Yoga students often wonder, “Why do we use Sanskrit terms when learning the poses? Is it important? Do we have to learn it?” I can relate because I once asked similar questions.
Using Sanskrit is a little like honoring an ancestor. This ancient Indian language is believed to date back to the 2nd millennium B.C., when knowledge was handed down through the generations verbally. Often referred to as the language of the gods, Sanskrit has, by definition, always been a classical language used for religious and learned discourse.
Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati (a Sanskrit scholar) said that the study of this language is a study of the science of vibration. Mantras — meaningful, harmonious words, phrases, verses or portions of scripture helpful for meditation, prayer and spiritual study — are usually spoken in Sanskrit. However, even simply calling out the poses in Sanskrit during class, there is a melody and a rhythm that makes it joyful. It almost sounds like you are singing. For someone like me who is tone deaf, it is very exciting. Just the way the tongue touches the roof of the mouth while speaking or chanting in Sanskrit, energizes the whole body. When chanting or speaking this language of vibration, one feels more deeply the essence of the mantra, which is, ultimately beyond words and language.
I love Sanskrit. I am an amateur, but I can’t deny the power. One of my students had brain surgery recently, and came out of the surgery chanting gate gate para gate para sam gate bodhi swaha*. She always requests this chant when she comes to class. She has no idea what it means but just loves the way it makes her feel.
Do you need to learn the Sanskrit terms? No, but you may like it or even fall in love with it like I did. Try it out. And if yoga is new to you, don’t get caught up with trying to remember the Sanskrit pose names — just simply absorb the Sanskrit during your teacher’s instruction. You’ll be surprised how much you pick up that way. If you’re more experienced, I encourage you to make an effort to learn the pose names — your practice will be richer for it.
Colleen, Cofounder of the Gaiam Yoga Studio
* The above chant (gate gate para gate para sam gate bodhi swaha) translates roughly to: “Gone, gone, way gone, beyond gone awake so be it.” It means to go have gone beyond personality, identification, duality, where you are in the present moment — awake — without past or future.
Practice yoga with Colleen Saidman on GaiamTV.com.