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The use of Sanskrit in Yoga and the wellness industry

Updated: Mar 3




'Adho Mukha Svanasana'

'Surya Namaskar'

'Anjali mudra'


If you have been to a yoga class, seen someone talking about yoga on social media or advertising their teaching, you probably would have heard/seen a few of these words.

How did you feel about them being used, did you feel like it gave the teacher more credibility, did it give you an insight into the specific vocabulary of yoga, or did you find it uncomfortable - either culturally inappropriate, mis-pronounced (if you know the correct pronunciations) or otherwise?

So what is Sanskrit ?

Sanskrit is the ancient language the first yogis spoke and the language in which many historic yoga texts were written (although the word "Sanskrit" is itself an English word, thank you never ending colonialism, The Sanskrit of "Sanskrit" is saṃskṛta).

Originating in ancient India and considered to be one of the oldest languages on Earth,  Sanskrit is, quite literally, the language of yoga. Many of the mantras you may silently repeat in meditation, and the terms you hear in yoga class are ancient Sanskrit words.

So my question is why are yoga students trainee teachers taught the use of this language (as minimal or in depth as that may be) is it to give us a feeling of connecting with the ancient practice of yoga? But not taught the origins of the languasge and most significantly the huge amount of suppression, classism and casteism, sexism underlying it?

Maybe there isn't a need to know all of this, but given the amount of individuals using Sanskrit - whether appropriately or inappropriately is your call- should we not at least know the background of this language. The cultural significance and the injustice connected to it?

13th-century stone inscription in Sanskrit

The term 'Sanskrit' is derived from the conjoining of the prefix 'Sam' meaning 'samyak' which indicates 'entirely', and 'krit' that indicates 'done'. Thus, the name indicates perfectly or entirely done in terms of communication, reading, hearing, and the use of vocabulary to transcend and express an emotion.

An extraordinarily complex language with a vast vocabulary, it is still widely used today in the reading of sacred texts and hymns. (1)

There has always been much rigor and respect given to Sanskrit, it is widely regarded as a language of 'purity' and termed as Deva-Vani ('Deva' Gods - 'Vani' language) as it was believed to have been generated by the god Brahma who passed it to the Rishis (Sages) living in celestial abodes, who then communicated the same to their earthly disciples from where it spread on earth.

However it wasn't spread evenly or taught to just any old person. In ancient India only Brahmins (a member of the highest caste in Hinduism) were allowed to study religious texts. Sanskrit was basically language of priesthood and Brahmins. A language that was only known to higher members of society.

(Image dipicting the rankings of the caste system in India)

Sanskrit was used as a tool to demarcate people, rather than simply as a language – Sanskrit denoted the caste of its speaker. The language, then, can best be remembered as a marker of the caste system rather than the glory of India.

Previously wielded by high society as an exclusive asset, the government is now promoting it as a pan-Indian motif. Such treatment of Sanskrit is not only deceptive and superfluous, but also done at the cost of neglecting other Indian classical languages, like Tamil for instance, which are highly secular in their literature and widely spoken by the masses till date. (4)

Over time, the caste structure became more complex, coalescing into a system known as “Chatuvarnya,” which in turn was reinforced by the authorities of the British Raj. The categories set down by colonial administrators persist today. There are now more than 3,000 castes in India, and an even greater number of sub-castes.

At best Sanskrit was the language for the elite of ancient India.

Dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn yes ELITISM has once again surfaced.

I realise that in the West we have a completely different societal structure and I am in no way trying to compare it to the caste system in India, I just mean to show the parallel between those who are believed to be better and those who are deemed to be worse - which is normally due to the things we see in the West: money, heritage, privilege- physical, health, wellness.

So this is why I question the use of it today, as it may seemingly make the teacher, their teachings seem more credible and authentic but are we not just regurgitating an ancient injustice? Why is it so common to see the use of this language (as inappropriately as that may be - getting culturally appropriated tattoos of 'namaste' or 'om' or putting the om symbol in the logo for our yoga or wellness classes or shockingly exploiting the language like the pretty bleak but unfortunately ever popular 'na-ma-stay in bed' ?

I realise Yoga and Sanskrit cannot be seperated, however if they are one of the same what does this tell us about the practice of yoga? How far have we explioted something that was infact built on exploitation and discrimination?

Do you use Sanskrit, do you go to a class where the instructor does, what are your thoughts?


(4) government#:~:text=The%20uses%20of%20Sanskrit%2C%20like,be%20reborn%20into%20another%20varna.

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