A discussion I have heard and seen discussed on social media and outside of it, time and time again is the necessity of Sanskrit in Yoga. I believe this conversation has become more and more relevant since the time Yoga started spreading to the world outside India, to places where nobody had ever heard or known Sanskrit.
With the advent of social media and the Internet in general, physical Yoga practices, along with the philosophy and texts, have all become increasingly accessible to anyone interested in them, making this discussion even more intense.
Sanskrit in ancient Yoga
Let us get a bit of context about how Sanskrit figures in all of this, and what other languages may be involved. The primary language for scriptural writing in ancient India was Sanskrit; almost all texts written until a few centuries ago are primarily in Sanskrit. Veda in its entirety is in Sanskrit, in the ancient Vedic version of the language.
In the last few centuries, we have had Yogic texts in English and regional Indian languages written by sages and scholars; some are original texts and many are commentaries on and translations of ancient texts. Commentaries and translations in languages we are familiar with today have made ancient Sanskrit texts more accessible for Yoga students and teachers alike. English and Hindi are the most common languages ancient books have been translated into, although they are slowly becoming available in more and more languages.
If you have read any written text, Yogic or otherwise, that has been translated from another language, you know that it loses out some context as well as some meaning during the translation. This becomes more apparent if you know both languages and you read the original work and then a translation. No matter how good a translation, it can never exactly match the original. This is because every language has a culture, a history associated with it that add depth and layers to the words being written in a text.
Learn Sanskrit for Yoga?
So, this brings us to a question I have seen asked a lot, both within and outside India. Many people who wish to practise Yoga shy away from it because of Sanskrit. Many teacher training programs now do away almost entirely with Sanskrit terms and names so as not to intimidate those wanting to enrol in the courses. One big reason for this absence of Sanskrit from training programs and classes is the non-engagement with the philosophy behind the physical practice of Yoga.
When we practise Yogāsana and Prānāyāma without understanding the thought process behind the practice, the philosophy, it simply becomes exercise. English names of postures often do not do justice to the depth of meaning behind the actual Sanskrit names of traditional postures. These names do not just tell us how the postures look or what it is inspired by, but also talk about the qualities that can be imbibed into our personality and life using the practice.
Staying away from the philosophy means that we miss out on understanding the bigger picture, the Yoga that is practised every moment of every day and not just for an hour on the mat. We miss out on the richness of all that Yoga is and all the ways in which it can enrich our lives by being limited by specific physical or other practice and without the understanding of the idea behind it.
Does this mean we have to learn Sanskrit and study the ancient texts? Not necessarily, especially because most of these texts have numerous commentaries available in many languages. A good way to ensure we are getting a correct understanding is to study at least a few different commentaries from different scholars to bring in a wider perspective to each text. Learning Sanskrit names for traditional Yogāsana and Prānāyāma that we practise and teach regularly along with their meanings can also help bring more perspective to our Yogic journey.
Over time, we may begin to understand the language a bit more, which is wonderful. We do not need to sit down with Sanskrit grammar books and learn the rules, not unless we want to. What we should do is make an effort to go to the root of the practices we do and understand where they come from and why we practise them at all. Doing this can help strike a good balance between Sanskrit and Yoga without having to learn a new language in its entirety.
The philosophy is the reason Yoga is seen as not just a lifelong practice but a practice that goes on for many lifetimes. Even if you do not believe in reincarnation and rebirth, Yoga can be a wonderful companion for the entirety of your life and bring so much joy and peace into everyday living.
Do not let the lack of knowledge of Sanskrit deter you from Yoga or Yogic philosophy. We are blessed to have the kind of access we do today to so many wonderful writings by scholars from all over the world that can help us go deeper into our practice of Yoga.