What’s with All the Sanskrit?

In a couple of weeks, I will begin leading a new six-week course introducing Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra to beginning students (or anyone, really).  It is being offered as part of the Yoga Well Institute’s new Semester Program.  The idea behind the program is to create a series of both introductory and more advanced level courses that happen online in a manageable way – one hour/week over six weeks.  It’s bit like dipping your toe in to see if the water is fine.

I am very honored to have been asked to teach the Yoga Sutra component of the program because my mentor, Chase Bossart, who is the Yoga Well Institute’s founder and a long time student of TKV Desikachar, is well known for his own teaching of the Yoga Sutra.  He usually teaches it word by word over many months, even years.  This class isn’t meant to replicate that (!) but rather to give people a window through which to see that yoga has a lot more to offer us than just bending and stretching.  It is actually a very practical tool for living a life with less suffering and more happiness.  The Yoga Sutra gets right to the heart of why and how to do that.

I was speaking with Chase yesterday about the course, and I raised a question that has come up for me when I am teaching to beginners – how much Sanskrit is enough Sanskrit? 

I taught a similar Yoga Sutra course last fall and I decided to honour the language of the text and start using Sanskrit right out of the gate.  Of course I offered translations and sometimes even went back and forth in our conversations between using certain terms in both English and Sanskrit but I began to develop something of a conviction that using the Sanskrit terms right off the bat is important.  The people in the class would sometimes stumble over the words and even occasionally make a comment about “all that Sanskrit” but we went slowly and, through repetition, most students began to feel a little more comfortable with it.  

As I look forward to this next opportunity to engage the Yoga Sutra with some new students, I thought it would be useful to explain a little more in-depth about why it is important not to skimp on the Sanskrit.

Honouring the original text – Patnajali’s Yoga Sutra is the oldest foundational text on yoga.  Before the Yoga Sutra, teachings on yoga were transmitted orally and, in many ways, the YS reflects that in the way it is organized and structured.  It is written in Sanskrit, a language that is a mother language to many of the other languages currently in use on Earth.  For me, to toss all that amazing history aside because it makes people feel uncomfortable feels a bit heavy-handed.  I mean, you can do this….really!

Think about if you went to a beginner ballet class for five-year olds at your neighborhood dance studio.  They would immediately be using the French terms for the various moves and positions.  Do you think they are saying “deep knee bend” when they mean plié?  They trust that their young charges will pick it up as they go along in their practices and studies.  So too with Yoga Sutra study….I trust you and your ability to learn.  It might feel awkward today to get those syllables out but they will flow more easily with practice, just like a plié.

Also, I respect and honour the tradition enough not to dilute it down, which mostly just results in the student having to correct that mistake later on.  Personally, I think using only English terms verges in the direction of cultural appropriation.  We honour the text by learning it properly right out of the gate and not imposing some colonizing language on it.

Whew!  Who turned up the heat?

Look, I am happy to laugh at myself when I get all fired up about cultural appropriation and yoga but I also stand behind that statement and I teach from it.  I am a white woman, born and raised in North America.  It is my responsibility to be aware of the context around my teaching.  I just want to be clear about that.

Words mean what they mean – As anyone who knows more than one language can attest, some words just mean what they mean and can not be translated.  Or they lose the beauty and impact of their meaning when translated.  I would argue that much of the Yoga Sutra falls into that category.  In Sanskrit, the words have root syllables that are put together in a way to create a new meaning.  I find it very poetic and very profound.

For example, take the word duhkha, often translated into English as suffering.  The Sanskrit roots are: du, which means confined; and kha, which means space.  So suffering as expressed by the word duhkha is confined space.  Doesn’t that just say everything about the experience of suffering?  And doesn’t that actually help you understand that experience just a little better?  Alternately, the word sukha is often translated as happiness or contentment.  Su means open – so sukha means open space.  What did we gain by using “suffering” and “happiness” rather than duhkha and sukha?  What was lost?

And finally, It’s okay to feel uncomfortable – The fact is that learning anything new, especially as an adult, will bring discomfort.  And hooray for that!  We grown-ups have a way of organizing our lives so that things are predictable and we feel confident in our abilities to deal with everything that comes up.  Maybe we even label it sukha!  So when things get unpredictable and we find ourselves quite unable to maintain our sukha, it can be jarring and upsetting.  I think stepping into safe places that bring up manageable levels of discomfort is a most excellent practice.  Remember what it is like to not be an expert?  For most of us, that is not a great feeling but, oh is it such a good experience.  And, if you get to learn a bit of Sanskrit to boot, what’s not to love?

I hope you will join me as we venture into the Yoga Sutra together (sometimes in Sanskrit).  It is journey filled with duhkha and sukha and everything in between!

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