I am not an expert. I am not Indian, nor am I a Sanskrit scholar. But I have devoted some time to teaching English as well as yoga, and it is the convergence of language and yoga that has fascinated and inspired me to dabble in this ancient language.
Some might argue that yoga practitioners do not have to know Sanskrit in order to practice yoga. I do think, though, that it is worth it to open a curious eye to this age-old language that had a deep influence on the development of yoga. Here in the West, we sometimes rush into the postures via our own language. But just as some of the postures feel foreign at first, that feeling of ‘otherness’ we can perceive in a language like Sanskrit offers an opportunity to come face-to-face with something unfamiliar. That initial point of awkwardness can become the doorway into a relationship with Sanskrit as a language that you reserve just for yoga.
Since Swami Vivekananda’s arrival in the United States in the late 19th century, yoga has been coming from India in waves, and in many cases and places, taken on the hue of whatever community it sprouts in. Here’s an example from my own experience: In 2011, I took yoga classes when I lived in Barcelona, where most instructors taught in Spanish, a language I knew very little of at the time. Some used Spanish names for poses, but many also used their Sanskrit names. It was a point of familiarity for me, and in those moments it occurred to me that Sanskrit used in this way, across linguistic borders, was a uniting force. In that moment, I thought, why divorce ourselves from Sanskrit in the name of making yoga accessible to a wider audience?Perhaps the way to make yoga more accessible to people across borders is not to abandon Sanskrit because it seems too foreign or irrelevant to other cultures, but to find ways to adopt it into yoga practices that are meaningful on a personal level. As a language teacher, I would like to open the door to an exploration of some basic Sanskrit mantra.
On soundtracks and comfort
I love the sound of Sanskrit mantras. Perhaps it was easy for me to accept those foreign sounds as part of yoga because I grew up in what some call the hippy capital of California (the seaside city of Santa Cruz). Or it might be that I am more at ease hearing a language I don’t understand since my parents immigrated here from the Philippines and never bothered to teach me their language, Tagalog, even though they communicate with one another almost exclusively in it.
There’s more to it than just familiarity, though. If you ever learned a foreign language and tried to use it in everyday life, you might have realized how you make associations between the language and the experiences you have in that language.
I can’t help but associate Sanskrit with that light, clear, relaxed feeling I have after a good hatha yoga session or a deep meditation. Sanskrit mantra can be used as another way we tap into that calm, balanced mindset that so many of us seek through yoga practice. It might not be comfortable or familiar at first, but over time, you can create personal associations with the sounds of it.
When I began doing yoga in the 90’s it seemed that I mostly heard the Sanskrit words om, shanti, prana, and savasana in class. The teacher training I went through at Kali Ray Triyoga used mostly English names for poses and there was no reference to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita. I was certified to teach in 1999 and since then, my path through yoga has exposed me to more and more of the Sanskrit language. Just through attending classes and referring to books now and then, I began learning the Sanskrit names of postures. I heard more Sanskrit mantras as teachers played music with Sanskrit lyrics in classes. At some point, I was introduced to the aforementioned Indian texts, some of which showed the Sanskrit text followed by an English translation.
I have an ear for languages and an easy time remembering sounds and words, so learning pose names came quickly. After years of yoga practice, I finally got around to meditating more than a few minutes at a time when I stayed at Satchidananda Ashram – Yogaville in Buckingham, Virginia. There, we chanted several Sanskrit mantras before and after meditations, in hatha yoga classes, and before eating meals together. After five months there, I made many dear friends, deepened my yoga practice like never before, and created an even stronger positive association with those Sanskrit mantras in my heart and mind. How could I not like it after that?
Can you think of an album or song that functions as a soundtrack for a great period in your life? That soundtrack becomes a portal to the “happy place” you visit in times of stress. Through my time at Yogaville, Sanskrit mantras became a sort of switch that I could flip to bring myself into a calm state of mind despite what was going on around and within me. For that, I love Sanskrit; it has come to have personal meaning. I also understand people who perceive it as a hindrance to yoga practice, though. Beginners get overwhelmed by the foreign-sounding names of postures; others might feel it’s a waste of time and that they’d rather have the teacher get on with the postures.
I’m not saying you need to learn Sanskrit to benefit from your yoga practice. But if you give it a chance, you can feel a bit more connected to the tradition of yoga. For example, if you take on the task of learning the Sanskrit names of postures, you notice almost all of them end in the word asana and that the word asana itself has subtler translations that refer to the practice as more than just postures. If I were to say Sanskrit is useless for modern, Western yogis, then I would miss out on those nuanced meanings that could ultimately help me practice yoga in a more balanced way.
