Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's in a (Sanskrit) name?

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"

In her latest post on backbends, Claudia observes, "I like to say "Ustrassana" (yoga jargon for camel pose), it sounds very Sanskrit, scholarly and respectful."

Being a full time Ashtangi, I have also taken to the practice of referring to almost all asanas by their Sanskrit names. The only exceptions for me are downward dog and upward dog, simply because it is easier to say "downdog" and "updog" than to say Adho Mukha Svanasana and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. But, at least for me, I actually find it easier to refer to almost all the other postures by their Sanskrit names than by their English names. In fact, I don't even know what the English names would be for some postures. For instance, what is English for Marichyasana D? You can call it "Sage Marichi pose D", I suppose, but if you do that, you are already using Sanskrit anyway! And it's actually less cumbersome to add "asana" after Marichi' than it is to go through "Sage Marichi pose D". And I suspect that this is true of many other postures too; the English translations would probably be either super-cumbersome translations (for instance, "Half-Bound Lotus Western-facing posture") or new-fangled names that tell us nothing about the posture itself. So, for me at least, it makes more sense to stick to the Sanskrit. Moreover, Gregor Maehle says somewhere that when you say the posture names in Sanskrit, you invoke certain effects on the energetic/pranic level that can't be invoked merely by using English translations.

But I sometimes wonder if non-Ashtangis/non-yogis would think us snobs for using Sanskrit. Indeed, one of the more oft-cited things that put some beginners off in yoga classes is the excessive use of Sanskrit. But if you are an Ashtangi, your usage of Sanskrit is probably way past excessive, by many non-Ashtangis' standards.

Not that any of this should matter. I mean, there may be certain times in life when one has to be a snob, and this might very well be one of them.     


  1. Ha ha...

    I like the way it sounds in Sanskrit, but I confess I wish I knew all the American ways of calling them too, like: plank, candle, frog, ere are many that I would be at a lost in a class... Not only that but I noticed that in other traditions, as close as iyengar some poses are called different Sanskrit names....to add to the wealth of colors and confusion...

    As per Marichasana, hmmm.... We could call the :

    A easy forward bend wrap around
    B torture forward bend wrap around
    C ways twist back
    D forgedabaoutit

    Just saying maybe other people can provide better suggestions

  2. Hahaha! I like your Marichyasana suggestions. However, here are a few things I have to say:

    A "easy" is a very relative term
    B If you think this is torture, wait till you get to, like, Marichyasana H
    C (Is this even human?)
    D (Is this even human) + High risk of blowing your knees out

  3. Interesting post! As a beginner, when I first started practicing yoga, I loved hearing the Sanskrit names come from the teacher's mouth. I think there may be something to what Maehle says about the influence of the Sanskrit on the energetics of the pose. I recall that, even when I didn't know the names of the poses, the Sanskrit always somehow sounded magically descriptive. The very sound of the language suggests to me shapes and patterns that guide me through the practice.

    As a teacher, I like to pepper my classes with Sanskrit (however poorly pronounced) for exactly these reasons. I try not to use enough to scare people away, but hopefully just enough to tickle their eardrums.

  4. I've only been practicing yoga seriously since this January, and Ashtanga yoga since early this month (love it, by the way), but I think there is great merit in referring to the poses in Sanskrit. I have been finding that if I learn the Sanskrit prefixes, words, suffixes, etc., then I understand the purpose of the pose much better.

    I wish I had more to add to this conversation, but as a beginner, I can definitely say there is nothing snobby about learning the Sanskrit names.


  5. There are people who prefer to de-Sanskritize the poses, Ana Forrest comes immediately to mind. I believe that Kathryn Budig is also big on English vs. Sanskrit, but I think that's probably just for access to her fans.

    I'd agree: the Ashtanga sequences being set, and being named in Sanskrit, has an echo of traditionalism. To give yet another example of clunky English, how are you going to translate "Tiriangmukhaikapada paschimottanasana" anyway (or however it's spelled)?

