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 „Yogāvatāraṇam“ 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).
„Yogāvatāraṇam“ 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.