A language for a special purpose
At Yogaville, we chanted the English translation of the mantras directly after the Sanskrit version. It was interesting to know what it meant and it helped me to appreciate the teachings of yoga beyond the postures. I have to admit, though, the English versions don’t sound as graceful and musical. Every language has a special resonance and feel to it. Take how an English speaker might think that anything in French sounds sexy, even something that doesn’t mean anything sexy. That same person might think that anything in German, Hebrew, or Arabic sounds harsh because of the guttural nature of the language. And there’s a reason that operas sound better in Italian than in other languages.
Chanting Sanskrit mantra is a great way to go a little deeper into how sounds resonate in the body and create an ambience of meditation and ritual. It’s not just a language for communicating or conveying ideas; through its close relationship with yoga over the generations, it has become a way of experiencing a more embodied way of being. One teacher at Yogaville always began his classes by guiding us in chanting om nine times. Each time, he would add a nuance, such as “This time, drop your jaw and completely relax your face,” or “Now relax your throat completely,” or “Pronounce the beginning of om less as the O sound at the beginning of the word open and more like an ‘ah’ or ‘uh’ sound.” By walking us through the subtleties of chanting om, he brought us to the physical experience of how making sound could be a vehicle for deeper awareness of our bodies.
If we accept that yoga is a way of focusing the mind and inhabiting our bodies more consciously, then it makes sense to have a language that brings us to that mindset, especially a language that we don’t use casually in everyday communication. It’s a little bit like the concept of linguistic register, which gives us a range of ways to speak, from formal dialogue to casual conversation, where we can throw around slang terms and signal the closeness of such relationships. Register is why most people don’t greet their grandma with a terse ‘sup?’ or use the phrase “If it’s not too much trouble, I would love to (fill in the blank)” while making love.
Language is a key to setting the tone in a relationship. Yoga is a relationship with oneself (and higher Self), and I find Sanskrit to be that key that opens the part of my mind, heart, and spirit to a certain state of mind. That keeps me coming back to my yoga practice. I’m still not an expert, only an admirer and dabbler, and yet Sanskrit has nourished my practice in many wonderful ways.
Energy, and the everyday magic of Hari Om
If you hang out long enough in the yoga community, someone is bound to casually drop the word energy or vibration (or both) in conversation. But what do they mean? Is energy just the feeling or essence of something? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something like, “Even if you don’t understand the words, just chanting in Sanskrit immerses you in a higher vibration.”
Perhaps that is true, but there are some things in yoga that I prefer to experience rather than just accept as true. There were two moments at Yogaville that helped me to feel the physical effects of chanting in Sanskrit, that vibration I hear about so often.
One was in the example above in the class where the teacher had us chant om nine times in a row at the start of every hatha yoga class. At first, it seemed excessive, but after attending his class a few times, I realized that when I repeated something that seemed so simple, I experienced it differently each time.
The other moment at Yogaville was when another teacher explained the function of the mantra Hari Om and how it creates a certain vibrational pattern that you feel as you chant it. The syllable ha vibrates the chest and heart area. The syllable ri brings that vibration up through the throat and into the mouth. The syllable om sends the vibration from the mouth up through the top of the head. Many teachers included this practice at the beginning of a hatha class, so I was able to do it enough times to focus less on the effort of creating the words and more on the feeling of the sounds of each syllable as they resonated through my chest, throat, and skull. Let’s try it!
- Sit comfortably on a mat, cushion, or chair. Eyes opened or closed is fine. With eyes closed, it’ll be easier to bring focus to how the sounds feel in your body as you chant them.
- Wiggle your fingers and toes, drop your shoulders down, and sit up tall.
- Take a few deep breaths in and out. Make sure you relax your jaw so that the ha sound vibrates in your chest and throat, rather than in just your mouth.
- Take a slow inhale. You don’t have to completely fill the lungs, otherwise, it might make for a ridiculously long ‘hari om.’
- On the exhale, chant ‘hari om,’ but break it down into distinct syllables: ha-ri om. Linger on each syllable for a few seconds to sense the way the sounds vibrate in the body.
- If you have lots of breath left to exhale, hold the ‘m’ at the end of om or chant hari om a few more times until you’ve completed the exhale.
- Repeat as many times as you like. Even just chanting it once can give you the experience of the vibration moving upward.
This practice is best followed by a moment of silence. The chanting helps to focus the mind before meditation. Think of it as changing the channel, from the noise of your busy day, to a more simple sound that you can feel in your body as you make it.
This is just the beginning of an exploration into how Sanskrit can augment the experiential aspect of yoga—it helps us to use sound moving through our bodies for a deeper awareness of both body and breath. I know not everyone automatically loves the sound and feeling of Sanskrit mantra as the words move through the body and out the mouth, but I invite those who are curious and open enough to try it. It is similar to practicing the postures you dislike—you try them anyway, to see how your body and mind respond to that aversion. One of the most valuable lessons yoga has taught me is that sometimes trying and sticking with something that feels kind of awkward or foreign can bring me to a closer relationship to myself.
Edited by Ely Bakouche