Why We Use Sanskrit in Yoga

why we use sanskrit in yoga

When I first started practicing yoga, I remember being fascinated by the Sanskrit words my teacher used when guiding the class. And now as a yoga teacher myself, a common question I get asked is: Why do we use Sanskrit in yoga?

The foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy were written in Sanskrit, more than 2000 years ago. And so the use of Sanskrit in yoga classes is a way to connect our practice to the tradition with a common vocabulary used by yoga practitioners and teachers all over the world.

Lets now have a look into the three main reasons Sanskrit is used in yoga.

The foundational texts of yoga philosophy were written in Sanskrit

It can be argued that this is the main reason we use Sanskrit in yoga today.

Using this ancient language in our modern world can be considered as the key link, the anchor that ties our yoga practice to the past and to the ancient tradition. 

Sanskrit was the traditional means of communication in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. It was used in religious and philosophical texts, such as the yoga texts. Perhaps, the most commonly known texts are the Vedas and the Yoga Sutras. 

Interestingly, The Vedas and the Yoga Sutras, which came along much later, were written in different versions of Sanskrit.

So here is something which is less commonly known.

Sanskrit was classified into two different periods; Vedic Sanskrit, which was a spoken language of its time, and Classical Sanskrit, which appeared much later and was a more standardized version of the same language.

The Vedic period around 2nd millennium BCE (4000 years ago)

Vedic Sanskrit is found in the Vedas. The word Veda means knowledge and the Vedas are considered to be the earliest literary record of Indo-Aryan civilization. They are also considered as the most sacred books of India. 

Indeed, in ancient India, all forms of knowledge were derived from the Vedas and they are the original scriptures of Hindu teachings.

No written records have survived from this early period if they ever existed. However, oral transmission of the texts has allowed us to have access to knowledge from those times, given that the exact phonetic expression and its preservation were a part of the historic tradition.

The Classical period around 5th century BCE (2500 years ago)

Classical Sanskrit has its origin at the end of the Vedic period when the Upanishads were the last sacred texts to be written down.

Panini, a grammar and linguistic researcher introduced the refined version of the language. Panini’s work ‘Ashtadhyayi’ (which means eight-chapter grammar), is considered to be the only source of Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary today.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were written in classical Sanskrit. These are a collection of 196 Sanskrit sutras on the theory and practice of yoga. 

A long 2000 years after the Sutras were written in India, these texts are now commonly quoted in yoga classes all over the world. 

Sanskrit is a common yoga language all over the world 

This ability for yoga teachers and practitioners to have a common vocabulary can be argued to be the second reason that Sanskrit is still used in yoga.

Indeed, whether we are referring to asanas (postures) or yoga philosophy, the common language is Sanskrit. 

Here is an example: 

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah”

This is Patanjali’s 2nd sutra which describes the purpose of yoga practice. It means “Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind”, or literally translated as:

  • Chitta: mind, consciousness
  • Vritti: waves, fluctuations
  • Nirodhah: to control, to quiet

This sutra is perhaps the most commonly known and used amongst yoga teachers and practitioners around the world. In any given class, with people from all over the world, once the meaning of the sutra has been made clear, it becomes part of our common vocabulary; our yoga vocabulary.

Additionally, moving on to yoga asanas, the use of Sanskrit makes the communication among yoga teachers and practitioners easier, as rather than trying to explain an asana or a technique across languages, the commonly known Sanskrit name is used.

For example, if I were to say that I am struggling with: Eka Pada Sirshasana (leg behind head pose), someone from another side of the world, with whom I may not share English as a common language, would actually know the asana I am referring to. 

Here’s a breakdown to its meaning:

  • Eka: One
  • Pada: Foot
  • Sirsa: Head
  • Asan: Pose

It it perhaps becoming clear that Sanskrit allows us to connect us to a much larger population around the world.

The meaning behind Sanskrit yoga asanas

The third reason Sanskrit is still used in yoga is that helps enlighten us to the meaning of the original purpose of each asana and also links the practice to the ancient tradition. 

Many postures are named after sages or characters in the mythological stories, often because of their characteristics. Becoming familiar with some of these stories broadens our understanding of the yoga tradition.

Here is an example.

Hanumanasana (full splits) and next is the brief story into the name.

The story goes that during mythological times, the demon king Ravana had abducted Sita, the wife of Rama, a king of ancient India. Rama and his army set out to rescue her from the demon king. Unfortunately, Rama’s brother, Laksmana, was severely wounded, and only a herb that grew exclusively in the Himalayas could save him. But who could possibly travel to the Himalayas and back in time to save him?

Hanuman, Rama’s greatest devotee, said he could accomplish this impossible task. He then took one mighty leap that stretched all the way from the south of India to the Himalayas. Not knowing which herb to pick, he carried the entire mountain with him as he made another massive leap back to the battlefield. The life-saving herb was found and Laksmana’s life was saved.

In that giant leap, Hanuman embodied his love for Rama. His intense devotion allowed him to do the impossible, and this is the lesson of Hanuman: power comes from devotion.

That mighty leap is memorialized in the pose Hanumanasana, which now that you know the story, may help you remember both the name and may help give a new meaning to the pose.

Commonly used Sanskrit words and their meaning

Below are some commonly used words and phrases from both yoga asanas and yoga philosophy. 

It may become evident that asana names tend to follow a similar pattern. They are like pieces of a puzzle. Each piece generally refers to a part of the body or an intention, and they all end in the word asana.

AsanaThis word refers to the poses that compile the physical practice of yoga. It is also the ending of each posture’s Sanskrit name as you will see below.
Downward Facing Dog
Adhas: down
Mukha: face
Svana: dog
Asana: pose
Upward Facing Dog
Urdhva: upward
Mukha: face
Svana: dog
Asana: pose
PaschimottanasanaSeated Forward Fold
Paschima: back or west
Uttana: intense stretch
Asana: pose
Bound Angle Pose
Baddha: bound
Kona: angle
Asana: pose
Supported Headstand
Salamba: supported
Sirsa: head
Asana: pose
Ardha ChandrasanaHalf Moon Pose
Ardha: half
Chandra: moon
Asana: pose
Seated posture should be steady and comfortable. In Yoga Sutras we can find only three (out of 195) yoga sutras that relate to the performance of asanas and this is sutra 46.
NamasteThe light and teacher within me recognizes and honors that same light and teacher in you.
Nama: bow
Te: you
Commonly used words and phrases in Sanskrit from both yoga asanas and yoga philosophy

Some commonly used words and phrases from both yoga asanas and yoga philosophy translated from Sanskrit to English

Given the above, I hope it has become clear that Sanskrit is an integral piece of the puzzle of Yoga, and should not be overlooked by those interested in exploring the deeper concepts and philosophies of yoga.

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