Simple Sanskrit for Yoga Teachers

Here are a few little tips to help Yoga teachers feel easier with Sanskrit –

Is asana pronounced “arsana” or “asarna”?

Should it be Shavasana or Shavasan for the Corpse Pose, Bhujangasana or Bhujangasan for Cobra?

Why is there an s between yoga and citta in the phrase “yogascittavrttinirodhah”?

How can I figure out how to say any Sanskrit yoga word?  I’ve heard that the Sanskrit alphabet is weird… would I ever be able to figure out what any word in yoga means, or how to say it, if I come across a new pose that only gives the Sanskrit?

Let’s start with asana

It is already a Sanskrit word!  Only it is written in a way that suits English speakers.  We have to go back to the beginning.  Here it is in Devanāgari, which is the word that describes the Sanskrit script – the characters that look so strange to us.

आसन

This literally spells out a-a-s-n, aasn. 

The first two letters are both “a” The first a looks like this : .The second is just another stroke beside it .In English sentences,  that would be like the difference between a capital letter at the beginning and a small letter in the body of the word (eg A and a ).   The third letter, स,  is “s” and the fourth one, न, is “n”.  There is a trick here, but it’s an easy trick… Every consonant in Sanskrit is followed by a short  “a”, (like ba, da, na, ta)  unless there is another vowel in its place (like be or do).  So if we spell it in the familiar roman script that English uses,  in a way that accounts for all of the Sanskrit sounds, we would write it this way: āsana – a long “a” to start with and then two short “a”s. What all that means that is that you pronounce it “arsana”, and stop calling it “asarna”!!

For this to become easy, you have to know one of two things, or even better to know both of them.  The first is to know what the Sanskrit alphabet letters are and how to pronounce them.  That means understanding how marks on the ordinary English alphabet of 26 letters can show you how to pronounce the 54 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. To do that, we have to be able to convert the Devanāgari script that Sanskrit uses into the Roman script that English uses. So “āsana” truly is a Sanskrit word, but it is written now in the Roman style of lettering rather than the Devanāgari style and we can read it easily.

The marks that show us  how to pronounce it are called diacritical marks. That’s why  āsana  has a diacritical mark over the first”a”It’s  (it’s long).  So  has the second”a” in Devanāgari  – the diacritical mark shows  you that it is the only long “a” in the word and so the stress will be on that syllable, not on the “gari”.  It’s pronounced prettty much like “devaNARgari”

And it is fun and helpful if a program will convert English (Roman) script into Devanāgari, and Devanāgari into Roman script.

Here are two very helpful programs that do that.

Transliteration

Itranslator: Omkara Ashram Himalayas provides a free program to download, which converts English (ie, the Roman alphabet) into Devanāgari. https://www.oah.in/Sanskrit/itranslator2003.htm

The trick that here is that you have to understand how to write the English version in  a transliteration method that the program will understand. (It uses IAST).

The second is a program that converts both ways – it is provided by Ashtanga Yoga https://www.ashtangayoga.info/sanskrit/transliteration/transliteration-tool/

It gives you a choice of transliteration systems.  So again, the trick is to understand those systems first.

That means checking out the Devanāgari alphabet and the transliteration systems. You will find a PDF which gives  you all the systems in one table here: Sanskrit Alphabet Transliteration.  Don’t forget that the Sanskrit alphabet is written in the Devanāgari script while English is written in Roman script.

Once you have got your head around that, simply transliterating is easy.  Caution though…. RUBBISH IN MEANS RUBBISH OUT!

Now, what about those words that are sometimes pronounced with an “a” on the end, and sometimes it is dropped?

Shavasana and Bhujangasana are prime contenders. As  you know now (yay!), all Sanskrit consonants come with their own “a”. So the final “n” on both those words would properly be pronounced “na”, in Classical Sanskrit.

However, as languages evolve, people begin to take shortcuts.  As Sanskrit evolved into Hindi, people began dropping the final “a”.   Not only the “na” endings, either.  You may hear Shiva pronunced Shiv.  Not Krishna, though (which really ought to be spelt Krshn in transliteration, there is no “i”  in it) – but just try saying Krshn without the “i” or the final vowel.  You would say it anyway, when your mouth lets go of the word and moves on. It becomes pronounced “krishna” no matter how you spell it, because of how the mouth has to move to say it.

So the “a” on the end of every pose really ought to be pronounced. The “a”  is a transliteration device that shows how it was pronounced in Sanskrit.  But if your teacher has learnt in a tradition that goes back to a  Hindi speaker, everyone will probably be dropping off final a, though not very systematically.

What about the “s” between yoga and citta in the second sutra?

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः॥२॥
2. Yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ

Hmm…  well, that one is uber tricky unless you want to go much deeper into things.  Let me give you a sense of it by showing something we do in English. If you are speaking very formally, you might say, “I am going to go home, now”.  What you are much more likely to say is, “I’m gunna go ‘ome now”.

It’s a bit like that.  Really, Sanskrit is written the way it would sound as people said the words. In Sanskrit, there is a plan for getting pronounced speech back to the grammatical original.  It is the rules of Sandhi.

But I can say yoga and citta  easily an not make any “s” sound – what’s the problem?

Well, one is that it is not really an “s”.  The diacritical mark shows that it is pronounced “sh”, and that the phrase is yogashchitta 

So now you would be going even deeper, right into the grammar and case endings of an inflectional language… and I know you don’t want to go there, so let’s leave it here for now, except to say that originally it would have been” yogah citta” (just as “gunna go” would have been “going to go”).  English speakers would not pronounce the h…  but supposing you did?  You might find that it slid into an shchi rather than an h-space-ci.

Just remember it is a lot of fun to learn how to pronounce the Devanāgari alphabet, and to know how to manage transliteration.  Then you can teach the asanas without sounding like a git, and without teaching your own students to be ignorant gits.  And if you learn just a little more, you can work out what each of the asana names really means, rather than just passing on what everyone else says.  Here are two examples

Bhujangasana, again (भुजन्गासन, bhujangāsana): That’s  called Cobra, isn’t it?

Yet the translation is

Bhuj – bend, twist, + Anga  – limb, + Asana – posture

Alternatively, it can be:  bhujanga – snake,  + asana – posture

So it is not necessarily a cobra at all, rather any snake. And we could assume from the root meanings of the word for “snake” -bhuj+anga  – that the yogi  aspires to emulate  the flexible spine of any snake.

Sarvangasana (सर्वन्गासन, sarvangāsana) : Shoulderstand

The translation is

Sarva – all, + Anga – limbs, + Asana – posture

So!  More than just shoulderstand, then! The ancient yogis apparently thought of this as a movement and hold that uses all the limbs of your body.

Shavasana… pose of relaxation?

NO!  It means Corpse Pose. Shava+Asana,   There may be somewhat more to trying out the difference between a living body and of a dead body, rather than simply relaxing in blissful ignorance!  Perhaps there is the possibility of contemplating mortality. A more serious contemplation for a serious yogi than a little relaxation process.

And word-wise, you might note that when a final “a” meets an initial vowel, they combine to make a new vowel.  In this one, the final “a” meets an initial  “aa”, so it stays a long “a”.

In the case of my name – Shantananada (Śanta+ananda, peace and bliss) – it becomes Śantānanda. In English, without the ridiculous “h”, people would call me Santa.  And there is no hope of them calling me Shant-ananda with a longer “a’- so I just hope for the best with the “h” and let the vowels take care of themselves.

Well …this is all actually a lot easier than it might seem.  I hope you find a way to enjoy it.