This heading might surprise you – what does yoga have to do with Sanskrit? In the West yoga is often seen as training for the belly, legs, and butt. Sanskrit is the language in which the majority of the old Indian literature was composed, but these days, it is no longer in active use. So why should learning such a classical language be yoga for the mind?

The original meaning of yoga

In order to explain this, it is necessary to remind you of the original definition of yoga – which has nothing to do with the belly, legs, and butt. You can find it in the defining book for yoga philosophy, in Patañjali’s yogasūtra, dated between 200 and 400 C.E.: “Yoga is the stilling of the movements of the mind” (my translation, in Devanāgarī „योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥„ respectively in transliteration „yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ ॥ I.02 ॥“).

Physical yoga may bring this about, more or less, in Ashtanga Yoga ideally as meditation in movement. “Belly, legs, and butt“ are a welcome side-effect, but not the main goal.

Learning Sanskrit has a calming effect on the mind. One can only learn it when one is prepared to focus. The language is challenging – and beautiful when one opens up for it.

The yogic effect of Sanskrit

Sanskrit can unfold its  „yogic“ effect on a number of levels, in my personal experience.

First, there is the sound. Originally, Sanskrit was used to transmit the holy texts of the Vedas – thousands of verses transmitted just orally, until the first script was developed in about 500 BCE.. Therefore, the sound of Sanskrit is destined to penetrate, to go deep into the mind and maybe even into the body. This means that with correct pronunciation the vibrations create a form of inner well-being, and a gestalt that is relatively easy to remember (as is generally the case with melodies).

There are (esoteric) claims that Sanskrit is supposed to be one of the few languages that directly affect the energy body, i.e. that it is able to deposit the sense of the words directly into the body, without needing the analytical understanding. I do not know whether this is really true – what I do know is that singing the mantras and reciting the texts of the old classics in Sanskrit already induced a meditative state in me long before I started to become more familiar with the script, pronunciation, vowels and grammar.

Another level of “yogic” effect can be the way through which one learns the language. For sure there are mundane or academic approaches, which are comparable to the way of learning any classical language, Latin, classical Greek, Hebrew. However, I don’t think that this “academic” approach would have interested me. I was fortunate enough to come across a very innovative approach, through a book by Zoë Slatoff. 

Yogāvatāraṇam“ – die Übersetzung des Yoga

In her book „Yogāvatāraam“ Zoë manages the balancing act between the „very conventional“ teaching of a language (writing, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar) and the “yoking” of this language to the world of yoga, based on the words and texts through which one learns. Of course it is helpful that Zoë has been practicing and teaching yoga for more than twenty years – and in parallel has completed a graduate degree in Sanskrit studies (actually, she just submitted her Ph.D. thesis).

Yogāvatāraam“ has the meaning „translation of yoga“ – and in this sense the Sanskrit that one learns through this approach is not some “standard Sanskrit”, but through countless examples from the yogasūtra, the Bhagavad Gītā and many others. It is quite nice to discover expressions like „bandhas“, “prāṇa” or „drishtis“ directly via the classical texts.

Meditative writing

Just learning the individual letters of the devanāgarī script can have a meditative effect.

It would be a lie to say that it easy to learn the script or Sanskrit in general. It takes time and much repetition. The time spent learning, writing, or repeating the words or verses or mantras can be a meditative endeavor. It can have a calming effect – if you don’t put yourself under too much pressure. In addition, it teaches focus. To read, write, and to translate – all this requires a clear focus on what one is doing in that very moment. Otherwise, one overlooks something or misunderstands it. This kind of unidirectional focus can be a very good training for all other daily activities.

Repetition is the mother of learning

This does not mean that learning Sanskrit is not frustrating from time to time. That is also part of the journey. For example, a declension that one has forgotten for the 3rd time, or words that one does not recognize even if one knows that one has seen them many times before, can bring real frustration. In addition, there are the emotions (at my age) when I realize that my mental capacity is not the same as it was in the early days.

For me the benefits clearly outbalance the moments of frustration. It makes me happy to suddenly understand a small piece of text in the original language, to (sometimes after a long time of wondering) discover the meaning of a term or when I know what I chant whilst I am chanting it.

As the fictional Belgian detective Hercules Poirot would have said: Sanskrit is extremely stimulating for the little gray cells.

One should also not forget that from a yogic point of view there is no separation between the body and the mind. Therefore, let me finish with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In this sense, Sanskrit expands space in a way that is not possible to describe, only possible to experience.