Sanskrit Words: An Introduction to the Ancient Language of Yoga


If you practice Yoga, then you’ve seen some Sanskrit words. To some Yoga enthusiasts, this peculiar new language ads a certain charm to the ancient and mysterious practice of Yoga.  Others may find it less then relevant to their ambitions, and others still may find it an unnecessary nuisance.

I want to make a few brief comments here about these Sanskrit words, so that the novice, the initiated, and even the disinterested, may gain a better appreciation for this ancient language and a general understanding of its place within Yoga.

What is Sanskrit?

Sanskrit is the oldest language known to humanity. It is considered to be the very origin of language itself; that from which all languages have arisen or evolved. The Vedas, the universally accepted first scriptures of humanity, were written in the Sanskrit language.

There is also a deeply rooted faith among South Asian Indians that Sanskrit itself is the language of the Devas (Gods), which is why this language was known during the Vedic period (6,000 – 8,000 years ago) as Daivi Vak (the Divine speech). The great grammarian, Pānini, structured this language with his grammar in the 7th century BC, and henceforth, it became referred to as Samskritam.

Numerous important works from a cultural, spiritual and scientific standpoint, were written in this ancient language. All of the classic literature of Vedic times was written in Sanskrit too, included the classical texts of Yoga, Vedanta and other spiritual and philosophical schools of ancient times, as well as the historical texts in the great sciences of astrology, astronomy, medicine, architecture and the physical sciences.

The Essence of Sanskrit

As Quantum physics has now revealed to us, anything and everything consists of vibration. The primary essence of any object or phenomena, then, could be thought of as its own unique pattern, or composite patterns, of vibration.

It is said that the language of Sanskrit itself arises from these vary root sounds or vibrations of the Universe. The various vowels and consonants that make up Sanskrit words represent these core sounds, known as bijas. Whilst in states of deep resonance with the cosmos (in other words, while in meditation), the Rishis, the ancient spiritual scientists, could perceive these bija sounds; and from this profound sense of perception, they recognized the inherent sounds of each and every thing.

A Sanskrit word, then, is not merely a word chosen to name something, but an actual reflection of the inherent ‘sound’ of that object, concept or phenomena. In fact, proper, or rather, perfect, pronunciation of Sanskrit words, it is told, can replicate the exact nature, or essence, of that which it is referring too.

It is also told that if one’s mind was utterly pure, then upon hearing this perfectly pronounced symbol, the Sanskrit word, the image of that object, idea, etc., would immediately appear within the mind and the ‘field of understanding’ of this individual, even if they had never seen or heard of this thing or idea before. Likewise, the perfect pronunciation of a Sanskrit word has the power to manifest and/or influence that particular thing. Sanskrit, for this very reason, is referred to as the ‘perfect language’.

This is, at heart, the essence of one of the principles behind mantra chanting in the Vedic tradition. Today there are very few who possess this precise knowledge and ability of ‘perfect enunciation’, and fewer still who are pure enough of mind to be able to receive the innate truths of this language upon hearing it.

Sanskrit in Yoga Today

The underlying power of the Sanskrit language is a force that is not known to most who practice Yoga today. This lack of understanding has lead to a hasty and reckless casting aside of Sanskrit terms in the modern Yoga world, for simple, powerless English words that denude the practice of Yoga of much of its subtle, yet profound potency.

In fact, many of the techniques and practices of Yoga have been tagged with wildly inaccurate names at the hands of some notable, perhaps well-intentioned, but careless individuals. One highly influential yogi of the 21st century, whose system of Yoga practices is known world-wide, has himself admitted to simply making up many of the names that are now commonplace in the vocabulary of modern day Yoga .

Probably the most recognized Yoga position today is the ‘downward facing dog’. A corresponding Sanskrit word, Adho Mukha Svanasana, has also been invented to match this. This is, however, erroneous. There is no such name for an asana in the tradition of Yoga.

In fact, anyone who understands Indian culture would also know that a dog is considered a very unclean creature, much on the level that Westerners would consider a rat to be, and hence, the ancients would not have named any profound, spiritual practices after it.
So what is the proper term for downward dog? It’s Meru Asana. Meru refers to the sacred Mount Meru, considered to reside at the centre of the Universe. This Yoga pose, then, represents stability, balance, strength and support on all levels; not the stretch-like action of your pet getting up from its afternoon nap!

Yet the modern yoga culture is filled with examples such as these. Here’s a few more:


Rediscovering Sanskrit Words

Even though the understanding and use of Sanskrit words in Yoga has fallen off, none the less, it remains a powerful force to be rediscovered in Yoga. Though you may not aspire to become a Sanskrit scholar, or even to delve much further into this ancient language then this very page, I encourage you to be mindful of its use and its profound importance in Yoga.

For those who really care to know the depth and profoundness of Yoga, study of the ancient scriptures and knowledge of the Sanskrit language is essential. The Sanskrit literature is a veritable treasure-house of knowledge, only a fraction of which has been translated into our contemporary languages. 

Article by: Yogacharya
Yogacharya is a senior teacher in the Rishiculture Ashtanga Yoga lineage of Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri Gurumaharaj (pictured behind others in the photo), of Pondicherry India. He is the Founder and Director of International Yogalayam, an online school of Yoga, and Managing Editor of The Yoga News, a web-based monthly Yoga magazine.

(Yogacharya, far left photo; also pictured: far left, Dr. Ananda Bhavanani; middle, Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani)

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