7.10.2015

3 Good Reasons to Learn the Sanskrit Posture Names

Vasisthasana, aka "the one where you balance on your 
hand and foot and catch your toe and look up"
Often, there is a surprising resistance to Sanskrit terms among even long-time practitioners of yoga.  While there is little need to truly learn the language unless one hopes to study ancient yoga texts in their original form, learning the names of yoga postures and basic concepts in Sanskrit is a good idea for any student. The following are three good reasons you should make the effort.

1.  Communicate Succinctly with your Teacher

All too often when I am teaching in a Mysore setting, a student will ask questions about the postures that give them the most difficulty, or need to be reminded which posture follows which in the order of the sequence.  These conversations usually go something like this:
Student:  I forgot what comes next.
Me:  Which posture did you do last?
Student:  Uh... the one where you're on your back with your feet up.
Me:  Supta Konasana?
Student:  Yeah!  Um, no.  The one where you're on your back and then you roll up.  What's that one called?
Me:  Ubhaya Padangusthasana?
Student:  Is that one with the toes or feet?
Me:  Toes.  Any postures with "Padangusthasana" in the name indicates you'll be holding your toes.
Student:  Oh.  What comes after that one?
Me:  Urdhva Muka Paschimottanasana.
Student:  Which one is that again?
And so on.  As you can see, had the student learned the names of the postures he or she had been given, this hypothetical dialogue would have been two lines long instead of eleven. While I definitely don't mind answering these sorts of questions, they can serve as an obstacle to deeper study and a distraction to other students.

Help your teacher help you.  Make an effort to retain the names of postures as you acquire them and your teacher and fellow students will be grateful.

2.  Inform the Form and Function of your Practice

As indicated in the dialogue above, the Sanskrit names of postures are descriptive.  This is particularly true of the postures in the standing sequence and first series.  The standing posture Prasarita Padottanasana, for example, means "feet spread intense stretch posture," with "intense stretch" derived from the Sanskrit uttana suggesting a forward bend.  Janu Sirsasana of first series translates to "head-to-knee pose" in English, which describes the general shape and intention of the pose.  Similarly, the first series arm balance Bhujapidasana means "arm pressure pose," which identifies the primary action--pressing the legs into the arms--required to perform the posture well.

As one progresses into second series, the names of postures generally become less literal, though no less descriptive.  Postures named for animals or elements in nature, such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose) call to mind the prominent features of these creatures--the round hump of the camel and the puffed breast of the pigeon--which we emulate with our bodies as we lift the upper chest.

Studying the Sanskrit and learning how the posture names break down is an easy way to ensure you are doing your postures with correct form and intention. Also, having a logical and/or visual association with the names of postures will help you remember the order of the sequence. 

3.  Preserve the Energetic Origins of Yoga

Sanskrit is the language of yoga and one of the many gems produced by the Vedic culture from which yoga emerged.  According to Nicolai Bachman, author of The Language of Yoga, "the [Sanskrit] alphabet is perfectly designed for the human vocal apparatus, and the sound of each word represents the subtle energy of its meaning.  Because each syllable is either one or two beats, pronouncing correctly allows one to feel the natural rhythm of the language and imbibe the true essence of the word" (1).  To put it another way, Sanskrit conveys not just a literal meaning but also evokes the energetic qualities inherent in the sound of the word which mirror the energetic qualities inherent in the concept or object to which the word refers.

For example, hearing the words "Utthita Trikonasana," one hardly needs to see the pose to feel the long lines of energy and the pointedness of its shape.  In fact, new students frequently take this pose instinctively when they hear these words called out in a led class.  The student may not grab his or her toe or straighten both legs without correction, but the dynamic energetic interplay inherent in the pose is there. To substitute the English term "Triangle Pose" might convey the gross shape of the posture more clearly, but the subtle energetics of the pose are lost.

Learn the Sanskrit names of your postures, listen to your teacher speak them, and feel the truth of your practice begin to emerge from the language in which it was conceived.

Further Reading

Ready to begin your Sanskrit study?  Great!  Here are a few resources to get you started.

3 comments:

  1. I agree about Sanskrit.... i heard one teacher say, it's the ultimate example of "onomonopoeia" (??) remember from grammar? A word sounding like the thing it designates? Like "bee".... bees buzzzz, or "bark," the sound a dog makes. You may know, there's a whole philosophy in shavite Hinduism around how Sanskrit kind of mirrors the universe.... anyway, great column, and I'll probably do your back-pain routine, thank you for that!!

    ReplyDelete