrit terms so you don’t have to worry. Whether you say the word “plie” [to reference a ballet movement] in Japan or France, it means the same thing.”
This universal language creates a deeper, more spiritual connection. Because Sanskrit names communicate meaning through sound and yoke sound and sensation, they reveal to each individual the universal experience of the pose. Knowing the Sanskrit and connecting it to our practice roots us in tradition and gives us a common vocabulary. This is the first step in seeking that connection that is yoga’s promise.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Why Teach Sanskrit Names By Marget Braun