As practitioners of yoga we are among a small percentage of Westerners who have any knowledge at all of Sanskrit. Sure, people are familiar with words like karma and guru, but most are unaware of their origins or even their true definitions. While Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages on Earth, only about 14,000 Indians (out of 1.252 billion!) claim it as their native tongue. Sanskrit is often thought of as a dead language. So why study it?
Sanskrit is the language of yoga with a capital “Y.” It transports the practice beyond the act of stretching on a mat into a richer philosophic and historic context that is the yogic tradition. Its sounds are perfectly aligned with the human vocal structure so that simply uttering them results in a physical experience through the vibrations they create. The Vedics believed that the sound of each word conveyed its energetic meaning. So when a mantra is chanted or a Sanskrit term is used to name a pose, the practitioner experiences a union of sound and body that resonates deeply within and transmits out in all directions.
Because of the powerful vibrational qualities and meanings inherent in each sound, it’s important to learn and teach Sanskrit with proper pronunciation. Taking a workshop with an experienced teacher (we happen to have one this coming weekend!) is an excellent way to gain familiarity with the sacred sounds, the alphabet and a few integral words that can help elevate your yoga practice. An understanding of basic Sanskrit will enable you to delve deeper into, and perhaps gain a renewed understanding of your favorite chants, sutras and philosophical texts.
According to Jay Kumar, the San Francisco-based creator of the instructional CD The Sacred Language of Yoga, “More people are coming to understand that there’s a deep, rich philosophy behind yoga practice—and that Sanskrit is the language by which that philosophy lives, breathes, and flows.”