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Sanskrit vs. English

Posted by Stephanie B.

I recently suggested to someone here that we should try to include the English names of the poses and not just Sanskrit. I want to explain my position on this (you are free to disagree).

I have taken some yoga teacher training, and in many yoga teacher trainings you need to learn the Sanskrit names because that's tradition and for practical reasons. The practical reason is that there's only ONE Sanskrit name for a single pose that might have a variety of English names.

(For example, some people call Wheel "Upward Facing Bow.")

While I think Sanskrit is a beautiful language and can be especially wonderful in a chant or for meditation, I think that our modern English is better suited to naming poses for modern people.

A label of a pose is simply a label. Dogmatic use of sanskrit when an English label can do is mere pretention and can intimidate or turn off new people coming into yoga.

I suppose there are those who say "to heck with those who don't like it" but I really don't see the point in that. I personally find the Sanskrit names to be confusing (and I'm a person who is good at memorizing). I never hear ANYONE calling Cobra or Downward Facing Dog by their Sanskrit names in regular classes. (Even in the classical yoga classes I go to they call them "Cobra" and then "Inverted V.")

When I go to a class that is a mixed level for the public, I get seriously annoyed at teachers who insist on using the more obscure Sanskrit names, especially for basic poses like Downward Facing Dog. This may be my bias, but I feel the teacher is showing off by doing this and more concerned about appearing knowledgeable than actually helping the students.

On a more practical note, Sanskrit names are also harder to hear at times. (Uttanasana and Utkatasana sound too similar especially in the back of the classroom.)

Finally, there is no reason to suggest that general Sanskrit is more spiritually powerful than English. As Dr. Emoto showed with his "Messages from Water," positive words from ALL languages seem to have positive vibrations.

I do not think tradition should supplant accessibility in yoga. Furthermore, I hardly think it is disrespectful to use English names. Language is simply a means to an end - it is meant to COMMUNICATE.

These are just my thoughts. Feel free to disagree!

Comments (30)
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I agree with you on this one. I think that a lot of times, yoga buffs tend to use Sanskrit words because it makes them feel more authentic, which is just irritating to me in general, especially because they seldom understand the significance (or the pronunciation--sorry, I'm Indian!) behind the words. I don't think it's disrespectful to use English names, either. I think that attaching yoga to its original tradition, however much it's become more of a global practice, is important, however--but I don't necessarily think that's something that needs to be exclusively done through retaining the original Sanskrit names.

In some ways, I resist the idea that yoga is something that should be divorced/excised from its original spiritual roots and heritage. There are aspects of yoga that, to me, are culturally specific because of how I grew up and how I learned the practice, and I do find it somewhat irritating when those aspects are jettisoned or watered down.

Hmm, the more I think about this, the more interesting it seems to me. Overall, while I do agree with the fact that English names can and should be used more for each of the poses, I'm not totally sure that language is simply a means to an end. For example, take the word "namaste." Sometimes it seems kind of airy-fairy when people end a class by saying it, but at the same time, there is no word in the English language that quite symbolizes the meaning of "namaste." I think that because we live in a culture that is so monolinguistic, it makes assimilating words from other languages that much more difficult, but perhaps the best thing to do in order to welcome yoga newbies into the fold is to use both English and Sanskrit words for the asanas (uh, I mean, poses!). I've had a lot of teachers who stick to the English words for each pose and that doesn't bother me at all, but I think it might be nice to have them side by side with their original Sanskrit, at least to connect people to the fact that this is a wonderful, ancient practice.

And, to get off on a slightly different subject, in terms of sticking close to the tradition, I think there are definitely ideas about yoga dating back thousands of years that should be adapted to our modern day culture but as I was saying before, I don't think it's totally useful to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Of course, I don't think people should HAVE to use yoga as some sort of spiritual tool--if they get a good workout and peace of mind from it, that's great--but for those who do, I believe that having some substantial knowledge of the tradition of yoga and the tenets around it is great.

