Tag Archives: history

What’s with all this Sanskrit jibberish?

vandegurunam

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.

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Burn the Boats

burn the boats

Several years ago, I was the pacer for a runner in the Western States 100 mile Endurance Run in California. This started as an equestrian event many years ago. When Gordy Ansleigh’s horse went lame at the start, he decided to run it on foot. And so the tradition began for what is known as the Grand-Daddy of all ultramarathons.

A pacer’s job is to keep a runner on track, especially in dangerous terrain where they can get lost or suffer collapse. In some races, a pacer can mule for a runner, which means they can carry water, food, or other needs. But not in this race. I was there for safety, guidance, and motivation. At one point, likely midnight at around mile 70, my runner succumbed to the chair. They always say “beware the chair”.  I had put a mylar blanket on her and she ate some food and proceeded to pass out. She said, “I’m done.” I prodded her to keep going. I wasn’t about to let her quit. And I said, we are deep in a canyon. The only way to get out is to start climbing cross-country. And even if we get to a road, we may wait a long time for someone to pick us up. It was unsafe and unwise. There was no going back. And she continued on.

When you set your mind on a goal, you should stay the course. Cortes and a small group of Spaniards landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519 A.D. and set out to conquer Mexico. He ordered the troops to “Burn the Boats”. That way, they would either collapse in defeat or fight to victory. And fight they did. I won’t say whether this idea or the historical act of colonialism was the correct course of action, but you have to admire the will to succeed by not allowing for an exit strategy.

Sometimes life throws things your way and often we don’t have an option. We are the soldier placed in a situation where we have no other way but to move forward. Sometimes, the boat is burned for us whether we like it or not. Sometimes people will say things in such a brash and unforgiving way that they burn the boat. There is no going back. Salvaging a plank of wood and wading into the ocean is not an option. You can forgive their anger and honest emotions, but you can’t forgive the substance of the message.

Move forward all you soldiers. Don’t even think of escape. There is only up. Gird your loins and find your reward. The horizon is yours for the taking.