To Sanskrit or Not to Sanskrit. A Pose by Any Other Name…

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Is this cat, table, or cakravakasana?

A Whole Life Yoga teacher training student asks: In some of the classes I attend, the teacher uses the Sanskrit names of poses; other teachers do not.  Is knowing Sanskrit important for a yoga teacher?

Using the names of yoga poses, whether in Sanskrit or English, is a convenient shorthand—for the yoga teacher.  It’s easier to say “Go into down dog” or even “Do adho mukha svanasana” than to describe how to do a pose correctly.  Knowing posture names does not make you a good yoga teacher.  A good yoga teacher can verbally describe a yoga pose to students who’ve never heard its name.  And when we show off and use the Sanskrit names of poses, most of our students hear “whatchamacallit-asana,” anyway.

I rarely use Sanskrit when I teach. Using even English names creates more confusion than clarity.  I remember telling students in class once to go into Uttanasana (a very common standing forward bend). One of my long-time students stopped moving, looked at me oddly, and said, “Utta-what?”  Other times, English has been equally confusing.  I’ve told students to do bridge, and people practicing on mats next to each other have done two completely different poses.  I’ve said “Do down dog,” and half the class has gone into up dog instead.  The examples are numerous, but one thing is clear: the shorthand may be convenient for me, but I’m not communicating to my students.

In Viniyoga, there’s an even more important concern.  There are literally hundreds of ways to do any pose.  If all I say is “Do warrior 1,” I haven’t communicated anything about proper foot placement, how to use the breath, arm positions, number of repetitions, how to engage the core, visualization, etc., etc., etc.  The beauty is indeed in the details.

Sanskrit is a lovely language.  If you study yoga–whether as a teacher or as a practitioner–you may want to learn posture names and other Sanskrit terminology.  But a teacher needs to know how to describe the form, intention, and adaptations of a pose—in English.


Tracy Weber

More information about Whole Life Yoga’s teacher training program can be found at our web site: Yoga Teacher Training in Seattle at Whole Life Yoga.

3 thoughts on “To Sanskrit or Not to Sanskrit. A Pose by Any Other Name…

  1. Chica

    I loved this. I have been practicing yoga for 20 years and teaching for 3. I don’t know if I have a speech impediment, but I consistently get the Sanskrit poses mixed up. I can pronounce them well, but I get one pose mixed up with another…or just forget it completely. OK, I have a disability there maybe…but, because of this, I have stopped using Sanskrit, and had many students tell me that love that I do not use it unless absolutely necessary. I have been told that I will be frowned upon if I cannot remember all of them. I think that is ridiculous! Teaching yoga has nothing to do with your ability to memorize poses in Sanskrit. Even after all these years, I still have a hard time with Sanskrit. But, I am OK with it. Being a good teacher has nothing to do with your Sanskrit abilities. Thank You for this!

    1. Whole Life Yoga Post author

      Honestly, even if I’m frowned upon, it’s not by my students. I’ve been teaching for 14 years, and I still don’t know all of the pose names. I never invested the energy to learn them. 😉

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