New book offers a new approach to Sanskrit

Here’s a quick break from coverage of Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training and — I know this will break your hearts — my recapping my surfing. (Low tide on Wednesday after pranayama, so walled and closed out, but it did not deter me. If Ashtanga has helped me in no other way, it’s enabled me to delight in the moment of surfing.)

Over at Namarupa, they have an interview with Zoë Slatoff-Ponté, who has written a textbook — that seems to be the agreed upon description — on Sanskirt. It’s titled Yogavataranam: The Translation of Yoga. Quick description:

The traditional Indian method of learning Sanskrit is through oral transmission, by first memorizing texts and then learning their meaning. The Western academic approach methodically teaches the alphabet, declensions, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary building. Zoë Slatoff-Ponté’s Yogavataranam integrates the traditional and academic approaches for a full and practical experience of Sanskrit study.

Some of you may recognize her name. She runs Ashtanga Yoga Upper Westside. From Namarupa’s interview:

Namarupa There are obvious differences in how yoga and meditation are taught in India and in the West. Did you find that same thing with Sanskrit, notable differences between how it was taught at Columbia, and how it was taught by your teachers in India? 

From my teachers in India, I learned the importance of chanting. I learned to listen for meaning in the sounds and the importance of the rhythm in translation. At Columbia, I learned to pay attention to detail and the nuance of the grammar. I learned to read commentaries and understand the role that debate played in interpretation of primary texts.

Namarupa Is there a daily Sanskrit studying practice, sort of like we have a daily yoga practice?

Yes, I think Sanskrit is best studied daily, as with yoga practice. I think it is easiest first thing in the morning, when your mind is clear or as much as possible at a consistent quiet time. Even 20 minutes a day will help to keep it in your system and develop a sense of familiarity and fluency.

You can find more at this link to the Namarupa site, including links to purchase the book.

Also, because I’m keeping Bobbie away from the computer, and delaying her teacher training reports a bit, I’ll pass on another resource for those of you wondering what it is like: Todd McLaughlin, from Native Yoga Center in Florida, is staying on track. Find his blog here.

You can’t miss with Bheeshma, plus a Sanskrit village

Wednesday was Makara Sankranti, a critical date in the tale of the Mahabharata and the day when the Sun begins its journey back north — bringing with it light and heat and good fortune.

Tim Miller this week explained the significance:

It was on the auspicious day of Makara Sankranti that the Grandsire Bheeshma, who had been lying on his bed of arrows on the battlefield of Kurukshetra for weeks waiting for the Sun to resume its northward course, decided to leave his body and resume his rightful place in the heavens.

It is a moving moment in the story. Tim also details another story associated with the date — it ends with the Ganga. Check it out.

Also check out this BBC story on a village near Bangalore where everyone speaks, or at least understands, Sanskrit:

Here, ordinary shopkeepers and agricultural labourers speak in Sanskrit – or at least understand it. Most children too speak the language fluently.

The phrases most heard on the streets here are “katham aasthi” (Sanskrit for how are you?) and “aham gachchami” (I am going).


Today, it is spoken by less than 1% of Indians and is mostly used by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies.

Until the early 1980s, villagers in Mattur spoke the state’s regional language, Kannada, as well as Tamil because of the large number of labourers who settled here centuries ago from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

The story details how all that relates to the Indian government’s push to promote Sanskrit. (Hat tip to reader Scott.)

Posted by Steve

The subtle differences between 1st and 2nd editions of Astanga Yoga Anusthana

The Ashtanga & Angels blog — whoa, when do angels ever appear?! — has gone through the first and second editions of Sharath’s book and cataloged the subtle differences.

Probably the most obvious is the pictures.

The complete run-through is at this wordpress document. An example (my formatting):

33 Sūryanamaskāra B: ṣaṭ 6 …pull in the stomach completely, gaze at the navel.

…pull in the stomach completely, and hold the position while gazing at the navel.

Seems that much of the changes are to clean up the Sanskrit. But there are some slight variations to vinyasas, notably to Sirsasana. I’m not sure you’ll be discovering a whole new practice, though.

There is this: The final resting pose “is called sukhāsana.”

Posted by Steve


Remember, yoga isn’t just asana and injuries

Given the latest yoga’s gonna hurt you piece in the New York Times, we’ve — and I mean you all and us — been a bit focused on the physical side of yoga. Asanas. The toned body. Maybe the ability to sit still for long enough to meditate and find a still mind. But as a few commenters have noted (and we’ve hopefully reiterated regularly), yoga isn’t just about asanas. You know, “complex yoga stretches.”

Still, I figure we all could use a little reminder of this. So it is timely as can be that our friend Naren Schreiner at Sangita Yoga has just returned from a visit to Mexico that emphasizes the juicy quality of kirtan and Bhakti Yoga. (I think I need to beat everyone to the punch and figure out what the dangers are of practicing Bhakti Yoga. I’ll let you know when my piece is set to appear in the Times.)


Quick reminder; Naren performed at the last Confluence and is on the schedule again for 2014. He gets the simple and profound power of unity. He probably wouldn’t like my putting it that way.

From his piece:

My desire to visit Mexico was rekindled in my twenties when I saw a film of my Satguru, Paramahansa Yogananda, visiting Mexico in 1929.  He wrote that the land and culture reminded him much of his beloved India.  In the photos of that trip and in the film footage, it seemed as though Yoganandaji was able to be with the Mexican people as if he were among his own.

