Updated: Nov 14, 2020
On Language, Legacies of Learning and Asking Ourselves, What Am I Committing to be a Student Of?
I'd love to reflect on a question I get asked a lot.
"I practice and / or teach yoga, but do I really need to learn Sanskrit?"
Sometimes this question is asked with an eyeroll. Or a moan. Or an addendum "...it's such a hard language to speak…"
And honestly, when asked this way, it can be painful and harmful. This actually becomes a racial microagression.
A racial micro agression or rather, I like to think of it directly as a racial aggression, is an unconscious expression of discrimination of bias against a target group. This is a racial aggression because our culture needs to be honored and respected, not ignored, downplayed or mocked.
As we consider this question It’s important to stop and ask ourselves: what exactly am I being a student of?
When we consider this question of if we should learn Sanskrit when we practice and teach yoga I'd say unequivocally yes.
For me, the answer is about honoring the roots of this practice.
My answer is also personal, political, reverential and practical.
Sanskrit is an intimate part of my life. As a child my father chanted in Assamese and Sanskrit to help me fall asleep at night.
As I lay there, tense, sleep eluding me, I'd try without success, to relax.
My dad would smooth my brow, invite me to envision a glowing ball of blue energy at my forehead and sing a beautiful chant that his own mother had sung to him. Engulfed in waves of sacred sound and blue light energy I would drift off to sleep.
I'm certainly not a Sanskrit scholar, but I am a reverent student of Sanskrit.
Sanskrit is part of the fabric of yoga and lends important context to our yoga practice.
When we learn and use the Sanskrit names for asana, pranayama, mudras or bandhas in yoga we not only deepen our practice but we benefit from the thousands of years of codification that yogis past have offered on this subject.
Through our exploration, we may understand the nuances of a shape better, or we may gain insight into yogic philosophy.
Honestly, we could be students our whole lives and still barely touch the surface of this immense ancestral wisdom stream.
He’s not your most popular historical figure, but Pāṇini, a Vedic scholar and grammarian from the 5th or 6th century B.C.E. compiled theories and texts on the Sanskrit language and its nuances and complexities.
Studying Sanskrit situates us well within a tradition of knowledge explorers into the sacred and divine.
Some of my teachers say that Sanskrit is a sacred language where each sound vibrates with the harmonics of the universe.
We cannot underplay the importance of Sanskrit in yoga.
As a young person, I participated in pujas, ceremonies chanted in Sanskrit by our local Pandit all through my life.
From afternoons of smoky fire and ripe fruits held in the garages or backyards of our homes for any reason from the simplest to grandest to most desperate, Sanskrit shlokas in ceremony were the backdrop soundtrack to my childhood along with Madonna and MJ.
This context is incredibly important and shouldn’t be lost in our practice and teaching of yoga.
If you aren’t studying, speaking or teaching Sanskrit in your practice or teaching in yoga, please share as I’d love to know, why are you not?
I believe as practitioners of yoga we need to make a commitment to learn and deepen in our practice from knowledgeable teachers whenever we can.
I've studied Sanskrit and continue to study it in various places from my family to temple, to sitting at the feet of my teacher in the Sri Adi Shankaracharya tradition, to locally, online, to courses with various teachers in the field.
I've been lucky enough to spend the better part of a year studying texts like the Baghavad Gita in depth with my teacher in Bihar. We explored many translations, chanted and discussed philosophy and practice line by line for hours as the sun set over the Phalgu river, a tributary that leads to mother Ganga.
Let’s be clear. We can have devotion, rigor and justice.
Studentship doesn't need to equal blind compliance, spiritual bypassing of uncomfortable truths or intentional denial of what is. Nor does it mean everyone explores, learns or shares in the same way.
We can also explore and inquire with humility and curiosity. I've heard some speak of Sanskrit being used against them, of being excluded based on caste or gender, from even speaking the sacred sounds or shlokas. Of grave bodily harm if they did.
As someone devoted to the practice of working towards justice, equality and equity, as someone working to practice to repair harm, as someone born into Brahmin caste privilege, I seek to listen to and not erase this painful complexity.
To hear the words, stories and feelings of my siblings who have experiences that need to be heard and held and healed. I seek to not turn away from examining these problems, harm and complexities even as I continue to study and learn. This is my approach to all life and learning. To welcome all the complexities and to never stop inquiring and learning.
Also we have to respect that some people don't have access to wonderful teachers, or feel comfortable speaking a language that they are learning. This is all part of the exploration.
I'm not saying everyone has to do things the same, just inviting inquiry into a process of asking what we are students of and how.
I'm a hungry and willing student to Sanskrit's sacred sounds and knowledge encoded therein. And I'm hungry for healing, justice and equity as well.
To me, Sanskrit is a beautiful, vibrational and spiritual language. I have so much reverence for it and I will always be a student of it.
Studentship is powerful. Ever evolving. It can be complex.
Honoring a culture by learning more about all of its parts is key.
If you or anyone asks this question, it feels like an invitation to go deeper.
What are you committed to being a devoted student of?
This is a compilation of ideas I've been ruminating, writing and speaking about for quite a while. I write because I care. And I want us all to do better. Please share and uplift this work if you feel inspired. Your thoughts, experiences and insights help move this work forward.
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