Yoga Musings

Why Call the Asanas by their Sanskrit names? Part 1

Many yoga practitioners in the U.S. have little or no familiarity with the Sanskrit names of the asanas. And then there are those who seem to know all the Sanskrit names, in addition to myriad Sanskrit mantras and invocations. But why bother using the Sanskrit names when we do yoga? What’s the point? Isn’t it enough–and maybe even more important–that we get the poses right?

I think there are a number of compelling reasons why we ought to refer to, or at least be aware of, the Sanskrit names for the yoga asanas. For one thing, many of the yoga poses were named for mythical or historical figures, and there are entire stories behind the names (Hanumanasana, for instance, is named after Hanuman, a monkey-like, semi-divine character from the Ramayana). These stories are not only interesting and entertaining in their own right, but they are often filled with insightful lessons that can further inform our yoga practice.

Also, when we learn the Sanskrit names, we recognize the asanas and the yoga practice in general as something passed down to us, something we inherit from our teachers, who learned from their teachers, and so on. Besides, the act of renaming or translating foreign words into English is in many ways an act of “verbal imperialism”, for lack of a better expression. When I call Hanumanasana something like “monkey pose” or simply “the splits”, I cut off the pose (and my practice) from the rich history of yoga. I also impose upon the asana my own culture and language, which some might view as an act of aggression, or, at the very least, an act of cultural arrogance.

With these considerations in mind, it can seem disheartening that so many yoga teachers in America are quick not only to abandon the Sanskrit names, but also to invent (and sometimes copyright!) their own names for asanas and asana sequences.

Of course, there are some valid and plausible arguments for adopting the opposite view, namely, that we should rename the poses. I’ll flesh out this view next time, in Part II of this thread.

Just for fun, here’s a list of some Sanskrit asana names (transliterated, of course) and their English counterparts:

Bakasana : Crow Pose or Crane Pose

Utkatasana : Chair Pose or Lighting Bolt Pose or Fierce Pose

Garudasana: Eagle Pose

Utthita Hasta Padangustasana: Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose

Astavakrasana : Eight-Angle Pose

Mayurasana : Peacock Pose

4 thoughts on “Why Call the Asanas by their Sanskrit names? Part 1

  1. It is important to use the Sanskrit terminology to respect the whole philosophy of yoga. The word itself means integration. The body is joined with the mind and spirit and not just a form of physical exercise. Making it just “poses” would significantly take away from the philosophy. Why not just do a stretch class in that case? Asana is just one part of yoga. Patanjali yoga sutras give the whole philosophy of yoga. The first two steps of yoga are character building. Indeed clean character and clean breathing are necessary for the benefit of yoga asanas.

  2. Well, it all depends on your audience, what they want out of yoga, right? I belong to a studio that values the tradition and spirituality of yoga, but I’ve been to others where this is not so important. I like my studio but I guess the folks there like their’s too? I can’t say there is a right or wrong here. It’s a preference.

  3. Thanks for posting this. You have given me something to think about for my blog. I haven’t paid proper attention to the real names and now, I think I should learn and use them. – Adele

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