The importance of Yogic philosophy and Sanskrit
Yoga is such a rich and deep tapestry of knowledge and tradition with so many practices and teachings.
To limit yourself to only learning the asana practice is doing a huge disservice to yourself. The teachings and philosophy of Yoga give us so many tools and lessons on how to navigate this magnificent experience of life.
Yogic philosophy is so vast and there is so much information out there on these ancient scriptures. From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to the Bhagavad Gita, to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as well as the Vedas and the Upanishads and everything in between and beyond, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you probably couldn’t learn it all in one lifetime. My advice here is to start small, so this blog will mostly focus on the importance and teachings of Patanjali’s Sutras, touching on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Bhagavad Gita.
People love to say that life doesn’t come with a manual and we have to fumble our own way through but this is entirely not true. These ancient scriptures and texts are detailed manuals on how to live a fulfilled, kind and compassionate life of contentment and happiness. Patanjali, in particular, sets out a step-by-step guide on exactly how to live consciously and with intention.
Patanjali is known as the Father of Yoga. His Yoga Sutras set out the path of Yoga we are all interested in today, the active path of Yoga. Patanjali, by no means, invented Yoga but he was one of the first sages to write the teachings down. Patanjali’s story starts thousands of years ago. The story goes that Patanjali’s mother, Gonika, was a powerful Yogini who was desperately lonely and wanted a child. She sat by the river praying for a son, her hands in Anjali mudra - hands together at her heart. All of a sudden, a tiny snake fell from heaven and into her hands. “Pat” in Sanskrit means to fall. This little being fell - pat - into Gonika’s hands - in Anjali mudra - and turned into her child. This is where his name comes from, Patanjali.
Patanjali set out the Yoga Sutras in 4 books or chapters and it is a manual on how to be a Yogi and live a Yogic lifestyle. His 8 limbed path to Enlightenment is described in the second book, Sadhana Pada, the chapter on Practice. Most Yoga practitioners know about the 8 limbed path but the sutras are so much more than just that.
First off, Patanjali sets out a ONE step path to enlightenment which is to just surrender. He says if you can surrender all your stuff, accept everything as it is and be in the moment, you will be happy. But, when you get down to it, we’re all quite attached to our stuff, so letting it all go is quite difficult. Patanjali then sets out his 8 limbed path to enlightenment which gives us more guidance and practical steps to take to become happy and content in our lives.
These 8 steps don’t have to be done step by step, they can all happen at the same time. You don’t have to master one thing to move onto the next one, you can do all these practices simultaneously, on the mat and out there in your everyday life. They are all PRACTICES - so sometimes we mess up, and that's okay, we’re only human. The important thing is that we’re trying.
Patanjali doesn’t just give us the one-step or the 8 limbed path and leave us in the lurch, he put together all the Sutras to help us on our path, give us all the lesson we may possibly need and guide us to the ultimate goal of Yoga, union with the divine. If we, as Yogis, read the Sutras, understand the teachings and learn the powerful lessons, we are truly on the Yogic path, living a Yogic lifestyle, not just “going to Yoga” and practising asana on the mat but using the teachings every day and in every way to LIVE YOGA. The word enlightenment does get thrown around quite easily these days. Enlightenment means just that; casting light onto everything. It’s using these amazing practices of Yoga to journey deeply into yourself and shine light into each corner, crevice and cranny. It’s sitting with all your darkness, your shadows and your ignorance and choosing, day after day, to learn more, to open your mind, to be comfortable with the discomfort of change. Patanjali gives us the tools to do just that.
The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) is a beautiful story and parable in which Arjuna, a soldier, stands on a battlefield ready to go into war. It is commonly referred to as the Gita and was originally part of the great Indian epic Mahabharata. The war Arjuna is fighting is with his own family. He asks Lord Krishna, the inner spirit and God within, to counsel him. The story of the Gite comes to teach us that it is only when we rise above human schemes and calculations and awake to the presence of the indwelling Spirit that we can hope to find the answers that we’re searching for. The Gita has three major themes: knowledge, action, and Love. The lessons and teachings Lord Krishna shares with Arjuna are ageless and timeless and still relevant and necessary today.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga) explains the entire science of Hatha Yoga - the physical practices of Yoga (asana, pranayama, shatkarma, mudra and bandha). These practices are used to ensure that the body is fit and healthy but they also awaken the vital energy of the body; the pranas, chakras and kundalini shakti. It points out that Hatha Yoga is not ONLY a physical practice but a process of cellular transformation from gross to subtle to divine. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is also a step-by-step manual, but in this case, the teachings relate to all the physical practices that can help to cleanse and purify the body and release trapped, negative energies and traumas.
This Yogic lifestyle is such a rich, in-depth and nurturing way of choosing to live one’s life consciously and mindfully. We can benefit so much in understanding ourselves, connecting to others and healing our unresolved past traumas.
These ancient scriptures, texts and teaching are all written and taught in Sanskrit, the language of Yoga. Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world, dating back to over 5000 years ago and is known as the “Mother of all languages”. Many of today’s English words come from this remarkable language. For example sama = same, charya = chariot/ car, matr = mother, kri = create, smi = smile, lubh = Love.
It is important, as a Yogi, to learn Sanskrit to understand exactly what the teachings are saying. Depending on translations is all very well and good, but reading the teachings in their original form and allowing them to reveal their truths directly to you and relating to your own perspective is immensely powerful. Sanskrit is a magical language because it is a vibrational language. English is a naming language, for example, you name that thing as a tree. Sanskrit is the actual vibrational aspect of that thing, eg. vrksa is the vibration of a tree. Sanskrit words vibrate to the same frequency and resonance of the thing they are attached to. So, when you speak Sanskrit you are not just naming things you are incorporating the frequency of that thing into your mouth, your consciousness and your own frequency.
When you are practising asana, saying the Sanskrit names of the poses is so important as the whole point of the physical practice is to take the shape of that thing, to see the world from that things perspective. So, using the Sanskrit name of the pose helps you to embody it, give you a deeper connection to it and literally feel what it is to vibrate at the frequency of that thing. For example, when we take the shape of Downward Facing Dog we are supposed to be seeing the world from the point of view of the dog, taking the same form, shifting our own perspectives and trying to understand life from another’s viewpoint. When we use the Sanskrit name, Adho Mukha Svanasana, we are embodying the Dog physically as well as vibrationally, making the pose and the physical practice that much more powerful.
Not only is it important to use the Sanskrit names of the poses in our asana classes and on the mat but also to chant in Sanskrit, study the words, speak them and teach them off the mat so that we are embodying these powerful words and teachings on a vibrational level, connecting to them deeply and understanding the teachings on a cellular level.
Delving deeply into the philosophy and teachings of Yoga and learning and using Sanskrit along with your asana practice takes your practice from a 1-dimensional physical effort to a multi-dimensional, magical and mind-blowing experience and way of life. Where every thought, every moment, every interaction or experience becomes an opportunity to practice Yoga, to learn more, to connect deeply.
When you weave these teachings into your every thought, word and action, every moment is met with awe, fascination and an amazing gratitude for the ability to see the lessons, heal yourself and be of service to the world.