SANSKRIT WORD ROOTS OF ASANA NAMES
MAKING THEM EASIER TO UNDERSTAND
If you are not sure what to do when the teacher calls for “Utkatasana”, or, can’t quite tell “Hasta padangusthasana” apart from “Chaturanga Dandasana”, or, not clearly visualising “Prasarita Padottanasana”, or can’t get your mouth around “Utthitta Chaturanga Dandasaana”, here is some help!
What is in a Name!
Two basic things make identification of asanas (poses) easier:
String of Pearls
First, you must know that those long Sanskrit words are in fact like strings of pearls. This is something peculiar to Sanskrit. For example, Paschimottanasana has 4 words in it:
- Paschima (West or backside of the body);
- Utt (intense)
- tana (stretch);
- Asana (pose).
Learning to identify the smaller words within the long name makes it easier not only to recognize but also helps to pronounce.
Common Mother Language
The second important point is that, in English (as well as other languages), we use words that are distant cousins to Sanskrit.
According to linguists, there are nineteen families of languages in the world, and the languages of the western world have developed from one original tongue. No written record exists of this mother tongue, but strong similarities between words in different western languages, called Indo-European languages, point to a common origin. With the demise of Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), newer theories have come up, but here is an indicative chart according to accepted theories at present:
Many opinions are afloat even about the age of the Sanskrit. The oldest form of Sanskrit is Rigvedic (or Vedic)Sanskrit; so, some estimates can be made about the age of Sanskrit from the age of Vedas. Various postulates in vogue are:
- The modern linguists place the age of the first book of Vedas, the Rig Veda, at about 1800 B.C., placing Sanskrit at 3,800 years of age.
- Astronomical references in the Vedas, however, provide some broad approximations that help date the beginning of the tradition. Some Vedic notices mark the beginning of the year at the vernal equinox in Orion; this was the case around 4500 B.C. This places Sanskrit at 6,500 years of age.
- Atreya, a descendant of Hindu sage Atri, was a well-known Ayurvedic expert from 6th century BCE. Having lived in India for many years, he stated in Practical Atreya, “Ayurveda has very old roots, long before recorded history. Hinduism is a much later manifestation of the Vedic culture. Theoral tradition states that the first of the Vedas was composed about 40,000 years ago. This comes from my personal (Atreya’s) dialogs with yogis and teachers in India. The oral traditions are still very much alive in India, when valuable information is passed orally from teacher to student”. This account implies that Ayurveda, and Sanskrit, have existed for approximately 42,000 years.
- Some Indian Vedic scholars believe that creation, and so, Sanskrit – the divine language, is more than 2 billion years old.
Even according to first postulate, the oldest languages of the Indo-European family are Sanskrit (1800 B.C.), Greek (800 B.C.) and Latin (500 B.C.) French is a direct descendant of Latin, and about half of English words come from French. The Anglo-Saxon side of English, related to German, is also part of the big Indo-European family. According to Indian scriptures, Vedic language, which is the mother of Sanskrit, is said to be the mother of all languages.
One day in yoga class, this very obvious link was pointed out to me. I was explaining to the students that the asana they were doing was Janushirasana, and further expanded that janu meant knee and shir meant head. One student pointed out immediately that in French, the word for knee is genou, and is similarly pronounced like janu. There are so many other similar sounding words in languages : mother is ‘matri’ in Sanskrit, brother is ‘bhrata’, mrta is Sanskrit for dead or corpse and, in French, mort means death or dead and then goes on into English to show up again in mortuary (a place for the dead). This is a long list….
The Names of Asanas
Since the late 19th century, Sanskrit has been written mostly with the Devanagari alphabets. However it has also been written with all the other alphabets of India, except Gurmukhi and Tamil, and with other alphabets such as Thai and Tibetan. The Grantha, Sharda and Siddham alphabets are used only for Sanskrit. Since the late 18th century, Sanskrit has also been written with the Latin alphabet. The most commonly used system is the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST), which was been the standard for academic work since 1912.
