Before I fell in love with the asana practice of Ashtanga, I was seduced by its sound.
It seemed a total mystery of the best kind. The teacher would call out a word I did not know, and tell me to inhale with it, then another and to exhale with it. Certain words would make me move in very specific ways, and I understood none of them. It was like a spell.
What’s more, the words themselves had beats made for poetry. The word Ashtanga is a strong dactyl. “Yoga” is a trochee. Together, what a weird beat: “Ashtanga yoga.” How many times during a led class do we get reminded of its meaning? “Ashto exhale” as we move our limbs to the eighth breath.
The first pose name I learned has this curious rhythmic quality: “triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana.” I suspect I learned it first because it sounds as off-center as it felt.
Sanskrit is on my mind because I’m teaching new students, and new students often express a kind of awe at the Sanskrit. It causes some intimidation. Sometimes even distrust (one Venice yoga studio proudly proclaims, “NO SANSKRIT” on its exterior). There’s a lot of burying of Sanskrit in other forms of yoga, even banning. I think that removes the heart of the pose, its lineage.
Maybe it’s because I write poetry myself, and read a lot of poetry, but it seems to me like the Sanskrit is part of the purpose of the practice. The word evokes the pose, makes it complete. Sanskrit philosophy contends there is no distinction between the word and the thing it signifies, something of a point of contention in contemporary Western philosophy, called “the myth of original language.” A “myth,” and so, in Western eyes, not true.
One Sanskrit word for “poet” (“kavi”–but there are many) translates as “one who has supreme knowledge.” Perhaps this is the thing the poets know, the magic of language is in its evocative power. It seems to me that’s what I’m striving to do in the pose, anyway: to know.
Is this why Ashtanga uses Sanskrit so much? Perhaps Tim Miller’s explanation is the best, elegantly true: “The English just sounds stupid.”
Posted by Bobbie