The poetry of Ashtanga

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.

The Bhagavad Gita in beautiful Sanskrit

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

Published by


Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “The poetry of Ashtanga”

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog and I genuinely admire how your are spreading your love of yoga to others.
    I work for a new yoga company named YN YOGA. Like you, I am also spreading my love for yoga and advanced poses.
    As a fellow yogi, I would love to hear your thoughts and honest feedback on our new site:
    If you enjoy are site please feel free to add us as a link:)
    Thank you for your time.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s