In October of 2013, my time to visit this ancient land finally arrived.  Sangita Yoga was invited to provide sacred music at a new spiritual retreat center outside of Queretaro, a beautiful city north of Mexico City.


Pablo had told me that Queretaro was important in the fight for the Independence of Mexico, and so Lopa and I decided to talk about the importance of sacred kirtan and bhajan in India’s Freedom Movement and present “Raghupati Raghava” and “Vande Mataram”.  Clara, to my surprise, asked me right on the spot to lead a kirtan.  Hesitantly, I taught them the words, “He Govinda, He Gopala” and sang a simple melody based on Raga Yaman.  We were delighted to see the enthusiastic response—everyone sang and clapped along with joy.  Janzel and I answered some questions from the audience and we offered a few more bhajans before closing.

The reception from nearly a hundred Queretanos was humbling.  Many came afterwards to greet us and welcome us to their city, others wanted photos with us.  Some asked more questions about the tabla, the harmonium, or the tanpura.  Women asked Lopa about her sari and the works of Tagore.  One gentleman in his sixties came to us and said, “Thank you for singing the chants in the holy language of Sanskrit.  This sacred language has blessed my city. The entire planet Earth needs the holy vibrations of Sanskrit.”  And then he politely left.  Clara did not know who he was—we never found out how he came to know of us.

As far as I can tell, no hips were injured during the trip.

Posted by Steve


The crowd at AYNY for Saraswati and Sharath, plus Sanskrit e-books galore

Last night, Saraswati and Sharath lectured at Ashtanga Yoga New York. It was, as you might expect, a full house. Here’s a photo from the AYNY website:


Look a little deeper and you’ll find that Eddie Stern knocked out three new blog posts, including about the story — which I think we briefly rolled into something, as well — about the White House embracing yoga as a non-religious, or at least non-specifically spiritual — physical practice. He also found a wonderful photo from the Guardian in the U.K. of Orthodox Jews practicing yoga in Israel that further illustrates the point that yoga isn’t necessarily a Hindu religious activity:

Via the Guardian

But what I really want to highlight is the site Eddie links to with Sanskrit e-books, including Shakespeare and the Bible as well as Sanskrit primers and other books with English translations. You know, for all of us who can read Sanskrit. But if you’re among those who can, this seems like a great resource.

Posted by Steve

Here’s the Ramayana you ought to be reading

At one point a little less than half-way through our Indian yatra, our leader and guide Robert Moses passed a book back to me as we bumped our way along the Indian roads.

It was one part of the Ramayana. And actually a pretty good part: Hanuman’s leap to Lanka.

I read, I flip through some other pages, as our bus continued careening along. At one point, Robert made some comment about birds of a feather (or something similar): Right across the aisle from me, one of our Swamijis was absorbed in his own book.

Of course, he was reading Sanskrit. But the book I had included the Sanskrit as well as the translation.

It was the Clay Sanskrit Library version of the Ramayana. And while having the Sanskrit more or less corresponding to the translation — it’s pretty much page by page, so you can track the Sanskrit fairly well — is great, it was the translation itself that really caught my eye.

We’re fans of Ramesh Menon’s translations, no doubt. They tend to read that contemporary fantasy novels, which is the point. The Clay Sanskrit Library books try to capture the feel and style of the original, which means a lot of repetition — Rama’s the “tiger among men,” and you read that a lot — but also a certain flow and ebb to the story-telling that is, decidedly, not modern.

There are still two volumes (and three books total) yet to be published of this version of the Ramayana. But that shouldn’t stop you from taking a look at the ones that are out — or the other 50 or so books they have translated and published.

Posted by Steve


What Am I Saying? The Opening Prayer

There has been a surge of new students at Jörgen’s lately. A good number of them are not only new to Ashtanga, but new to yoga. I have the daunting task of introducing them to both. I’ve had to negotiate the fine points quickly, and without personal experience (I’d been doing yoga for seven years when I landed in my first Ashtanga class, and had researched it enough to know it was hard). I stress the breath most of all, then follow with Bandhas 101, and let them know that because they’ll be focused on a gazing point, they shouldn’t look to me to demonstrate the pose. Listen, focus, practice, and all is coming. And don’t fear the Sanskrit.

So they really get thrown into the Sanskrit fire when class begins. Out of what must seem like nowhere:

vande gurunam charanaravinde…

It’s at this point in the post that I’d ask you, dear Reader, to remember that I’m also a writing teacher and a poet, and to imagine what that might mean for me to recite such melodious and evocative poetry aloud, and the hefty respect this gives me for it. I also ask you to consider what effect this might have on me when it comes out of some corners of the room sounding like this:

man-made goo-rah van chair-y near-a windy…

So I learned pretty quickly that I was going to have to break line integrity (something that infuriates me no end) and say it slow, say it loud, and say it proud.

All the same, I realize that I’m asking students from all walks of life to recite something in a foreign language without knowing what it means. I also realize I like that. My Sanskrit teacher, Sunandaji, taught me that it’s not just a language; it’s a thing. Each word is an evocation of the thing itself. In other words, it’s magic.

So I’ve put my faith in the magic of its ancient sound. The yogi will somehow know that he/she is thanking the teacher for the knowledge and healing being offered to them in the practice, thanking Patanjali for the fire of purification they are about to receive. It’s daunting, seductive, and, what’s more, it works.

In all its beautiful forms, the opening mantra.

Posted by Bobbie