Devanagari alphabets for Sanskrit
Vowels and vowel diacritics (ghosha)
Conjunct consonants (sanyoga)
There are about a thousand conjunct consonants, most of which combine two or three consonants. There are also some with four-consonant conjuncts and at least one well-known conjunct with five consonants. Here are some of the commonly-used conjuncts:
Do your best, keeping in mind that intention is important. Sanskrit is an implosive language – when you say Sanskrit words, the sound vibrations influence marmas, nadis and chakras.
Pronunciation of Sanskrit alphabets can be guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental or labial:
Word Roots for Names of Asanas
The word-roots for names of asanas are mostly from four categories:
- sages and deities, and
- shapes of objects.
Additionally, names of poses are further broken down into numbers and characteristics of the pose. As we get acquainted with some of these basic translations within the asana, then the longer names of asanas start to become easily comprehensible.
- Pada: foot/ leg (pied in French means foot, while pedestrian in English denotes someone on foot)
- Hasta: hand
- Anguli: fingers
- Angustha: big toe
- Janu: knee
- Shira or Shirsha: head
- Mukha: face
- Karna: ear
- Jathara: stomach
- Anga: limb
- Bhuja: arm
- Sarvanga: (sarva) whole (ang) body
- Shava: corpse
- Prana: breath/ lifeforce
- Pashchima: west direction (back side of body)
- Purva: east direction (front side of body)
- Shvana: dog
- Bheka: frog
- Baka: crow
- Ushtra: camel
- Go: cow
- bhujanga: snake/ serpent
- kapota: pidgeon/ dove
- kurma: turtle
- matsya: fish
- shalabha: locust/ grasshopper
Sages and Deities:
- Bharadvaja: a sage; also the father of famous archer, Drona, who trained the cousins who would later became rivals and fight the famous war Mahabharata, of which Bhagwad Geeta is an excerpt.
- Garuda: was the king of the eagles; Garuda once provided transportation and carried Lord Vishnu to the aid of devotee, Gajendra who was in a life threatening situation.
- Marichi: son of Brahma and grandfather of Surya the sun god.
- Matsyendra: Lord of the Fishes; a fish heard all the teachings when Shiva was imparting knowledge of Yoga to Parvati. Shiva gave him divine form to then spread the knowledge of yoga.
- Surya: Sun god
- Virabhadra: the great warrior who sprang to Shiva’s aid to seek revenge on his father-in-law.
- Nataraja: one of the names of Shiva, the lord of the dance.
- Hanuman: chief of the monkey army; one of Rama’s greatest devotees who came to his aid. Hanuman made huge leaps across the sea- first to find Sita and then to save Rama’s brother.
Shapes of Objects:
- Parigha: gate latch
- Hala: plough, plow
- Vriksha: tree
- Tula: scales
- Tada: mountain or Palm tree
- Setu: bridge
- Nava: boat
- Mudra: seal
- Dhanur: bow
- Danda: rod/ staff/ stick
- Chandra: moon
- Vira: hero
- Asana: pose/ posture
- Eka: one
- Dwi: two, both (dwa in Polish, pronounced dva)
- Tri: three (trois in French)
- Chatur: four (cztery in Polish, pronounced ch-terry)
- Pancha: five
- Shat: six
- Sapta: seven
- Ashta: eight
- Nava: nine
- Dasha or Dasham: ten
- Adho: downward
- Urdhva: raised/ upward
- Utthitta: extended, stretched.
- Parivritta: revolved
- Baddha: tied/ bound
- Supta: reclining/ sleeping
- Uttana: (utt) intense, (tan) stretch
- Sthiti: stability
- Upavistha: seated
- Prasarita: spread out
- Ardha: half
- Salamba: with support
- Nirlamba: without support
- Kona: angle
- Pida: pressure
These are only some of the representative root words.
Dr Jitender K Sahdev
President and Director of Teaching
Pleaseto learn ‘Sanskrit for Yoga’. We would love to hear any suggestions or comments that you might have. Space is limited and participation will be on a first-come-first-served basis. So, respond early to participate in this exciting, life-transforming Yoga experience.
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