    Three limbs facing forward intense stretch of the west (oh sorry we're actually facing south right now in this room)? The pose will be over by the time you get that out :D

    Yes, I feel like I'm certain that everyone's talking about the same pose when Sanskrit is used, rather than trying to figure out what four different yogis mean when they say "dragonfly pose" or "scorpion pose."

    Also, I've always loved how hardcore Maehle is in his writing.

  6. Megan, interesting, "The very sound of the language suggests to me shapes and patterns that guide me through the practice". I have always felt that there is something almost musical in the Sanskrit names of the postures (of course, I could also be romanticizing...), and that Anglicizing the names takes away this melodious quality.

    SBA, thank you for your contribution to this conversation. Yes, the Sanskrit names are also surprisingly functional in telling us about the function/how to approach the postures.

  7. Patrick, I'm not surprised that Ana Forrest is into de-Sanskritizing; I've never studied with her, but I do know that she has a reputation for being anti-traditionalist (or at least skeptical of tradition). I don't know much about Kathryn Budig, beyond her impressive handstanding abilities and of course, those famous toesox ads :-)

    Yes, Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottasana (I'm not sure about my spelling either) is quite a mouthful even in Sanskrit, but at least it doesn't sound as cluttered and cumbersome as its English translation :-)

    I also think that the Sanskrit names are often instructive in a poetic kind of way. For example, the name "Pasasana" ("noose pose"), actually gives us an invaulable hint on how to approach the pose. The idea, as I understand it, is to wrap your arms as if they are a noose around your thighs/knees. There is something beautiful about being able to say so much in so little.

    And yes, I also enjoy how refreshing hardcore (sometimes I think he's even borderline politically-incorrect) Maehle is. Sometimes, somebody needs to just come right out and say things for what they are.

  8. I love the Sanskrit. It has such a good vibe (literally). I like all of the suggestions for Mari D and would like to add, "Hell, I can't breathe" to the list of proposed alternate English names. Pretty much sums it up. Kristen

  9. Yes, Kristen, Sanskrit does have a distinctly good vibe. "Hell, I can't breathe" sounds like another good description of Mari D :-)

  10. I would call Tiriangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (Sharath stretches it out to Tirieng Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana) as One-Leg-Reverse-Facing Back-Stretched-Out Pose.

    Also, I think what's easy and what's not is very, very relative. You said "B If you think this is torture, wait till you get to, like, Marichyasana H". I used to do H every once in a while in my non-100%-Ashtanga days, and I think H is easier than both B and D. In fact, I think it's the 3rd "easiest" Marichyasana, after A and C. I have very open hips and finicky knees, which explains this perfectly. And that's why I avoid using blanket statements like "X is harder than Y", unless I qualify it with "for me" or "for most people". It's very easy to get scared off by something because you think it will be hard. Some people actually find Karandavasana significantly easier than Kapotasana. I find Eka Pada Sirsasana to be harder than all the leg-behind-head poses at the beginning of 3rd Series; this draws some odd looks from people I mention this to. I find Baddha Hasta Sirsasana B to be the hardest of the 7 headstands at the end of 2nd--this has baffled every teacher I've mentioned it to. And just this week, my teacher added Urdhva Kukkutasana A. He says it's the easiest of the 3 Urdhva Kukkutasanas, and yet A will take me at least a couple of weeks to get, I think, while C is no problem for me at all. I always wonder how much expectations of what will be hard affect how well we can perform things. How much of our struggling is due to just a mental block or fear, and how much is to do a true physical limitation?

    Just thought I'd add my own perspective.

  11. Hello Frank! I didn't see this post until today. But yes, I do agree with you that what's easy and what's not is relative to the sort of mind/body one has at any given point in time. I have never actually tried Marichyasana H (and frankly, have no intention to in the near future), so I can't add anything meaningful to what you have brought up, but I certainly see where you are coming from. Interesting. Yeah, sometimes I think that blogging about practice is, in this way, a double-edged sword: It's reassuring to know that there are people on the same path, with similar struggles to share, but on the other hand, talking too much about something in a certain way might also add to a lot of collective anxiety and fear. The paradox of blogging, shall we call it?