Sanskrit: to use it or not? And how?

posted by Mara Colbert

A word on Sanskrit

Knowledge of the Sanskrit names of yoga asanas and other related terms lends credibility to a yoga teacher, especially when used sparingly and effectively. That being said, misusing or grossly mispronouncing the Sanskrit, while going unnoticed by most students, will most certainly turn off those who do notice. If you happen to have learned yoga from a teacher or teachers who use it widely in their classes, you will have a better sense of the pronunciation than if you simply read it here or in a book.  My preference is to pepper in Sanskrit in classes, but also to use the English. Sometimes I use them together, such as “Come into toTrikonasana, Triangle pose”, while at other times I will use only one or the other.

Here is a short list of often-used Sanskrit words and prefixes that pertain to yoga postures and that will help you to remember some of the names:

  • Ardha – half
  • Adho – downward
  • Baddha – bound
  • Eka  – one
  • Eka pada – one foot/leg
  • Hasta – hand
  • Kona – angle
  • Mukha – facing
  • Pad- foot
  • Parivrtta –revolved/twisted
  • Parsva/parsvo – side
  • Urdhva – upward
  • Uttan/ottan – intense
  • Utthita – extended
  • Supta – sleeping/supine

While most students and fellow teachers will forgive minor mispronunciations of the Sanskrit, and really, all of us Westerners are pretty much butchering it, I do have a few preferences and pet peeves in terms of Sanskrit pronunciation, or mispronunciation. I will share them with you here, along with a few other pointers:

  • Asana has the emphasis on the first syllable, ah-sun-a not as-ah-na
  • The last syllable of asana is a VERY short a sound which is hard for us to pronounce, especially when it is used as a suffix as in Trikonasana or Savasana. So most of us lengthen it more than we should, hence Trikonasanah, where as some shorten it completely, as in Trikonasan. You have probably heard both, and it is really up to you how you use it.
  • The “ch” in chakra, Chakrasana, and Chaturanga is a hard “ch” as in cheese, not a soft “sh” as in shower.

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I have studied and practiced yoga since 1998 and have made a life of teaching yoga for the past decade. My interest in the full and varied tradition of hatha yoga has always led me to pursue studies in many forms and lineages, including ashtanga, vinyasa, Iyengar, Anusara, and Bikram. I am an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance (YA) at the 200-hour level (E-RYT) having received a “certification” with a concentration in ashtanga yoga at Yoga Yoga Teacher Training in Austin, Texas. I teach what I consider eclectic hatha yoga, and depending on the class, it may be called yoga, yoga flow, hatha yoga, hatha flow, or vinyasa flow. While I have studied many of the major yoga “styles” in depth, I am not married to any one style, and I use what speaks to me and has worked for me over the years. My teaching is informed by the wisdom imparted from the teachers I have learned from, and from my own practice. My in-depth knowledge of various styles of hatha yoga, as well as a thorough understanding of anatomy, physiology, and the strengths and limitations of individual bodies, allows me to tailor each class to suit the participants. Students in my classes receive individual attention, as well as the respect and space they require to discover themselves through the practice of yoga.

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