Lately I have attended a range of yoga classes around town and very much enjoyed them, with one minor catch. During classes, as well as in yoga focussed conversation, I’ve started to notice a lot of Sanskrit words pronounced, let’s just say, less than accurately.
I’m sure to lots of yoga enthusiasts this is no big deal at all. Perhaps it is as insignificant as your waiter pronouncing prosciutto more like proskeeto. Hearing in depth discussions on ‘shaarkraas’ (cakra – the c is pronounced ‘ch’), however, inspired me to ponder whether or not it is important to pronounce Sanskrit terms correctly.
Now, let me state right away that I am no expert on the topic and I’m absolutely not perfect in pronouncing Sanskrit or even knowing all the asana names in the book. I have studied Sanskrit probably a little bit more than many yoga teachers, but it is a language that can be, and probably should be, studied over the course of a life time. Sanskrit is a phonetic language (based on sound) and its grammar is highly complex. Many of the sounds required for correct Sanskrit pronunciation are unfamiliar to the native English speaker. Learning Sanskrit is daunting and generally not even lightly covered in the average yoga teacher training. It’s also not vernacular, so it’s not like we can pop out for a post-work coffee and spoken Sanskrit lesson.
In my earliest days as a yoga student I recall loving the sound of the asana names. They sounded exotic, ancient and musical. It was one of the things that inspired me to learn more about yoga. Ten years later I found myself studying Sanskrit grammar at university. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted and my background in yoga was really no advantage. However, what I began to find was that my understanding of asana names, mantras, and even phrases from the Indian epics like the Rāmāyaṇa, began to expand. I also developed a profound respect for this truly ancient, subtle, and finely crafted language. Goldman, a Sanskrit scholar and teacher comments that:
‘… it has served as the very medium of much of the finest in India’s long and illustrious history of art, science, philosophy, and religion.’
So, what, I hear you ask, has this got to do with western Yoga teachers getting their asaanas and aasanas (asana – emphasis on the first a) confused? Well, here’s where I came to in my reflections:
Sanskrit is highly revered in India and as adopters of an important part of the Indian cultural heritage it is respectful to at least try to pronounce Sanskrit terms correctly. Modern yoga is situated in a very different time and cultural setting than the yoga we find in medieval Sanskrit texts like Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Sanskrit language itself provides modern yoga with one of its strongest links to the teachings of the past. A more accurate use of Sanskrit could be viewed as a way to recognise both the cultural heritage of these teachings as well as our connection with them.
When I stand at the front of a class, I am in effect the resident expert in my field. It’s respectful to my students to put some careful attention into the things I teach and the words I use. Most yoga teachers bang on about being mindful, so why not apply the same mindful approach to presenting yoga teachings. This is no less than we would encourage our students to do.
Most students listen closely to what their teachers say and some enjoy the sound of Sanskrit words and try to memorise them, much like I did in those early classes. I personally think it makes things a little bit easier for them by giving a pronunciation at least approximately like they would have heard elsewhere.
Meaning & Effect
As I’ve said, Sanskrit is phonetic, so if you make a different sound, the word will mean something entirely different. Nicolai Bachman gives this example: ‘mala means “impurity” and in Ayurveda translates to “feces, urine or sweat” mālā [maalaa] means “necklace of beads, garland, rosary”.
Granted, there aren’t too many students, or even teachers, who will catch the difference between mala (mala) or maalaa (mālā) or know that they mean different things. Having said that, sound and meaning do become important when considering the chanting of mantras. In many tantric and Hindu traditions, mantras are considered akin to a purification practice or magical formula. The sounds that comprise the mantra are the key to the mantra’s effectiveness. From this perspective, correct pronunciation is vitally important to the effect of the mantra.
In the end it’s completely up to the individual to decide whether or not they feel inspired to look into Sanskrit pronunciation more deeply. I’m confident yoga will continue to become more and more popular and deliver plenty of benefits either way. In spite of this, it is worth considering that learning how to accurately pronounce Sanskrit can become a more mindful and effective yoga practice. It can demonstrate respect for the Indian cultural heritage and recognise modern yoga’s links to it.
For those that wish to delve into Sanskrit a little or a lot more deeply, see my references.
Namo vaḥ 😉
Here’s a clip from Nicolai Bachman on his top 10 mispronounced Sanskrit words by yoga teachers.
Goldman, R & Goldman, S. 2011. Devavāṇīpraveśikā: An Introduction to the Sanskrit Language. Sri Jainendra Press: Delhi.
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