Sanskrit 101

Post image for Sanskrit 101

August 30, 2011

I love when a good discussion gets going from one of my blog posts, and that happened back in June when I posed “The Battle of the Languages: Sanskrit versus English.” If you didn’t read the post or the excellent comments, I explained that my style is to teach yoga, utilizing the English names for poses. I justified this as wanting to demystify yoga and to make it more accessible for my students. But let me be clear: Part of the reason I do so is that I’m not always the best at remembering all of the Sanskrit names, and, also, I’m a bit timid about the proper pronunciations.

Enter Cheryl Hall, Sanskrit super-teacher, to the rescue! Cheryl saw my post and reached out to me with an offer of a complimentary Sanskrit class via Skype. That was an offer I could not pass up and we quickly set up the session and Cheryl e-mailed me the following list of questions in order to prepare for our class.

1)      How familiar are you with making the sounds of Sanskrit? For example, are you familiar with “the 5 mouth positions” and the different sounds made from each position?

2)      Do you know how to read transliteration? In other words, do those lines over letters, dots, slashes & tildes mean anything to you?

3)      Do you have some poses in mind (English name or Sanskrit name) that you would like to cover? If so, please send them on, and we will focus on your specific needs and interests. (Alternatively, I do have a standard list of poses used in flow & power classes, as well as each of the first 3 ashtanga series, if you would like to use one of them.)

My answers to numbers 1 and 2 were: very little, no, and no! Yikes, I guess the emphasis on Sanskrit during my yoga-teacher training was not as strong as it should be. As dorky as I felt admitting this to Cheryl, I also was really excited to learn about the proper care and usage of Sanskrit.

Our class started out with some of the basics behind the phonetic marks, like what the macron (the line that appears over vowels) means and how you should hold those vowels for two beats. Then we launched into a list of the most common yoga poses, and Cheryl coached me in their proper pronunciation.

Major takeaway 1: I’ve been butchering the Sanskrit language. (But not anymore, thanks to Cheryl.)

2: The Sanskrit language is beautiful, and I need to get over my fear of using it while I teach.

One of the best pieces of advice that Cheryl provided is to practice the pronunciation of the words slowly and then work on increasing the speed.

If you are curious about Cheryl’s background, she is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she teaches asana, Sanskrit, and chant along with her husband at their studio, Dave’s Astanga Yoga. She is E-RYT-500 and has been teaching Sanskrit since 2004. Like me, Cheryl has recently taken the leap out of her Corporate America day job and is focusing on teaching full-time (woo-hoo, Cheryl!). Cheryl explained to me that her practice used to be 100 percent asana-based, but today it is 30 percent asana, 60 percent chant and Sanskrit study, and 10 percent meditation. That shift in focus to Vedic chant and Sanskrit shines through in her enthusiastic and patient approach to teaching neophytes like me.

If you take a class with Cheryl, you will find her extremely efficient. She keeps the class personable but knows how to keep it moving so you get the instruction you need. If you are lucky, at the end of your class, she may just sing a chant to you (and if she doesn’t, make sure you ask her to, as her voice is heavenly).

WIN A FREE CLASS

Now for the good stuff! Three lucky Daily Downward Dog readers are going to get the chance to win their very own 45-minute private Sanskrit yoga class! To enter, please leave a comment below, and if you are inclined, please share your funniest Sanskrit misstep. You know, like the time when you accidentally called tree pose trikonasana or really butchered up a pronunciation. Don’t worry about someone laughing at you; there will be no judgment at the DDD, just love and respect, as we all need to help each other move along in our knowledge of this language. The deadline to enter is September 9, 2011, at noon, when I’ll pick the three winners.

SAVE $5 ON YOUR FIRST CLASS

If you would like to schedule a class with Cheryl, you can contact her through her Web site or e-mail her at azvedicchant at gmail.com or by phone at 480-216-2602. Be sure to mention The Daily Downward Dog, and you will get $5 off the 45-minute class (which is $35).

If you are not familiar with Skype, it is a FREE online service that allows you to call people online, and if you have a camera hooked up to your computer, you can see the person as you talk to them. I have to tell you that I think Skype is super cool, and I have used it to visit with my cute little great-niece who lives out of state and to stay in touch with my nephew who was in the Marines and serving in Iraq. Cheryl loves teaching via Skype to not only bring a personal touch to the class, but also so she can watch the mouth and enunciation of her students in order to provide expert feedback.

Image: Isadora Lollo

Leave a Comment

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Eder August 30, 2011 at 8:06 AM

During Yoga Teacher Training, I consitently received feedback from my teacher on how she was pretty certain I was making up Sanskrit as I taught. While funny at first, it really made me focus. I have the sounds down, but by no way have the reason as to why I make these sounds.

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Christine August 30, 2011 at 8:35 AM

I would love to teach my entire class in Sanskrit but there are certain asanas that I can’t pronounce just from reading them. I’ve been practicing a little but a lesson would be great.