Thanks for the comments, Nirmala. A few disjointed thoughts... 1) I do like the word "Namaste" but I also like the word "Aloha." However, I would not expect to have to speak Hawaiian just to go to a luau. 2) English words with Sanskrit for poses I don't mind so much...but some of the poses in Sanskrit are a real mouthful. To me that's a practicality thing. Why would you need to say "Virabidrasana" when the term WARRIOR says it better and shorter? The name "Warrior" does not bring up war to me in that context...I feel like a spiritual warrior when I am doing that pose, thanks to the English. 3) I do enjoy Sanskrit for chanting, but there are also plenty of Buddhist chants in Japanese that are also quite powerful. So I don't think the Sanskrit is somehow automatically better - but there's a value in chanting using the old language if just that thousands have gone before and put that positive energy into those old words.

Hey Stephanie, I agree with a lot of what you've said, particularly considering the pragmatic aspect of using the English translations for yoga asanas. I like the word "Aloha" too (!) but what I meant by my comment was actually a direct response to your statement that "language is simply a means to an end." I also think that language creates meaning and a particular way of being in the world that isn't automatically translatable. That doesn't necessarily mean yogis have to use Sanskrit as part of their everyday terminology but for someone who is well versed in the language and understands the nuances and differences from English, I can understand why they might prefer to use Sanskrit. And I agree with you--I don't think Sanskrit is automatically better in any way than other languages when it comes to using it in the context of yoga and whatever someone feels most comfortable with is what they should use. But to me, it is kind of like what you said--it's a way of connecting to the thousands and millions of people who have used the language over the past several centuries. In this country, we are perpetually in danger of losing our connection to tradition, which has its positive aspects but also its negative. I guess I've always personally associated yoga with Sanskrit because the connection is one that's been drummed into my head, as a bicultural person. I actually grew up chanting Sanskrit mantras, so funnily enough, the various names of asanas aren't especially unwieldy for me considering i have family members with multi-syllabic names. :) I don't think that a yoga instructor using Sanskrit words for asanas necessarily has to be alienating--I think that's more dependent on the teacher's intention and method of interacting with students. For my part, I can say that I'd much prefer a straight-shooting yogi who sticks to the English words rather than an airy-fairy one who spouts Sanskrit (without so much as a context) and makes yoga inaccessible by virtue of his or her attitude.

The yoga teachers I've trained with like to use a mixture of both English and Sanskrit. I like that method best, because if they did the class using only Sanskrit, it might get confusing, but if they did it in only English, I think my yoga classes would lose their atmosphere. the Sanskrit words evoke a kind of calm (as the origin, the real meaning, of the pose is in the Sanskrit and not in the translation) and mystery (because I don't actually know Sanskrit so the words are mysterious) to my practice, something I don't want to lose.

I absolutely do not mind if teachers mix Sanskrit with the English - that can be very nice. I was thinking about this during a Sivananda class last week and listening to see what the teachers there say. They primarily use English for the names of the postures. But since we are starting off and ending the yoga session with chanting in Sanskrit, and we do pranayama, there is plenty of atmosphere - in fact, much more than you would get in a regular yoga class.
Funny, I was just thinking this in my yoga class this morning. Everyday we say this long chant in Ashtanga, that I stil can't say after many months of practice. I feel that it doesn't mean anything to me because it is someone else's language, and it might be beneficial if we went through it in English. I think of mix of both languages is most helpful, we don't want to get rid of sanskrit, just understand what it means to us.

The words yoga and hatha and ashtanga are sanskrit words. We know them because this is the only word we use for what we are describing. We don't say "to yoke" and "sun-moon" instead of yoga and hatha.

When describing the poses, there are many versions of the English translations. Each tradition uses a different name and can lead to confusion. The sanskrit, however, is constant. Wheel pose, for instance, is chakrasana. It is not the same pose as upward bow, which is urdva danurasana. Yet some traditions and teachers call upward bow by hte name wheel. If we only ever used the sanskrit words for poses the same way we do for "yoga" and "hatha" then those names are what the students would learn and know. I therefore understand, and agree with, why a teacher would only use the sanskrit. However, since it is already common that there are many English translations and variables, it makes sense that a teacher would use both versions, naming the sanskrit and the common English name. Sometimes, however, there is no good translation. For instance, in another discussion, a teacher listed "Supta Padangustasana" and another asked for the English translation. The literal English translation is "Lying down Big Toe Foot Posture." This obviously isn't a very good means of bringing the name of the pose into English. Sometimes, because of the difficulty in translation, the English version is whatever the teacher has decided to call it, like "reclined leg stretches." But because this can entail a whole list of possible asanas, the sanskrit is sometimes preferable, as it leads to less confusion.

