Modern yoga classes are often taught with a mixture of English and Sanskrit language – “downward facing dog”, “warrior two’ and “mountain pose” might seem a little more accessible to the majority of Western practitioners after all. However, the ancient Indo-European Sanskrit language still used in parts of India today actually has real depth, beauty and meaning behind each syllable and word.
Sanskrit is a vibrational language, meaning that each word does not just simply label or describe something, but it holds the very essenceof the object itself. For instance, the Sanskrit word Vrksa is usually translated as ‘tree’, but it really represents the essence of a tree; the feeling of the wood, the beauty of the plants and flowers that might adorn it, the roots, the earth and the time it’s taken to grow. When Sanskrit is spoken, the words are embodied and deliberate, and within the Sanskrit alphabet, all the movements of the mouth are used.
Do yoga teachers have to use Sanskrit? Of course not, especially when we’re teaching a western population who are doing their best to remember the physicality of each posture, let alone the name! As a teacher of yoga however, I believe it’s important to have an awareness of where the asanas originated and their initial intentions and names. When we delve a little deeper into our understanding of yoga, we can really reap great benefit from knowing a little more about the Mother tongue of our much-loved practice.
Yoga ~ To Yoke
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, there’s a chance the teacher has explained their interpretation of the definition of yoga. The Sanskrit word yoke is said to refer to the yoking or joining of two things together, as in the joining of horses to a chariot. Union could refer to the sense of unity felt after a yoga class – rather than the usual scattered mind and wandering thoughts, there might be a feeling of actually being a whole and connected being.
There is another way to understand the meaning of ‘yoga’ though – or at least the essence behind it. We can understand the practice of yoga as ‘disentanglement’ – figuring out what we’re not, in order to understand what and who we are. As the poet Rumi put it “I am not this hair, I am not this skin; I am the soul that lives within”. The understanding that we are in fact not our thoughts is something many people relate to when starting a yoga practice, and as we gradually untangle and unwind through postures, breathing and meditation, we uncover who we really, truly are. As there’s such an abundance of knowledge, wisdom and mysticism threaded throughout yoga, it’s worth taking the time to dive a little deeper and understand the essence of what it really means to practise a warrior pose, how the way we breathe can change the way we live, and why enlightenment might actually be closer to us than we think….
Asana (a yoga posture) is where most of us begin the yoga journey. The translation of the word asana is actually ‘seat’, originally referring to the posture or seat taken for meditation. While the modern Western world tends to focus more upon dynamic movements to develop strength and flexibility of the body, the ancient yogis were more interested in developing strength and flexibility of the mind. Nonetheless, the physical practice of yoga postures is a world of its own and there’s no end to the depths at which we could discuss the deeper meaning behind each posture.
You may have noticed that all the yoga postures end with “asana” – Trikonasana is a good example. “Tri” is Sanskrit for the number Three, “Kon” is Sanskrit for Angle, followed by “Asana” – pose. So it is “three angle pose” – or more commonly Triangle Pose.
Virabhadrasana ~ Often known as ‘Warror 1’ or ‘Warrior 2’
There’s a reason each asana is named after an animal, plant, or other aspect of nature – because that’s exactly what surrounded the ancient yogis who came up with the names! Yoga practice would take place outside in the cool morning air, so as nature surrounded them, it inspired the names for each of the postures we practise in studios today.
The word Vira translates as ‘hero’, and much of the Indian epics and tales speak of stories of heroes and villains. Bhadra means ‘friend’, and of course Asana means ‘seat’ or more commonly now understood as ‘posture’. You might think of Virabhadrasana to therefore represent a friendly warrior and a protector – one of the good guys.
When we know the Sanskrit names of the postures and what they represent, we can then move on to embodying the essence of the posture. This warrior isn’t fierce or violent or out for battle; when we practice Virabhadrasana we’re practising embodying the essence of a strong, heroic, loving, courageous friend. After all, it takes far more courage to be a loving friend than an enemy.