The Language of Yoga, Sanskrit

This is the first blog entry in a series that covering the language we use in yoga, Sanskrit. This post comes from one of our favorite yogis behind the desk, Laurie House. Laurie has practiced yoga for years and really knows her stuff! Read on to educate yourself about the ancient language of yoga that unites us all, Sanskrit.

It’s your first yoga class. You’re excited yet nervous. You aren’t flexible, you don’t know what the poses are and, most of all, you don’t want to feel stupid. You want to blend in. Due to the fact that you’re just as unfamiliar with your body as you are with Sanskrit, you put your mat down in the back of the room to ensure you don’t bruise your ego too badly. With time, the poses become easier and you stop looking around the room to find out what you’re supposed to be doing because you rely on your ears instead of your eyes. This is why Sanskrit is important.
Sanskrit should be an integral part of every yoga class. Some instructors tend to stay away from the ancient language as they are fearful of scaring away practitioners, but the reality is that Sanskrit connects the practitioner to where yoga comes from. Sanskrit is the most direct way to flow through a vinyasa. This foreign language enriches our daily practices.
Just like anything else, practice makes perfect. No one can relate to Sanskrit the first time they hear it. The words and sounds are completely foreign to a new set of ears; therefore, understanding this strange language is confusing as it all sounds the same. Give it time and give it a chance. Practice with an open mind and allow your brain to be a sponge taking in the connection between the physical pose with the Sanskrit name.

Even if you are the most experienced yogi depending on your training you may have gaps in your Sanskrit knowledge. Many practitioners are unaware of the proper order pose names are given. Each pose name calls for what your body should be doing while the modifiers give you options to advance your practice. The first part of the pose (if it’s available) is the right side (Dakṣina) or the left side (Vāma). Next up are the modifiers: extended (Utthita), revolved (Parivṛtta), reverse (Viparīta), etc. After the modifiers is the most important part, the pose name. Following the pose name is āsana which makes the pose an action as āsana means “-ing”. The last modifier indicates which version the practitioner is to be in: A, B, C.

It’s important to remember that not every pose will have all five elements. For example, Fierce pose (Utkaṭāsana) and seated forward fold (Paschimattānāsana) don’t have a right side (Dakṣina) and a left side (Vāma). In addition, not every pose will be called with a modifier as modifiers are typically options. It’s common to hear right side/left side Triangle pose (Dakṣina/Vāma Trikoṇāsana). Once in the pose, the teacher may offer extended Triangle pose (Dakṣina/Vāma Utthita Trikoṇāsana or bound Triangle pose (Dakṣina/Vāma Baddha Hasta Trikoṇāsana). Below is a list of common Sanskrit words used in yoga classes.

Sanskrit, English

Purna, Full
Ardha, Half
Parsa, Side
Daksina, Right
Varna, Left
Urdhva, Up
Adho, Down
Mukha, Face
Ut-, Intense
Utthita, Extended
Uttana, Stretched
Parivrtta, Revolved
Viparita, Inverted/Reverse
Supta, Reclining
Upavista, Seated
Salamba, Supported
Baddha, Bound

While some pose names are short and sweet, there are poses that do include all five elements. Although it may be long, such as right side/left side reverse Warrior B (Dakṣina/Vāma Viparīta Virabhadrāsana B), the Sanskrit version of a pose name leaves no room for error. When spoken in class properly and the practitioner understands each Sanskrit word, there is no confusion about what the body should be doing.

The true meanings of Sanskrit words get lost in translation. Sanskrit is what yoga was founded upon and the English version, although it may be easier, will never do a yoga pose name justice. It helps to hear the Sanskrit word and visually be aware of what position goes with each word. The more classes you attend and the more an instructor uses Sanskrit in class, you’ll find yourself listening for the Sanskrit cues and veering away from the English. Eventually, you’ll find yourself using the Sanskrit version of pose names when speaking with friends or family about yoga. It’ll become difficult to explain what you mean in English because the Sanskrit words describe the yoga pose best. Only then will you too fully understand and appreciate the importance of Sanskrit.

Thank you Dave and Cheryl Oliver in Scottsdale, AZ for providing me with the graph and enriching my knowledge of yoga. I can’t thank you enough for everything you taught me (: xoxo, Laurie

3 thoughts on “The Language of Yoga, Sanskrit

  1. To my favorite girl to flow next to on my mat 🙂
    I loved reading your post on Sanskrit! Thank you for writing that and sharing it with us!! You are amazing!
    As you know, I have practiced for 6 or 7 years, never been through teacher training, yet my love for yoga is more than many things in my life.
    I hear the words as I flow in class, yet never see them spelled out, never put it all together, and have never been exposed to the actual language.
    This was awesome to read, and truly makes me want to dive deeper into the history and language of the practice that I love so much.

    Thank you again!
    Kim 🙂

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