Should Yoga Teachers Use Sanskrit? ~ Mara Colbert

Via on May 25, 2012
Photo: willgame

And if the answer is yes, how do we optimize it?

Knowing and using the Sanskrit names of yoga asanas (postures) and other concepts can lend credibility to you as a yoga teacher, especially when used prudently and appropriately.

At the same time, it is pretty uncool to misuse or grossly mispronounce the Sanskrit. While going unnoticed by most of your students, the denigration of a sacred language will most likely agitate those who do notice.

If you were lucky enough to have learned yoga from a teacher who teaches in Sanskrit, you may have a better sense of proper pronunciation than if you just read it in a book. My preference is to sparingly insert Sanskrit in my classes, but to often use the English as well. This style makes the classes both authentic and accessible (or so I hope.)

Sometimes I use the both English and Sanskrit simultaneously. For example: “Come into to Trikonasana, Triangle pose,” while at other times I will use only one or the other. This way my regular students are likely learning the names of the poses in both languages, but those who have no interest or facility in foreign language can basically tune out the Sanksrit.

Here is a short list of often-used Sanskrit words and prefixes that pertain to yoga postures and that will help you to remember some of the names:

  • Ardha – half
  • Adho – downward
  • Baddha - bound
  • Eka  - one
  • Eka pada – one foot/leg
  • Hasta – hand
  • Kona - angle
  • Mukha – facing
  • Pad- foot
  • Parivrtta –revolved/twisted
  • Parsva/parsvo – side
  • Urdhva - upward
  • Uttan/ottan – intense
  • Utthita – extended
  • Supta – sleeping/supine

While most students, and even your fellow teachers, will forgive minor mispronunciations of the Sanskrit, and really, all of us Westerners are pretty much butchering it, I do have some pointers and pet peeves in terms of Sanskrit pronunciation, or mispronunciation.

  • Asana has the emphasis on the first syllable, ah-sun-a not as-ah-na.
  • The last syllable of asana is a very short a sound, which is difficult for us to pronounce, particularly when it is used as a suffix as in Trikonasana or Savasana. So most of us lengthen it more than we should, hence Trikonasanah, where as some shorten it completely, as in Trikonasan. You have probably heard both pronunciations, and which you choose to use is up to you.
  • The “ch” in chakra, Chakrasana and Chaturanga is a hard “ ch” as in cheese, not a soft “sh” as in shower.

On a final note, I do not suggest using a lot of Sanskrit in a new class or a total beginners class, because you likely will only intimidate and alienate the students. You may want your students to be inspired by your vast knowledge and wowed by your impressive use of an ancient language, but the truth is that many of them will figure you are just making it up anyway and may think you are a yoga snob.

Do your best to be yourself and use your authentic voice. If that includes teaching the Sanskrit, go for it. If it does not, just teach they way you prefer and do so unapologetically.

Namaste!

Mara Colbert is a yoga teacher, writer, mother and graduate student. She recently published her first eBook, How to Become a Great Yoga Teacher. Mara has studied and practiced yoga since 1998, and made a life of teaching yoga for the past decade. Her interest in the full and varied tradition of hatha yoga has always led her to pursue studies in many forms and lineages including ashtanga, vinyasa, Iyengar, Anusara and Bikram. She is an internationally Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance at the 200-hour level (E-RYT) having received a certification with a concentration in ashtanga yoga at Yoga Yoga Teacher Training in Austin, Texas. 

Mara now is pursuing a master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance at UMKC. Her intention is to marry the tools and techniques of yoga practice and theory with more traditional psychotherapy to treat people holisticallyphysically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

You can find Mara’s articles at elephantjournal and RecoveringYogi.

~

Editor: Lara Chassin

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12 Responses to “Should Yoga Teachers Use Sanskrit? ~ Mara Colbert”

  1. Sonyata says:

    Authentic voice works for me. I almost always use the sanskrit names for the poses, because it is interesting to the students, and does help them to get into this beautiful, ancient thing…What does irk me is when teachers go into this psuedo Indian broken English thing, even when they are speaking English words.

  2. Dr. Katy Poole Katy Poole says:

    Great article, Mara. There are even more significant reasons why Sanskrit is at the basis of yoga. I outline them in my free video course, "Awakening with Sanskrit," that you and any other yogi aspiring to connect with the authentic roots of the practice might be interested in checking out. Here's the link: http://www.SanskritforYoga.com

    Thanks for spreading the beautiful knowledge of Sanskrit! Harih Om.

  3. MatBoy says:

    I travel and teach internationally where the sanskrit names come in handy because everyone knows them in addition to the names in their own language. Not sure what I would think if I practiced only in the US. Sanskrit can add a bit of romance or mystery to the otherwise dry sounding names – extended side-angle pose – which helps the imagination: makes the whole thing seem less mundane, less like a regular exercise class.

  4. Amy says:

    Sanskrit is a universal language, unlike English, when spoken provides not only a window into learning a new language, but provides a vibrational healing quality when shared with others. Using Sanskrit with students improves their memory, thinking and cognition by allowing them to hear phonetic sounds they are unaccustom to hearing. It may even sooth their senses just as encouraging “deep breathing” would during asanas. I’m for it, I encourage it, I’m glad Mara you shared it with us even as beginning students. Thank you for your article. Shanthi!…Neurolgy PA, MS clinical specialist

  5. Thanks, Mara. You know me, and I agree with the overall intention of your writing, and this is how I also teach. I think a bit of education settles well for regular students, and most enjoy learning along the way.

    Hope this isn't splitting hairs, but there are areas in India where pronunciation of various words varies, just like in English. The word asana is usually heard as you have indicated. But!!! When I learned yoga in the 70's from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi it was always pronounced the way you say it is not pronounced. I have to say, I was confused in the 80's when I heard it spoken the "right" way. So, over the years, I have made inquiries in various pronunciations, and found many such surprises. What I initially thought was "incorrect", may have had to do with translating Sanskrit to English, AND in variances from different dialects spoken in India. The folks who teach Kundalini Yoga, for example say Mula Bandha completely differently than Ashtangis. And then in some parts of India, the 'a' is left off of yog or pranayam, and this is not apparently incorrect, as I have many old yoga books where that is the case. I bought a Georg Feurerstein CD on learning Sanskrit, and it offers some excellent tips for those teachers who don't want to sound like too phoney. : }

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