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Deanna Nagle August 30, 2011 at 9:57 AM

I would love, love, love to take this class! I am a certified yoga teacher and would love to learn more in this area. I am always mixing up parsvakonasana and parsvotannasana!

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Cheryl August 30, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Deanna – I used to do the same thing! The way I finally remembered it was that in parsva”K”onasana, you bend your “K”nee :-)

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Nicole Kennedy August 30, 2011 at 11:22 AM

Love this blog. You put into words many times what I am thinking or feeling. The “yoga world” can be intimidating and there are a lot of purists out there. My teacher told me that my southern accent and my nasal voice would have to be conquered before I could properly pronounce….talk about insulted! So I honestly just gave up…I emailed about the classes and plan to pursue…thnx….

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Cheryl August 30, 2011 at 6:05 PM

Hi Nicole – WOW, I am so sorry you had a teacher who was judgemental & insulting! (The exact opposite of what yoga is all about!) I will get back to you via e-mail, but just wanted to let you (and everyone) know that everything we need to speak Sanskrit, we already have. Everyone CAN do it; is just a matter of practice to be able to reliably make the different sounds. The first time we did trikonasana we probably didn’t do it that well either! :-)

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Amy Jeske August 30, 2011 at 11:52 AM

I LOVE using the Sanskrit words, but like you, don’t always feel like I can do them justice. So I found that I use the ones that I know really well!
I’ve confused them too. Many times. I guess students don’t really notice but I don’t want people to think that I’m just making things up either.

I do love using Sanskrit- it just sounds so beautiful… like there is a party in my mouth!
Thanks for the information.

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Cheryl August 30, 2011 at 6:11 PM

We say the same thing here in AZ! That Sanskrit is a party in your mouth! Kindered spirits!

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Rachel @ Suburban Yogini August 30, 2011 at 11:58 AM

I consistently forget every single Sanskrit name apart from Trikonasana – also my north of England accent makes everything sound weird….. I would lurve Sanskrit lessons and if I don’t win, I’m going to book one anyway!

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Cheryl August 30, 2011 at 6:12 PM

Whoo-hoo! My parents are from Manchester, so I am pretty familiar with your accent, Rachel!

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Dawn McNerney August 30, 2011 at 12:12 PM

I spent a few months in India living/volunteering in Andrah Pradesh where the priniciple language is Telegu. they say India has a 1000 dialects. The only thing I ever learned was how to ask “how are you?” and I answer “I am fine.” That’s as far as I got in four months. I found that the kids were the best teachers but I was a hopeless student. I have been afraid to even try to learn Sanskrit because if I can’t learn a “living language” I seriously doubt that I will be able to master an ancient language. But miracles do happen!

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Cheryl August 30, 2011 at 6:08 PM

Dawn – it is amazing how our approach can impact our experience! If we think about Sanskrit as “learning a new language” it comes along with all sorts of (mostly negative!) associations. But, if we think of it as “a fun, cool thing about yoga” then practice becomes pleasant and even joyful! If you are interested in trying, I KNOW I can help you!

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vanessa August 30, 2011 at 12:12 PM

I was taking a class where the teacher was challenging it’s students to understand sanskrit so she taught the whole class in sanskrit. At one point the whole class was in a different pose which created a lot of laughter. It was a good challenge but i am in need of more learning :)

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Linda August 30, 2011 at 12:21 PM

Cheryl is the best! I have learned so much and she makes it fun. I am constantly learning something new. Thanks Cheryl!

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Cheryl August 30, 2011 at 6:09 PM

Thanks, Linda! See you Weds! :-)

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Alfonso August 30, 2011 at 8:55 PM

Cheryl’s classes via Skype ROCK! Been through several sessions and looking forward to starting the next!

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Cheryl September 1, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Thanks Alfonso! Looking forward to spending time with my Dallas yoga peeps soon!

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Rhonda McMahon August 31, 2011 at 10:56 AM

OMG I wish I could think of one example…there a so many. To be perfectly honest I gave up using any sanskrit in my classes. I cannot translate the pose (physical) into it’s sankrit name. I’m just to anglaized. It’s like a second language in my brain and I cannot sort the vowels and emphasis correctly. I’ve studied books to learn how to say it properly, but I need ‘sound’ training. I am an kinetic learner so reading just doesn’t do it for me…..I would welcome any audio tapes that might help (or DVD’s)

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Cheryl September 1, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Hi Rhonda – you definitely CAN do it (use Sanskrit) it is just a matter of practice! Right now, you have a samskara (habit) for using English, but Patanjali tells us that samskara-s can be changed and replaced by more benefical ones. In addition to live classes, I also offer a CD with proper pronunciation of yoga poses for just $12. E-mail me at: azvedicchant@gmail.com if you are interested :-)

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Jen Mullholand August 31, 2011 at 3:58 PM

So I think that the moment I knew I had to get on the Sanskrit Yoga train (literally and figuratively speaking) was when I attended a workshop (I can’t remember with who) years ago and the teacher was ONLY using the Sanskrit names for the poses. And I barely knew any of them at the time! How embarrassing! Since then, I have made a solid effort to learn all the Sanskrit pose names and also have been to a few workshops with Nicolai Bachman (who I love!). When I teach, I want to stay as true to the lineage and nature of Yoga as a whole as I can, which means using Sanskrit terms. So some help with pronunciation skills would rock! Thanks!