Case in point: My sister called me today to say she had injured her knee in "Swan" and to seek advice.

It took some time to figure out that the pose she called swan, I know by Pidgeon Prep.

There are some poses I always use the sanskrit for: Dandasana, Chaturanga, Supta Padangustasana. This is my own preference, although I usually mix sanskrit and english, listing the sanskrit first, then the english.

The few yoga classes I have taken, this is what made me feel out of place. Versus other gym classes where the teacher explains what position they want you to do, the yoga classes I participated in just named the poses. I felt very out of place and behind because I would have to look around the room to figure out what to do. I'm sure after going to a few classes I would pick up on the names.

Maybe I'll give yoga another try and Planet Granite's studio this weekend.

I second Nirmala's thoughts. When we choose to adapt something about a culture, it needs to be wholehearted and complete, not a pick-and-choose what is convenient isnt it?

Good points, Candice. I hadn't even thought about the fact that there may be several different English variations on one pose, which is why the Sanskrit would make a lot more sense to use. If people find the words difficult to pronounce, it would also be a good idea to have the poses written out somewhere in the class, where students and newbies can take note of them. Also, it irritates me when teachers do chanting in class without some sort of guide that shows students the words, translation, significance, etc.

All interesting points. For me, I don't find the Sanskrit any less confusing...I'm a smart person but the names just don't stick in my brain. As someone who has spent years being a casual yoga practitioner, I feel I have a good sense of how the average person might respond, and even after many years I just don't remember the Sanskrit. If you've gone through a teacher training, however, and you've studied it, then it may come as second nature. But most students don't take yoga teacher training.

Also, we have common names for many poses that we all agree upon. Cobra is cobra. Downward facing dog is universally known. Plank is plank. Triangle is triangle. For these it's really not necessary to use the Sanskrit.

But I think the best point is brought up by Larisa - a good teacher shouldn't just say the name of a pose, but lead you into the pose so that you aren't left guessing.

Well yeah! A good teacher would demonstrate the pose and then lead you into it. But that's more than just what we call the poses, that's good teaching methodology. You know I've heard downward dog called upside down "V" pose. C'mon. I agree that it's easier to say cobra or downdog or triangle, and these are commonly the names I use for said poses in class.

As for the way I teach, I can't speak for others here, but in my own classes, let's say I'm teaching dandasana. I show the pose, then guide the students into the pose, then walk around and adjust the pose. Of course I'm a more "static" pose kind of teacher. But once we've done the pose that in depth, I will sometimes come back to a pose several times in the same class, and after the initial introduction, I do say "take dandasana" rather than go through and demonstrate again, etc. At this point the students are familiar with it. But if I were to simply say "take dandasana" out of the blue, most of my students would not know what pose I am asking for.

I think some of the issue is not what language teachers use but the quality of their teaching methodology.

Mindful replies all, to a very juicy post.

I do not know what "regular" class means nor can I speak to Stephanie's experience with language usage in "classical" classes. I'm simply not there.

There is no room in Yoga for dogma. However it is no less dogmatic to use ONLY English than it may be to use ONLY Sanskrit. Both positions may be held for no reason whatsoever. At the end of the day though the student's life should be served.

Language is fascinating. And there is a definite lack of English all around us. Look at law and medicine. Why say corpus juris secundum when you can say encyclopedia of law. Why say you've got an issue with the brachial plexus or a myocardial infarction when you can just say "shoulder" or "heart attack". Even your massage therapist tells you he's working on your levator scapulae. Can't he just say "thingie that raises your shoulder blade". Maybe it's tradition, I don't know. I do know this, we don't have much empirical evidence that English has facilitated a greater degree of communication amongst people. We surely have lots of words but many cannot properly structure a sentence while others cannot consistently apply "their, there, they're" in the correct context. We are misunderstood in our native tongue all day long. We need look only as far as our most recent conflict with our partner or the latest posting on Craigslist.

There are two perspectives at play here. That of the teacher and that of the student.

