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February 2010 Why Sanskrit?

Dear Yoga Friends,

Wouldn't it be easier just to do triangle pose, as opposed to doing utthita trikonasana? Is there any reason to hang on to this archaic language and terminology, any benefit? Before answering yes or no, it's important to acknowledge that there is a broad range of commitment to using Sanskrit in yoga.

On one extreme, there are those who don't see it's relevance at all, replace all names of poses with English names, and would not use any traditional Sanskrit words other than the term yoga, and maybe not even that word - they might just say "relaxation exercises", "stretching exercises", or "breath work". On the other end, there are those who study the yoga sutras and other ancient works in their native form and strive to incorporate as much of the original terms and themes as possible in practice and teaching.

My personal feeling is that yoga has more depth and value if we honor the connection to the practitioners and teachers who have preceded us, and to the cultural legacies that produced yoga practice. This does not mean that we must be stuck in the past. On the contrary, perhaps the acknowledgement of the past and those connections helps give us some direction to move toward our own personal relationship with our practice and to be creative. For example, take the word asana. Yes, we could just say "pose", but asana invokes so much more, a dynamic state of mind and body where there is total focus, where each part of us is infused with sensitivity and action. Meanings of yoga terms have become richer over the generations, and the words can carry a greater payload.

We stretch a lot in yoga, and for some it can be a relatively strong stretch to become comfortable with the invocation that typically begins an Iyengar class (transliteration and translation included below). I personally felt awkward when first exposed to this invocation. What does a thousand-headed cobra have to do with my stiff hamstrings? But I gradually got more comfortable with it when I realized that this invocation honors something larger than the individual self - an archetypal teacher, and by inference, all teachers and yoga's teachings. Patanjali's contributions to grammar and medicine demonstrate commitments to truth and healing. And the reference to Patanjali's legendary form suggest a connection to millennia of spiritual culture and our human attempts to relate to the unimaginable.

Your comments or questions on these musings are greatly appreciated.

Be well, and Namaste (which, you might already know, means "I salute the divine within you" :-)


Invocation to Patanjali


Yogena chittasya padena vajam

Malam sharirasya ja vaidyakena

Yopa karot tam pravaram muninam

Patanjalim pranjalir anato smi

Abahu purushakaram

Shanka chakrasi dharinam

Sahasra shirasam shvetam

Pranamami Patanjalim


To the noblest of sages, Patanjali,

Who gave Yoga for serenity of mind,

Grammar for purity of speech,

and Medicine for perfection of the body, I bow.

I prostrate before Patanjali,

Whose upper body has a human form,

Whose arms hold a conch and disc,

Who is crowned by a thousand-headed cobra,

O incarnation of Adisesa, my salutations to thee.


Chad Balch