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English vs. Sanskrit: Exploring the Language of Yoga

Patrick Reynolds

When I was in high school in England, I had a Japanese friend named Michiko. Michiko gave her host family some presents from Japan wrapped in beautiful gift boxes. The family was so taken with the boxes that they displayed them high on a shelf in the sunroom. They asked Michiko what she thought of the display, and she said, "It's really nice, except that they're all upside down."

For the family, the elegant kanji on the box was like a pretty abstract picture, not actual writing. I see the same thing happening sometimes with Sanskrit and yoga.

How did Sanskrit become the language of yoga? Yoga (not just poses, but the whole philosophical system) has been around for at least 5,000 years. But the yoga we are most familiar with was codified by a guy named Patanjali about 200 ce. (By the way, ce means "common era" and is the hip way to say ad.) Patanjali wrote his text "The Yoga Sutras" in the academic language of the day, Sanskrit.

It would be misleading of me to say that Sanskrit was a common tongue 2,000 years ago. But from what we understand, in Southeast Asia it was the language of learning and religion, much like Latin was in Europe. So Patanjali and many other great philosophers wrote in Sanskrit.

Let’s look at the Sanskrit name for a yoga pose, for example, Paripurna Navasana. There is something alluring about the name in its original language, the double Ps and the silky way Navasana rolls off the tongue. It's exotic; it makes you feel like something big is happening.

Patrick Reynolds demonstrates full boat pose

But we come back down to earth, when we look at the Sanskrit word for word: paripurna means "complete" or "full," nava means "boat," and asana means "pose" or "form." (In Sanskrit, there is a complete liason between vowels, so nava asana becomes navasana.) And there you have it in plain, practical, boring English: full boat pose. 

It's easy to get involved in the beauty of the ancient language, but we run the risk of being a little silly, like Michiko's family gazing at upside down boxes.  Face it, this pose looks like a boat! And when you do it, having the image of a boat bobbing in the water really helps. (By the way, if you ask someone doing this pose what they would like to call it, they'll tell you call it whatever you want, just let it be over!)

So, teaching yoga in Japan, I try to use Japanese names for the poses as much as possible, based on the original Sanskrit. I want my students to know that nothing exotic is happening during the poses, that yoga is accessible to them. I also want them to really get the idea of the form. Bhujangasana sounds really cool, but it won't get a student to press his or her hips into the mat like "cobra pose" will.

The person who really brought me around to this way of thinking was Thich Nhat Hanh. When I attended his retreat a few years ago, there wasn't a word of Vietnamese or Pali spoken during the entire retreat. All the chants, songs, and meditations, except for "Om," were in English. And a lot of people there were disappointed at how "ordinary" everything sounded. At the end of the retreat, if you took the Five Mindfulness Precepts, you were given a dharma name in English. (My name is "Silent Breath of the Heart.") One of the women in our group asked the monk, "Can't you tell me my name with the Vietnamese version? I bet it's beautiful!" The monk smiled and explained that he could, but that he would not, and gave the argument that I have outlined above, that these names are to help us, not distract us. Now, years later, I still remember most of the chants from that retreat, because they were in English.

So, in yoga, by all means study and learn the Sanskrit, but don't be fooled into thinking that the foreign sounds of the Sanskrit words make the practice mysterious or less ordinary. For Patanjali, these names were nothing special, they were just a way of describing the shape of the body. Like zen, yoga is not mysterious, and once you accept that, you'll really start going places!

Namaste (namas = I bow, te = to you!)
—Patrick Reynolds

About the Author

Patrick Reynolds co-owns and teaches hatha yoga at Yoga Garden (www.yogagarden.jp) in Yokohama, Japan. In addition to yoga, he leads zazen meditation classes within the community.


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