Say what? How often have you been in yoga class and heard the yoga teacher call out the next pose only to have no idea what she is talking about? You may have been hearing Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-Aryan language that turns downward facing dog pose into adho mukha svanasana. Though it is used in many philosophical and traditional texts in the Eastern world, only a small segment of the Indian population uses Sanskrit as their native language. Why should we use it in yoga class?
Clarity of Language
Each pose (asana) in yoga has its own name. For ease and convenience, many Western and modern yoga classes use English or translated versions of the original Sanskrit names. Sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. Like in botany, where the same plant may have more than one common name or the same common name may be used for more than one plant, there is some inconsistency with the names of yoga poses. Just as plant scientists use Latin names, using the original Sanskrit names for yoga poses provides clarity.
Is it worth using Sanskrit just so yogis can be sure which pose they are talking about? Though it takes extra effort on our part to learn some Sanskrit terminology, there are additional benefits that come from its use.
Respecting the Tradition
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, yoga was passed down from guru to student, person to person. It was an oral tradition; with a few exceptions, there was little put in writing about the details and specifics of practicing yoga until the mid-1900s. Though many of us supplement our yoga learning with printed material, the classroom experience follows the oral tradition. We follow spoken instructions from the teacher in class, remember them as best we can and try to recall them while improving our practice at home.
The use of Sanskrit continues this lineage. In some small, but direct, way, teachers speaking Sanskrit in yoga studios today have a connection with yoga gurus from hundreds of years ago in India. The use of Sanskrit pays respect to that ancient yogic tradition.
Healing Properties of Sound
Sound plays an important role in traditional Indian philosophy and culture. We often chant the word “Om” three times at the beginning of yoga class. The sound of the word contains three parts, “a,” “u” and “m.” The vibrations of this ancient Sanskrit word are said to represent all parts of creation.
There are many people from different backgrounds and cultures that believe in the healing properties of sound. As each sound has its own characteristics and wavelength, particular Sanskrit words and sounds are said to stimulate the chakras. Though Western science may be skeptical, it is possible that the use of Sanskrit contributes to our mental and physical health and well being.
Sanskrit helps to move us along the path of yoga, providing clarity of thought and action while connecting us to an ancient tradition, the universe and ourselves.