How Learning Sanskrit Can Help You Deepen Your Yoga Practice

September 13, 2021

Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world. Most Sanskrit “texts” are actually rhythmic chants memorized and passed down for thousands of years before writing was even invented! These texts are referred to as “shruti,” meaning “that which was heard.” Due to the complex nature of grammatical rules in Sanskrit the remaining shruti body of works have been perfectly preserved since time immemorial.

I’m no Sanskrit scholar, but I’ve been delving into the language since 2012. A friend gave me her copy of The Bhagavad Gita, thinking I’d enjoy it. Sure enough, the incredible depth and gorgeousness of the poetry had me hooked. I couldn’t stop reading. Desperate to understand the work in pure Sanskrit without the dilution of translation, I discovered Sanskrit courses online. I kept meticulous notes and bought translations of multiple texts. Although I have not met my ultimate goal of fluency, my understanding of and love for Sanskrit has deepened.

Sanskrit itself is enchantingly beautiful and inherently poetic. Nearly all surviving Sanskrit texts are composed in poetic meter (including the longest poetic work ever composed, The Mahabharata). Moreover, Sanskrit has words for complex philosophical concepts which provide essential knowledge for Yogis. Without Sanskrit, one misses out on even the original names of every yoga asana (pose)!

Interestingly, words in Sanskrit are thought to be the “essence” of whatever object or idea they describe; there is no separation between the word and the object itself. A rose is a rose by any other name, except in Sanskrit! Thus, the names for asanas are the very asanas themselves. This linguistic concept deftly illumines the Vedic idea of Advaita or “non-duality.” In the simplest terms, Advaita is spiritual non-separation or oneness with everything.

The word yoga translates to “yoke, to join, to unite.” As yogis, our ultimate goal is to quiet our minds and feel unity with all that exists. Although the practice of yoga is often thought of as asana (poses or literally “seat”), asana is just one eighth of the yogic path. Many modern yoga practitioners are taught a yoga divorced from its heritage, thereby impeding their journey as yogis.

Often thought of as the quintessential Yogic text, the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali lists all 8 limbs of yoga. Patanjali explains how one can pursue the inner path to enlightenment by various means. While understanding the concepts within the texts are important, the sound of spoken Sanskrit is given equal (if not more) weight. It’s thought that the vibrational quality of  Sanskrit can impart knowledge, so one can theoretically listen to any Sanskrit texts without understanding a single word and still benefit.

It can take a lifetime of dedication to learn a new language, and by no means is it an easy task! However, if you are serious about pursuing yoga as a spiritual path, it’s imperative to begin imbibing Sanskrit. Within Sanskrit texts like the Mandukya Upanishad one can learn gems such as the four parts of Om and how they relate to the concept of advaita (non-duality).

Looking for a place to start?

I highly recommend Arsha Bodha Center, which has a multitude of interesting, informative, and often humorous lessons on Sanskrit texts complete with PDFs. If you’re looking for an introduction to basic concepts, check out their classes on the Bhagavad Gita. I also really enjoy The Sanskrit Channel on Youtube, which delves into various subjects and stresses the importance of India’s cultural heritage through the preservation of ancient knowledge. Both of these resources are free, though they do take donations.

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Photo: Chari Folscher via Unsplash

Jessica Ferguson
Jessi is an American expat living in India with her husband, child, and animal companions. She has been vegan for close to a decade and cares for sick and injured freely roaming animals with her husband. If she's not chasing after dogs or a toddler, Jessi can usually be found snuggling local cows, doing yoga, or meditating. For glow-ups of cute free roaming animals, check out @Karunya4animals on twitter!

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