Deriving originally from India, Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-European language that formed the basis of traditional yoga practice. Among the yoga community, there seems to be an ongoing debate on whether yoga ‘must’ be taught in Sanskrit today. Often referred to as ‘the language of yoga’, many believe that yoga classes feel more authentic when taught in traditional Sanskrit. In addition to this, learning certain techniques such as Mantra chanting and Kirtan becomes much easier if you’ve already got a basic knowledge of the ancient language. In this article, we explore the language of yoga in more detail and discuss a few of the reasons people are still opting for this traditional method of teaching today.
If you have ever attended a local yoga class and found yourself puzzled on your yoga mat at the names of the poses, your teacher may have been using Sanskrit, an ancient language deriving from India. While this traditional language is used in a wide range of philosophical texts in the Eastern world, the majority of the Indian population do not use Sanskrit as their first language. So this brings us to the question, why is it so commonly used in yoga?
While going through teacher training, many budding yogis come across the renewed debate over whether to call the poses by their Sanskrit names. Making the decision on whether to teach in Sanskrit on English can seem like a hard task, especially when bombarded with different arguments for each side. Many make the mistake of thinking that Sanskrit is impossible to learn, so opt out of using the traditional, native language. While some individuals prefer to only teach in modern English, picking up a basic understanding of the Indian language is easy, if you put the time in. Once you’ve learnt it, you then have the ability to bring a whole new dimension to your classes.
The Indo-European language originated in India, traditional being seen used in the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts. Translating to “well-formed, refined, perfect or polished”, Sanskrit was used in the Vedas to first mention the lifestyle and technique of the practice of yoga. In the traditional Sanskrit language, the word yoga has a variety of different translations; some of which include “to put to active and purposeful use” and “yoke, join, or concentrate”. Simply put, yoga is believed to describe the act of uniting or a method of discipline. Men that partake in this practice are referred to as yogi’s, and women are known as yoginis.
Originally referred to as ‘Deva-Vani’, which translates to ‘Gods Language’, Sanskrit was believed to have derived from the god Brahma. It was then thought to have been passed onto the Rishis who then spread the beautiful language to the people on earth. In its written form, Sanskrit can be traced back to the 2nd millennium BCE where it was first used in a collection of sacred hymns known as the Rig Veda. Before being written down, it is thought to have continued to spread through the centuries by word of mouth.
For Added Clarity
Often referred to as ‘asanas’ each yoga posture has its own name. Although sometimes the traditional Sanskrit names are used in yoga classes today, much of the time translated English versions are used instead. This enables everybody in the session to understand what the instructor is telling them, regardless of whether they know the Sanskrit terms. While the English translations can be easier to understand, there is much inconsistency within the names when taught this way; when using the ancient Sanskrit names, students are provided with more clarity. Due to this, even though it may take yogis a little extra time to learn the Sanskrit terminology, there are numerous benefits that make it worthwhile.
To Respect Tradition
The practice of yoga wasn’t put in writing until the 1900s, meaning that before this it was just passed on through word of mouth. While today some people choose to use printed material to aid the learning process, in the majority, yoga is taught through spoken sessions that continue the oral tradition. After getting settled on their mat, each student will listen carefully to the instructions of the teacher, and perform each pose based on the spoken word. For many yogis, this also continues outside of the studio; to improve upon their craft they practice the technique at home, working from memory.
Some individuals believe that teaching yoga in traditional Sanskrit honours yoga gurus of the past. To respect the ancient tradition, teaching sessions through oral techniques is seen as being a popular method.
Healing Properties of Sound
Have you ever wondered why yogis often chant “Om” at the beginning of a session? When spoken, this ancient Sanskrit word is thought to cause vibrations that represent all parts of creation. Sound still plays an important role in Indian culture, with many believing that different sounds boast healing properties. When spoken, each sound holds its own wavelength. This has lead to the idea that certain Sanskrit words stimulate the Chakras when chanting, leading to an improved flow of energy, or chi, round the body. While modern science in the West may be skeptical of this, evidence suggests that teaching yoga in Sanskrit has the ability to benefit our physical health and mental well-being.
To this day, it is still a highly controversial topic with each individual holding their own opinion on the benefits or hindrances of using Sanskrit in yoga. If you do decide to take the time to learn the ancient language, however, there is no question that numerous benefits can come from it. Whether you are interested in it providing added clarity in class, or you are hoping to connect further with ancient tradition, learning Sanskrit can be fun, simple, and beneficial.