Reflections On The Use Of Sanskrit

It was my second day of work at Yoga on the Lake when the conversation turned to using Sanskrit names for yoga poses in class.

“It can be tough,” Deb, the studio manager, acknowledged. “I had trouble with Utthita Hasta Padangustasana for a while – I kept calling it something else.” She laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Malyssa, the retail guru, said. “We don’t know what you’re saying anyway. You could say, ‘exhale into purple-asana’ and we’d just go, ‘oh what an interesting pose.'”

We all laughed and I blushed as I thought of the number of times I’d called Half Moon Pose “Articundrasana” (like the Pokemon Articuno) instead of “are-dah CHan-DRAHS-anna.”

I received my 200-hour yoga teacher certification from Yoga to the People, a studio that tries to remove as many barriers to entry for new students as possible. One of these barriers is teaching in Sanskrit, which some Western students, particularly religious students, sometimes find off putting.

As a result we spent significantly less time on memorizing Sanskrit names than on other aspects of teaching.

I strongly identify with their “yoga is for everyone” philosophy and for the past year I’ve been happy teaching my classes in English. Yet, over that time I’ve also come to see two distinct advantages that favor teaching in Sanskrit:

1) Teaching in Sanskrit Helps Connect the Class to Yoga’s Spiritual Roots – One of the things I love most about yoga is that after a practice I feel nourished in body, mind, and spirit. Sometimes I feel like an asana teacher, rather than a yoga instructor, and I worry that my students are missing out on some of the benefits that yoga can bring.

2) Sanskrit is Yoga’s Universal Language – I’ve had a few non-English speaking students in my classes. They usually do okay by watching the other students, but if I taught in Sanskrit (and they practiced with Sanskrit) they’d be able to follow along without language becoming an issue. Similarly, teaching in Sanskrit would allow my students to travel to non-English speaking countries and still practice without difficulty.

So, what do I do?

Hit the books, re-memorize all the poses, and change my teaching style?


I’ve thought about re-learning the Sanskrit then only using it for certain classes (like if I have a non-English speaking student). However, not only would that be confusing for my regular students, but, when it comes to yoga dialogue, if you don’t use it you lose it.

So, what do I do?

In my article Is It Okay To Want A Better Butt? I mentioned how creating a hierarchy for yoga practice makes me uncomfortable. Something about the claim that coming to your mat for one reason is more righteous than another rubs me the wrong way.

Similarly, if I do decide to change my teaching style so drastically, I feel like I’m declaring that using Sanskrit is better than teaching in English. If I made such a change I would describe it as “growing as a teacher,” strengthening the implication of hierarchy, and yet the benefits of teaching in Sanskrit listed above feel undeniable.

In yoga practice we learn how to deal with paradox.

In Warrior II we open our hips to the side of the room, which, unless you have very open hips, drags your front knee in. This isn’t safe, so we must also draw our knees toward the pinky-side edge of the foot. These are two opposite impulses we must balance.

It’s true that teaching in Sanskrit is sometimes better than teaching in English. It’s equally true that teaching in English is sometimes better than teaching in Sanskrit.

Just like dropping to your back knee in a crescent twist will allow you to twist more deeply but maintaining the lunge will provide more heat, each time we teach we must make the choice we feel will best serve our students.

So, perhaps the language of “better” might not be inappropriate in this context.

Another mantra from my teacher training was “for whom and when.”

Maybe true growth as a teacher comes in being able to do both and then recognizing when to use each style of class.

Yet, that answer feels unsatisfying because we will always have a “default style” that we teach, so a value judgement seems unavoidable.

In all honesty my thoughts on this subject aren’t completely decided.

I think I’ll just sit here, in purple-asana, and keep thinking about it.

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  1. You could do both in one class, like say “Go into (Sanskrit) or (English)” or something…

    • The Ink Slinger says:

      True, though that IS what I would consider a Sanskrit class because if a student will be made uncomfortable by Sanskrit then they will by both as well…

  2. When I listen to Dharma talks, the teachers often use both Pali and English. They use the Pali to explain the nuance, because often there isn’t an exact English equivalent and conversation is around the context of the Pali and how to get the meaning or intention of the word without a direct translation. That happens in Hebrew to English translations in drash conversations. Since you are talking about a specific pose, there may not be that same nuance, but there is value in original language in contemporary context.

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