What is Sanskrit?

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I feel like there are three kinds of yoga teachers:

  • the ones who teach only in Sanskrit

  • the ones who teach only in English

  • the ones who blend the two languages

Because I've found that it's most common for teachers to blend the two languages during class, let's chat a bit about Sanskrit. We'll dive into what it is, where it comes from, and some of the key translations that will help you to start understanding it.

It's important to realize that the practice of yoga originated between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago as an oral tradition in northern regions of India. In this ancient tradition, yoga was passed from teacher to student through generations. Sanskrit is the ancient language of India, widely considered the second oldest surviving language to date.

Yoga eventually transitioned from an oral tradition to a written one, and this is when we are introduced to the Rig-Veda - the oldest known text in any Indo-European language. Scholars believe that the Rig-Veda could have originated between 1700-1100 BCE... that's an old book! The Vedas are a collection of songs, mantras, and rituals used by Vedic priest, or Brahmans, and it's written in Sanskrit.

Yoga poses, or asanas are also written in Sanskrit. The word “yoga” itself is a Sanskrit word that loosely translates to “to yoke, join, or concentrate.” If you consider the application of yoga, this is an apt name! Practicing yoga unites the body, breath, and mind to develop discipline and a higher understanding of the world around us.

Hatha yoga, or the origins of the physical practice, was developed as a vehicle for meditation. “Hatha” is a Sanskrit word - Ha means “sun” and tha means “moon,” signifying a sense of balance between the opposing forces within our bodies.

Sanskrit Names for Yoga Poses

Let's break down some common yoga poses and their Sanskrit names, if for no other reason than it's really fun to understand the word combinations.

Balasana

We'll start with an easy one. In Sanskrit bala means "child" and asana always means "pose." Smash 'em together and you get "Child's Pose!"

Virabhadrasana

This is a combination of three Sanskrit words. Vira means "hero," bhadra means "friend," and asana means "pose." This posture was named after the hero Virabhadra from Hindu mythology - you can read that story here!

Bhujangasana

Another name that just smashes two words together. Bhujanga means "cobra" making this the name for Cobra Pose.

Ananda Balasana

You know that balasana means "Child's Pose," but when it has Ananda in front of it the meaning changes. Ananda means "blissful," so when we combine the two for Ananda Balasana we get Happy Baby Pose.

Key Phrases in Sanskrit

Now that you're starting to get a feel for how Sanskrit combines descriptive phrases to generate yoga posture names, let's dive right into key phrases that may help you decipher a pose's name on your own.

Adho

Down or downward

Ardha

Half

Asana

Pose or posture

Baddha

Bound

Drishti

View, vision, or focus

Mantra

Liberated mind (roughly)

Mudra

A seal

Mukha

Face or facing

Namaste

I bow to you

Parsva

On the side

Parvritta

Revolved or twisted

Pranayama

Life-force energy

Supta

Supine, on your back

Urdhva

Up or upward

Uttan

Forward bend

Utthita

Extended

Morgan Casavant