Yoga Musings

Why Call the Asanas by Their Sanskrit Names? Part 2

I recently posted a few thoughts on this question and presented the view that we really should call the asanas by their Sanskrit names. This time around, I’m going to argue for the opposite view. I’ll leave it up to readers to make up their own minds about which view is more plausible.

One reason to abandon the Sanskrit names is that we can’t understand them anyway. In other words, why should we rigidly stick to names and words from another language, if they don’t make sense to most of us? If anything, the use of Sanskrit names may scare or drive away people from yoga who aren’t comfortable with its perceived foreignness. In other words, using Sanskrit names makes yoga inaccessible. But don’t we want to make yoga more, not less, accessible to people?

There’s another reason to abandon the Sanskrit names and make up our own. If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that there is a long history of Americans taking cultural imports and making them our own by renaming them. For example, we’ve basically transformed the English game cricket into our own game–i.e. baseball–with its own rules, terminology, playing field, etc. This is the natural process of cultural evolution. We see this with food, music, art, etc. Why should we resist the Americanization of yoga? One thing that makes America so great is that cultures from all around the world come here and mix and swirl around in this great melting pot, and the result is always fresh, and uniquely American.

The fascination and obsession with “tradition” in yoga may be well-intentioned, but it is ultimately misguided. Yoga is not a static thing that has been passed down for thousands of years exactly in the form that we receive it today. In fact, the asanas we practice today in yoga classes only are a hundred years old or so. The oldest documentation of poses like Virabhadrasana 1 comes from the late 19th century. Yoga texts from previous eras consists mostly of sitting postures, like Lotus, and focus primarily on breathing, meditation, and philosophy. So this obsession with tradition which drives people to use the Sanskrit names is based often upon false ideas about the history and evolution of yoga.

More problematically, this obsession with Sanskrit names seems to have some underlying racism behind it. Many people exoticize yoga, treating it in the same way that people treat, say, Native American religious practices.  This way of treating non-Western religions is a form of Orientalism, because it is predicated on a romantic and fundatamentally racist view of yoga and its origins. People who fetishize yoga often think like this: Yoga comes from people who really “get it” because they are so in touch with the pulse of the Universe, with Mother Earth. Yoga comes to us from these simple people who have not been corrupted by the evil ways of modern civilization.

This way of thinking about yoga and its origins is clearly arrogant, and probably even racist. And if a committment to or obsession with Sanskrit names stems from this kind of Orientalism, the use of Sanskrit ought to be abandoned.

Besides, if we really care about tradition, and we recognize that the main tradition in yoga has been one of evolution and adaptation, then why not celebrate this and allow yoga to evolve in our hands? If we want to be true yogis, we should be forward-looking and let go of petty attachments along the way.


8 thoughts on “Why Call the Asanas by Their Sanskrit Names? Part 2

  1. Yoga is discipline thousands of years old. Many people, when they learn yoga, mostly know the names for postures translated from sanskrit, but I do not see where is the problem here. You can use anything you want, and if you are really interested in yoga, then you will try to learn and understand everything.

    Thank you.

  2. I enjoy the dialog around this subject. My practice enjoys chanting and pranayama too… and the sanskrit is beautiful in this context. The asana practice in Sanskrit is also very beautiful… I enjoy it. Sometimes the westernized names seem a bit jarring… other times it sounds natural… must depend on my own mind… hmmmm…..

  3. I think using Sanskrit name from the beginning is good as it teaches people in all parts of the world that yoga is not only about physical well being but much more than that. Something we all lack in the mordern world. Each sanskrit name creates a vibration inside your mind. Dont focus so much on trying to understand and rationalise each word, but try to open your being to feel the energy each asana word provides in your practice.

    As long as you remember that physical yoga is just a start to the long journey of yoga. I think as long as you accept something with a open heart and mind you’r already doing yoga.

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