Model: Melinda Quesenberry // Photo Credit: Eric Rosso
Learning yoga can be a lot like learning a new language. Both involve learning a rich vocabulary, whether that consists of words and phrases, or simple and complex physical postures (āsana). Both can take years of dedicated practice to master. But in the midst of your own practice, you may not have realized that by learning yoga, you are in fact learning another language: Sanskrit.
Yoga training will expose you to a number of Sanskrit words, whether they are the names of various āsanas, or the fundamental ideas of yoga philosophy. You might even learn to chant some Sanskrit mantras, or some of the aphorisms of the Yogasūtra. You’ve probably heard by now that the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit verb root “yuj,” which means “to yoke.” And surely you’ve already spoken Sanskrit by saying “namaste” during class. But, of all the languages in the world, why is yoga yoked to Sanskrit? Just what is Sanskrit in the first place? And if it’s possible to just learn the names of poses, and the basic ideas of yoga philosophy, all in translation, then why do we need Sanskrit to learn yoga at all?
A Brief History of Sanskrit
The language that became Sanskrit was brought to the Indian subcontinent around 2,000 B.C.E. by waves of migration from central Asia. These migrants, now known as “Āryans,” spoke a language which descended from a Proto-Indo-European ancestor that is also the origin of almost all classical and modern European, Persian, and northern Indian languages.
The oldest form of Sanskrit is found in the literature of the Vedas, which were orally transmitted compendia of hymns to cosmic deities, instructions for ritual worship, and teachings of esoteric wisdom. For centuries, this sacred lore was handed down from memory in unbroken lineages, without major alteration and without being written down until the 3rd century B.C.E. Around the 5th century B.C.E., the grammarian Pāṇini devised an ingenious system of rules to standardize Vedic Sanskrit and more colloquial forms of the language, forming the basis of what is known as classical Sanskrit.
The language now self-consciously viewed itself as “saṃskṛta” or “refined,” in contrast to the “prākṛta” or “common” vernacular languages. This form of Sanskrit became the medium in which educated intellectuals composed a massive body of literature and scholarly treatises. These latter texts were called śāstra, and there were śāstras for nearly every human pursuit. The text-tradition of commentaries on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, for instance, was known as the Pātañjala Yogaśāstra.
Today, beyond being widely recited in Indian religious rituals and classical music, Sanskrit is still the language of Vedic instruction and traditional learning of the śāstras. Outside these academic spheres, there is also a movement to popularize Sanskrit as a conversational language for everyday use.
Why Should A Yogi Learn Sanskrit Grammar?
There is a long tradition of linking the practice of yoga with the study of Sanskrit grammar or vyākaraṇa. One suggestion of that link comes from the classical identification of the Patañjali who compiled the Yogasūtra with the Patañjali who authored the Mahābhāṣya (“Great Commentary”) on Pāṇini’s grammar. Though this identification is disputed in modern scholarship, we can at least note the suggestive fact that the first line of each text is similar: The Yogasūtra starts, “atha yogānuśāsanam”—“Now begins the teaching of yoga”—while the Mahābhāṣya opens, “atha śabdānuśāsanam”—“Now begins the teaching of words.”
The Mahābhāṣya defends the importance of knowing Sanskrit grammar for attaining spiritual aims. The word “yoga” shows up in the term “vāg-yoga-vid,” or “one who knows the proper usage of speech.” (Another reason a yogi should know Sanskrit is to know the many different meanings of the word “yoga.”) One who properly understands and uses words will be able to correctly recite Vedic mantras in the context of rituals, which grants spiritual merit (dharma), prosperity (abhyudaya), and the fulfillment of all wishes in this life and in heaven.
A deeper connection between yoga and Sanskrit grammar was developed by Bhartṛhari, the 5th century philosopher and linguist. He argued that the ultimate reality of the universe, known in the Vedānta tradition as brahman, exists in the form of language, or literally the Word (śabda). This ultimate principle of reality—śabda-brahman—is essentially eternal, unchanging, and unitary. But it manifests itself through its own power as the dynamic diversity of syllables, words, and the objects to which our words refer. He also argued that our conscious awareness of these objects is fundamentally permeated with language. So for Bhartṛhari, understanding the nature of language is the key to understanding the nature of mind and reality. With the help of vyākaraṇa, we can purify our speech and thereby purify our consciousness, to the point where we can intuitively realize our union (yoga) with the underlying unity of all things, and destroy the delusion that we are individual egos existing separately from that unity. This realization brings us spiritual liberation (mokṣa).
One example of how grammatical analysis can aid the yogi in correctly understanding reality comes from the commentaries on Yogasūtra 1.9. Think about how you use the word “of.” When you say, “Eric is a friend of mine,” the “of” signifies that you possess Eric as a friend, and further implies that you and Eric are different. But consider the sentence, “Consciousness is the essence of the Self (puruṣa).” You would think that consciousness belongs to your self or soul, but that you are distinct from consciousness. Yet in this case, “of” is actually like the “of” in “city of Honolulu”—in the same way that Honolulu just is the city, your Self essentially just is consciousness. A proper understanding of language can hence allow us to see through the misconceptions that language can create.
More concretely, learning the rules of Sanskrit language can enrich your yoga practice. One basic aspect of Sanskrit worth noting is the process of sandhi, through which words change their sounds because of the sounds that follow. A common example in English is the use of “a” versus “an” (“a cup”; “an honor”). An example in Sanskrit is how the same word “namas” (“salutations”) changes its ending depending on the subsequent type of vowel or consonant—compare “oṃ namo nārāyaṇāya” (“Salutations to Nārāyaṇa/Viṣṇu”); “oṃ namaḥ śivāya” (“Salutations to Śiva”); and “namaste” (“Salutations to you”).
Knowing how sandhi works can enhance your grasp of āsanas. Most Sanskrit words end with a short “a” vowel, letting them coalesce with the long “ā” vowel of “āsana” into one compound word—e.g., vṛkṣa + āsana = vṛkṣāsana (tree pose). Knowing how words are joined together will allow you to break them apart. For instance, take “paścimottānāsana.” The word “paścimottāna” is actually a combination of paścima (hind, back) and uttāna (stretch); the preceding “a” combines with the following “u” to produce an “o” sound. (This is also the same change that produces the sound “om” from the letters “a,” “u,” and “m”). So by being able to identify the individual words, you can recognize how their meanings are reflected in the physical “grammar” of the pose. Learning Sanskrit is a lifelong pursuit, and infinitely rewarding for a yogi. Knowledge of Sanskrit can give you access to the original insights of the yoga tradition that shape your practice today. With proper pronunciation, and an understanding of their deeper meaning, the refined sounds of Sanskrit can enhance your practice and your mind.
Amit Chaturvedi is a Ph.D student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he studies Sanskrit and Indian philosophical accounts of perception and consciousness. Having taught Sanskrit at the University for several years, he welcomes anyone interested in learning more about Sanskrit to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.