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Bettina August 31, 2011 at 4:43 PM

Coincidentally, I just started trying to learn Sanskrit online TODAY (found your site via Facebook), and I’d LOVE for someone to work on the pronunciation with me via skype.

I also usually use English names in my class because I teach beginners–I feel like there’s enough for them to learn without me throwing in Sanskrit in there. But I’ve also never consciously tried to learn the Sanskrit names of many of the asanas (since my own teachers also used English names), which I’d like to do now.

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Sondra August 31, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Oh, I would love to have her visit Memphis to teach a workshop. I have the “Language of Yoga book/cd, but it would be such a treat to have such an immersion! Thanks for posting!

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Cheryl September 1, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Sondra – Please e-mail me or call — I’d love to visit Memphis!

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Krystyn August 31, 2011 at 7:46 PM

Those moments when a Sanskrit term starts to come out of your mouth hits some speed bumps, rough waters, tall curbs and what comes out ends up sounding like this: “trik-po-va…I don’t know the Sanskrit term for this pose. We’re just going to try and stack our shins on top of one another :)” So great to try and admit that you don’t know everything to your students.

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camille September 1, 2011 at 10:33 AM

I was lucky enough to have Cheryl come to my teacher training classes several times. I love using Sanskrit and Cheryl’s instruction has made me much more confident when I do. She really breaks the language down for you, so you understand how it works and why. Then it’s true knowledge, not just memorization. If you have even the tiniest desire to try her class, DO IT! She is kind, generous, funny and most of all, patient.

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Cheryl September 4, 2011 at 4:54 PM

Thanks so much Camille! Hope to see you soon! (Labor Day class at 9am! :-)

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Erin H. September 1, 2011 at 4:02 PM

I’m new to yoga and have only been practicing for about a year and a half, but I’m in love with it! I’d love a course in Sanskrit!

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Alina Taylor September 2, 2011 at 10:08 AM

I LOVE when other people use Sanskrit, and wish I could do so properly. Rarely is it used in classes near me and I am not a yoga instructor but reading and studying on my own opened the door to Sanskrit. I much prefer the names of the poses and the rooted history that exists with the language. This is an excellent idea for Skype classes and I appreciate you making this available. Does one need to be a certified teacher to take a class from you? Thanks for this post and making everyone feel more comfortable about butchering the terms and providing us the name of a great teacher so that we may sound competent.

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Cheryl September 4, 2011 at 6:16 PM

Hello Alina – my classes are open to everyone who is interested in Sanskrit, you do not have to be a yoga teacher to enjoy the benefits of Sanskrit!

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Michelle September 2, 2011 at 5:49 PM

I would love to win this class because I’m in a study group of the yoga sutras, and this would help us greatly! Most of them are yoga teachers, yet even they struggle with the Sanskrit.

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Kathryn September 6, 2011 at 1:28 PM

The transliteration form of Sanskrit was originally done by Germans. God bless them for all their work. However, when I channeled my German roots I kept putting h’s after the s’s. So when you try to say the command Samasthiti (equal standing) it comes out sama-shit-tahi. Everyone could not help themselves and laugh good naturedly. Needless to say after being corrected about 20 times I finally got it right.

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Flying Yogini September 6, 2011 at 8:25 PM

what a great giveaway. I’d love to share some of my Sanskrit mess-ups but then again they’d reveal my weak spots so I’ll just have to leave you in suspense. ;-)

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Dan Neumann September 7, 2011 at 12:14 AM

I’ve had the privilege of doing my YTT with Cheryl and Dave and have participated in a number of Skype classes with Cheryl. What an amazingly strong foundation they provide. You don’t just learn the Sanskrit names of poses. You learn the proper pronunciation. You learn what each part of the Sanskrit word means. And if a pose is lucky enough to be named after a deity or something (like virabhadrasana) you get the entire mythology behind it. Highly recommended.

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Maria @dailydownwarddog September 10, 2011 at 12:08 AM

And the lucky winners are Rhonda, Amy, and Krysten. I will be in touch with each of you to get you the details on your class with Cheryl. Thanks to all for the lovely comments and stories and wishing everyone the best of luck in your future Sanskrit endeavors!

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Shannon September 21, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Awe I’m too late but wanted to share my finest Sanskrit mis-speak… and it’s peacock pose .. ready?…. Mayurasana became Mayuranasana (My, you’re an ass…) ;)

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