Thursday, April 23, 2015

Brush Up Your Sanskrit

I had the best phone conversation recently with a student calling to ask what the difference was between a Basics-level and Intermediate-level (and beyond) class.  Now, this is a fairly standard question -- I answer it all the time and was going through the usual checklist (boiled down: "as long as you know how to do a Sun A, you are going to be fine in any of our more advanced classes") when the student said something unexpected:  "What I'm actually most nervous is about is the Sanskrit -- I don't know all the postures by name."  My yoga nerd brain lit up -- no one had ever offered this as a potential reason to wait to advance beyond Basics.  

Now, I am a language person, so learning the Sanskrit names for yoga postures was deceptively easy for me when I was beginning.  I actually had no idea how easy it was for me until I did teacher training and was shocked when some of my fellow TTs -- some of whom had been practicing yoga for years longer than me -- didn't know the traditional posture names and struggled immensely with Sanskrit pronunciations.  This dead language was a piece of cake for me because I learned all the cheats -- I learned the root words.  I sleuthed it all together.

So when this student nervously asked about Sanskrit, I got pretty excited (much to the amusement of the teacher and desk staff signing in students for the next class) as I explained that learning the Sanskrit would never be required of our students but it would sure make her life easier if she knew some of the basics -- "Allow me to elaborate..." I said.

And to my good fortune, she did.

"Let's take my favorite Sanskrit posture name: Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana," I began.

"Whoa, what's that??" the student asked.

"I'll break it down for you," I said.  "Eka is the Sanskrit word for one, Pada is foot, Raja is king, and Kapotasana is pigeon pose.  Put it all together and you get One Foot (or leg) King Pigeon Pose."  

I went on to explain to her that anything ending in asana is a posture (Asanas being the physical practice associated with the eight limbs of yoga), which actually simplifies a lot of things, theoretically.  There are also Frequently Used Words, like ardha which means half or supta which means reclining or baddha which means bound.  Hasta means hands, pada (as previously stated) means feet.  Urdvha means upward and adho means downward.  Muka means face.  Konasana is angle.  Etc. etc. etc.  Many of these words are used repeatedly in Sankrit postures so learning a few of them will make Sanskrit, as a whole, less daunting.  Right?

The phone call ended with the student thanking me and saying she was going to make flashcards to study on the T.  Dear Student, whoever you are, will you be my best friend?  My yoga nerd heart beat with joy as I hung up the phone.

Meanwhile, Carly and Sara (the teacher and desk staff, respectively) were still laughing at me from outside the office.  Carly came immediately to the doorway.  "What," she sputtered, "was that?"

So I explained the entire conversation to the two of them, which only lead to Carly and me breaking down other complicated Sanskrit posture names.  To wit:

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottansana

Ardha = half
Baddha = bound
Padma = Lotus
Paschimottanasana = seated forward fold


After a few more rounds of nerdom, I took it another level and mentioned a Sanskrit-nerdy conversation I'd had with Mimi (founder of O2 Yoga, my Teacher Training and yoga home) about Supta Kormasana.  We had been taught that supta meant reclining (i.e. poses lying down), but Supta Kormasana was a forward fold -- what gives?  "So what explanation did Mimi have?" Carly asked.  "She said, in this case, it meant sleeping."  While Carly gave an affirming nod, Sara stared at us wide-eyed -- "What's Kormasana?" she asked.  "Tortoise pose!" I said, demonstrating it to the best of my ability right there at the sign in desk.

God, this conversation made me so happy.

Yoga is its own language, its own culture, its own proudly held piece of nebulous land.  Understanding this spoken aspect of the practice connects you more deeply with the postures because learning each poses' Sanskrit name is adding a layer of respect for your time spent on your mat.  Plus, it's good, nerdy fun to understand what the teacher is asking you to do and to know that you could go to any yoga studio anywhere in the world and understand what formation your body should assume when the teacher cues, "Vrikasana."  ((That's tree pose, yo))  So brush up your Sanskrit -- let the language be something you pay attention to as you practice -- and you'll be ready for Power in no time.

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