Have you wondered why Sanskrit is used to describe yoga? Yes, it’s a dead language and might seem unnecessarily arcane in the yoga studio. But consider that Sanskrit contains a nuance that require several English words to express. Sanskrit terms are handy because yoga philosophy and ideas can be expressed in a concise way.
Yoga (derived from Sanskrit yuj): the union of the self with the divine. To yoke. In the Yoga Sutra 1.2, Patanjali defines yoga as “the restriction of the whirls of consciousness.” Yoga is slippery in its definition but describing the practice with its Sanskrit word captures the essence of yoga without needing excessive description.
Samadhi: placing, putting together. The putting together of consciousness and objectiveness. The understanding of the self in relation to the other. The existence within the self while simultaneously escaping the confines of the ego.
Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga and is tricky to understand, much less articulate. Carl Jung took a stab at describing why the concept of Samadhi is best left in its root word. He said that it’s used without definite meaning but instead represents a concept that can only be understood through broad conception of theory. He compares it to asking a man in India what grass feels like. Rather than describing a blade of grass, the man will show you a meadow filled with different types of grass. The concept is articulated by a broad description. Samadhi is a single word that articulates the broad concept of transcendence.
Sanskrit provides a spiritual geography for the practice. The use of the language manifests the ideas of the practice. By representing ideas rather than translating the words, the landscape of the practice is relevant and accessible to modern yogis.
Consider two Sanskrit words: virabhdrasana and avidya
virabhdrasana A, B and C (the warrior series) represent the battle against avidya (the ego).
Avidya translates to ignorance, misunderstanding and incorrect knowledge. The warrior poses are an allegorical battle against fundamental misunderstanding of the self.
Yoga is the restriction of the whirls of consciousness. Samadhi (the “goal” of yoga) is existence while escaping the confines of the ego, avidya is misunderstanding of who you are and the warrior poses are your physical self, doggedly carrying on in spite of it all.
Mistaking passing thoughts and experiences as the totality of existence is an example of avidya. Believing that the abject misery of a romantic breakup is your true state is a misunderstanding of yourself. Thinking that the bliss of vacation will last forever is also avidya. It’s not that bliss and misery can’t consume you, it’s that your true self is a moment-to-moment awareness: experiences and thoughts are impermanent reflections of you.
Confusing sorrow with joy is another example of avidya. Convincing yourself that you’ll be happy when you get a promotion or when your husband cooks you dinner is failing to understand that happiness occurs now. It’s not that these things don’t equate to joy, but their absence must not create sorrow.
The warrior poses represent the complex and unending battle with your ego. You practice the warrior poses as a way to battle misunderstanding of your true self. Instead of that misunderstanding, you seek to understand yourself in the present moment of consciousness.
Practicing yoga seems simple in its execution, but complex in its description. The battle of misunderstanding is relevant for everyone, regardless of creed, religion or generation. Everyone struggles against the whirls of consciousness and strives for contentment in the present moment. The timeless nature of the battle is represented with Sanskrit. Universal concepts are summarized with concise words. Sanskrit words inform the practice as a representation of the collective struggle.
Sanskrit is no longer a living language, but its use lives on in the practice of yoga. Using Sanskrit to describe yoga provides enduring context to a modern practice. Understanding the concepts of yoga using the descriptive terms of Sanskrit is a tool to inform your understanding of yourself, your health and wellness and your relationship with the world around you. The greater your knowledge of Sanskrit words, the richer your practice will be.
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One reply on “Sanskrit: modern context for ancient practice”
Thank you for sharing your perspective on Sankskrit. I learned about Avidya for the first time through your post. I love how Sanskrit can describe a concept so eloquently in a single word and am starting to realize just how important learning Sanskrit is to deepening my practice.