Enrich Your Yoga Practice With Sanskrit

Colleen Saidman by Colleen Saidman | January 23rd, 2012 | 13 Comments
topic: Yoga


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.


  1. I never thought of it that way…Sanskrit just seemed too complicated for my brain to learn so I didn’t worry too much about it. I appreciate your perspective.
    I started learning yoga because my now-8-year-old autistic son gravitated toward it a couple of years ago. I think he has every DVD Rodney ever made! I will make more of an effort to learn the Sanskrit names of poses and think of the Sanskrit instead of the English names.

    nuala | July 24th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  2. Colleen.

    I am happy to read your mail on Sanskrit. I am from india and India is the origin for sanskrit.. I can read and understand sanskrit , but am not a fluent speaker in sanskrit. You do not need Sanskrit for talking. You have in India other languages for conversation. But one must learn Sanskrit

    How did we learn our mother tongue?

    By the simple method of first listening and then speaking while sitting on our parent’s lap. In fact this is the most natural way to learn a language, listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the same way sanskrit can be learnt.

    One should try to use the sanskrit words he has has learnt in one’s daily conversation, right or wrong.

    Where to begin then?. This query should not worry one. Start as follows

    Begin withsimple sentences.

    Mama nama—-My name is …..

    Bhavatyah nama kim?……What is your name?

    By the above method dne should not hesitate conversing, again right or wrong. Talk with confidence. In course of time the errors committed will be minimal.

    Well begun is half done.


    T.S.SUNDARAM | August 28th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  3. your work is gret

    hemendra shrimali | October 11th, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  4. Can you discuss in sanksrit how the idea of “I’ is not used. Evidently the first person is eliminated and the only use the “we think”.


    Joh B | October 23rd, 2008 | Comment Permalink
  5. Could you tell me where to find a list of phrases, their pronuciations, and meanings? I recently started doing a morning yoga tape (by Rodney Yee) and at the end of the tape he says “namastay”. I am curious what that means.
    Also, I am curious about the necessity of the relaxation portion at the beginning. I just don’t have the patience for it, and prefer the meditation at the end. Could someone please explain? Thank you!

    Lee B | February 20th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  6. [...]   Want to learn more about expanding your yoga practice by learning more Sanskrit? Check out Colleen Saidman’s blog entry. If you want to hear the sound of OM, click [...]

    Get Your OM On! | April 20th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  7. I did a google search using “can deaf people learn sanskrit?” and came upon this article.

    Unlike you, I am profoundly deaf (i.e. not tone deaf) and was wondering if you had any suggestions for a totally deaf person such as myself to learn Sanskrit? I am attending Maharishi University in the Fall 09 and this ancient Hindu based language is part of the curriculum.

    Any suggestions on how I can learn this thing?

    Stephen Hopson | April 24th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  8. Thank you, Colleen–I have enjoyed your classes and posts at Gaiam Yoga Club and just discovered this blog, also inspirational and fun to read. What follows is some suggestions about studying Sanskrit for those whose responses to the post were questions (though this comes rather late).

    I am a student of Sanskrit, and love the language. In answer to some queries here, I think there are three ways to start engaging with Sanskrit. One is the beautiful mantras Colleen discusses here. There are recordings of various mantras available on YouTube, along with some Sanskrit classes. Those who are not hearing-impaired might want to try some of those. For those, like me, who are particularly fond of Buddhist Sanskrit chant, two amazing CD sets are available from siddharthasintent.org (follow the link to donate to Deer Park; the CDs are a donation premium).

    Another fun approach is learning properly the names of yoga poses. A book I like very much for this (comes with CD) is “The Language of Yoga.”

    The final option is the rather demanding business of learning the grammar. It is beautiful but there are a lot of rules; it requires some discipline to learn. I enrolled in university courses for this because I don’t have the discipline to stay with it on my own. Two textbooks for this are popular in the U.S. Most readily available is by a fellow named Deshpande, who also makes recordings from some of the exercises available at his Web site at the University of Michigan. The other, by the Goldmans, seems to take most or all of its example sentences from the Ramayana.

    My favorite online references are University of Cologne Digital Sanskrit (dictionaries) and the Wikipedia (English) article on Devanagari transliteration for various ways Sanskrit is rendered in western script alongside the more suitable Devanagari script used for Sanskrit and other Asian languages.

    There are some Web sites that teach simple sentences and have cute animated demo’s of how to write the characters of the alphabet , and there are online courses that I don’t know much about. A good search engine can help find those. But I think choosing an approach from among the above, or finding some other initial goal, and then assessing what materials are available would be the best way to start.

    Christine | November 21st, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  9. Dear Colleen, I came across your website/blog upon my search for sanskrit follow along chanting on line…preferably with the words typed out so I can actually see what I am trying to say. I know very very little about Sanskrit nor am I an avid yoga participator but I am drawn to it just the same. I took a Kundalini workshop where my chanting interest was peaked. Can you recommend a direct site where I can chant along with another in a slow pace (rather a singing musical soundtrack) and too, the words are displayed? Thank you so much for your time and information you have would be greatly appreciated. -Sarah

    sarah | July 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  10. I love Sanskit too. Not only the spoken version, but also the written version. When I was learning Devanagari, a derivative of Sanskrit, I was surprised to discover how relaxing and meditative it was just by writing the symbols as I was learning.

    chanting hub | December 7th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  11. I love combining my yoga with Sanskrit. Thanks for a very informative article.

    Anonymous | March 16th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  12. My son was wondering about the same thing in his tae kwon do class; why do they have to learn Korean terms. His Master had pretty much the same explanation. It’s about honoring the history and tradition of the art.

    Linda | March 17th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  13. Thanks for writing an informative article. Yoga combined with chanting is really my thing.

    Anonymous | March 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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