To me a yoga teacher should do as much as they possibly can to make yoga accessible and enjoyable to the population - without sacrificing that which they hold true regarding yoga. In that way there is plenty of room to move AND a healthy boundary that respects the lineage and teachings of the teacher and therefore Yoga itself. In class I will use mostly Sanskrit but some English, when it serves the function of learning for the student. I use Sanskrit not to appease my own Ego nor to mindlessly follow a tradition. I use it because asana and Sanskrit are intertwined. They are married and it is not to me to divorce them. I use it because Sanskrit was the language of transmission to my teacher's teacher, then it was the language of transmission to him, then he shared it with me. And, as though that is not enough, the language itself is beautiful and unifying in it's sound, vibration, and simplicity.

However, if the student cannot learn the practice by way of Sanskrit because he cannot hear well, choses not to hear well, remains in the back of the class, does not pay attention, is impatient with his/her own learning curve, or has a belief system so tightly wound that the 1st Infantry couldn't get in there...then the teacher of yoga must do what she/he can to reach even that student. But it is not the fault of Sanskrit. And it is not (always) the pompous nature of the teacher.

A student who prefers English, prefers English. A student who prefers jumping around and getting sweaty prefers it. A student who just wants to plop down there in child's pose simply wants that. The crafty yoga teacher holds the vast body of wisdom know as "yoga" AND tries to find appropriate ways to meet the needs of the student, even if she/he doesn't yet know what they are.

At the end of the day the practice must serve the student. If it can ONLY be so using English then English must be used. But we should all take a bit more responsibility for the areas in our mind that are not yet as supple as the areas in our hamstrings. er the big muscle in the back of the upper leg.

I do know this, we don't have much empirical evidence that English has facilitated a greater degree of communication amongst people.

Gordon, you hit the nail on the head! This is something I wanted to express in an earlier posting myself. In terms of how things get communicated or transmitted, language seems to play almost a peripheral role, since we are constantly in danger of misinterpreting/misunderstanding each other. To reiterate, I can see how the usage of both English and Sanskrit may benefit the unseasoned practitioner, but personally, I don't need to replace "Surya Namaskar" with "Sun Salutation" simply for the purpose that I am a predominantly English speaker. I think I have a preference for the Sanskrit words not only for their beauty and poetry, but because of the historical context of the practice. To me, it's similar to Latinate taxonomy--we don't go around back-translating medical/scientific terms into English willy-nilly because they'd be easier to understand. Respect for the annals of human experience, in addition to the simple need to acknowledge that English itself is an extremely hybridized language, make me that much more open to embracing life, even when it's in an unfamiliar tongue.

Thanks, again, Stephanie, for introducing this invigorating discussion!

As a beginner, I have to say that while I appreciate learning the Sanskrit terms (and I am trying diligently), it helps me immensely for my teachers to use the English terms. I don't hear well. I make every effort to compensate. I arrive early to class, I position myself at the front as close to the teacher as possible, I let the teachers know before class that I don't hear well and I pay extra attention since it is my problem and not the teacher's or the rest of the class. The English version helps me for exactly the reason Stephanie said: so many of the Sanskrit terms sound the same or similar.

For me, the benefits of yoga are so far beyond the physical. It helps me to be more mindful of my attitudes and the effects of my actions/inactions. It helps me be a kinder, more tolerant, more aware person. I think that anything that helps people learn those lessons is valuable and makes the world a better place in general. So limiting yoga classes to Sanskrit can be counterproductive.

I guess that I see using the English terms in addition to Sanskrit as another adjustment that a good teacher would make to facilitate bringing the gift that yoga can be to the widest population possible.

I agree. I like hearing the Sanskirt names - and my current teacher is really good at breaking them down into their parts so that they make sense - but as a practical matter, when it's time for Downward Dog, you need to tell me in English!

Stephanie -- I completely agree with you. As a yoga instructor, I have witnessed many students leave a yoga class never to return because the Sanskrit is too intimidating or confusing for them. My response to those who say "to heck with those who don't like it" is that yoga is meant to be an inclusive and accessible practice. Why shut people out? I have many students who speak English as a 2nd or 3rd language. To use yet another language (exclusively) could take more away from the student's ability to participate.

I also agree that there can be a lot of confusion with English names of poses. I liken it to making spaghetti sauce; everyone has a different recipe but (generally) it all works out in the end. No matter how the pose is described, as long as the studently gets into it safely, and to the best of his/her ability - it all works out in the end.

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