Prior to taking yoga teacher training, one of my favorite teachers would start to quiz me on Sanskrit names of poses. I would laugh and say, there will be time to learn that later. In my own mind, I was saying “why does all that matter anyway?” How can an ancient language be important in Modern Yoga?
In fact, some try to get rid of it completely. There are yoga teachings that try to make yoga available to the masses without all the history, philosophy, and Sanskrit nonsense. Who needs it anyway?
Today, we have mixed martial arts (MMA). In the old days, they pitted a karate master against a Sumo wrestler. Or a boxer against an Aikido practitioner. Today, students begin learning all aspects from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to kick boxing to wrestling. It can be done without any of the history of those original fighting arts being made know.
But I feel we lose so much when we lose our roots. It becomes superficial. When I began with Hawaiian Kenpo Karate as a kid, to Aikido in grad school, we learned the history of what the founding fathers brought to us. We learned about the meanings and the history behind why they studied these arts. We learned reverence and respect. It is a part that is missing from everything in life today. When we live without philosophy, without religion, without a strong parental upbringing, we lose our sense of who we are.
That is what Sanskrit does for yoga. Paschimottanasana is called intense forward stretch. Paschima means West. Traditional yoga is practiced at sunrise. The sun rises in the East and we face that direction when we salute the sun. So what we are stretching is our Western side, our back, glutes, and hamstrings. Uttana means intense. Earliest yoga was about sitting in meditation. So asana means “seat”. We do yoga to prepare for meditation and find a more comfortable seat. Warming and opening our bodies does this for us. Knowing Sanskrit is the essence of yoga practice. It is the link we have to our roots. Its like your name is “Bill”, but we decide to call you “horse” instead. Our names are important to us. We can’t just disregard them.
Any teenage gym rat can teach you how to do a pushup. Doing knees to elbow in plank has no meaning other than to work toward what you see in the mirror. But to know deeper meanings through understanding Sanskrit and the history of yoga makes for a deeper practice. It also tells you that a teacher has studied and understands these deeper meanings.
Patthabi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, would say:
99% practice, 1% theory
But the practice is what opens the door to all those other wonders. If you read of students who studied with Jois “Guruji”, they rarely talk about the practice. They talk about what the practice does for you. Their self-study goes way beyond the practice. And that is where we find true yoga.