The Root Language of India
Sanskrit is an exquisite language from ancient India whose beauty and design set it apart from ordinary language. The word Sanskrit, in Sanskrit, is spelled Saṁskṛta, and means "refined" or "well made." Over 3500 years old, Sanskrit arose among people who valued inner peace over outer possessions. Sanskrit was designed to express the ideas and concepts of this ancient yet highly advanced culture. The sciences of yoga, medicine (Ayurveda), astronomy/astrology (Jyotisha), sound (Mantra), mathematics, and many others, developed over thousands of years, and the accumulated knowledge was recorded in Sanskrit, both aurally (via chanting) and in writing.
MY JOURNEY: After studying and practicing yoga asana, meditation, and Ayurveda, I realized how deeply I resonated with every form of knowledge coming from India. They all made so much sense, and wove together seamlessly. Once I became exposed to Sanskrit, my interest was piqued. I knew that in order to fully understand the sciences and world-view of India, I needed to learn Sanskrit, So as impractical as it was, I sought the best teachers I could find and pursued the study of Sanskrit wholeheartedly for many years. This developed into teaching workshops, writing books, recording audio, and continuing to study on my own and with other teachers.
SOUND: Sound is the highest priority in Sanskrit. In the beginning, the sacred texts called Veda-s were not written down, only chanted. Having a language that is 100% phonetic makes it much easier to preserve these sacred sounds. Because most people automatically blend words together when speaking fast, sound blending rules were created, ensuring the spoken and the written always match. Pronunciation has always been extremely important, since all sound has an energetic effect. The science of Mantra developed from this idea, and Sanskrit sounds are made in specific mouth positions long the human palate, each causing vibration to travel in a different direction.
Here is a pronunciation chart for the Sanskrit alphabet:
Some of the words I used do not exist in English (like "shdum"), but I needed to create them to cause the correct sound to happen in the mouth. Sanskrit is 100% phonetic: each written character is always pronounced the same way. This makes Sanskrit very easy to learn and pronounce. A spelling bee in Sanskrit would be impossible. Rhythm is built into the language, each syllable being either short (one beat) or long (2 or more beats). For example, "guru" is made of "gu" and "ru", each a short syllable, so it gets 2 beats total. The word "āsana" is made of a long "ā", short "sa" and short "na", so it is pronounced more like "aasana" and gets 2+1+1=4 beats total. It is important to have the correct diacritical marks above or below certain letters, otherwise there is no way to know how to pronounce them. Sanskrit was designed for the human vocal apparatus. Each sound in the alphabet is made in a specific place within the mouth or throat. There are 5 mouth positions, including gutteral (back of the throat as in "k" or "g"), palatal (top of the palate as in "ch" or "j"), cerebral (smooth, round area of hard palate behind and above the teeth), dental (touching the back of the teeth, as in "t" or "d" or "n"), and labial (lips, as in "p" or "b" or "m").
When words meet, as in a sentence or phrase, any incompatibilities of sound will be resolved. The written is always an exact reflection of the spoken. For example, in English we pronounce "I passed the test" more like "I past the test". In Sanskrit, it would be pronounced exactly as written. Sanskrit is a natural language, meaning its sounds are said to truly represent what they mean. For example, the sound "ga" expresses motion, as in the English "go" or the Sanskrit root "gam."
Why is pronunciation so important in Sanskrit?
- Sanskrit is highly respected in India as their sacred, divine, mother language. To honor this tradition it is important to spend a little time to learn at least the basics of pronunciation.
- reading Sanskrit words rendered in English letters with no diacritical marks, and pronouncing them as an English word, almost always results in poor pronunciation, and often the expression of a completely different energy. Here are some blatant examples: mala means "impurity" and in Ayurveda translates to "feces, urine or sweat" mālā means "necklace of beads, garland, rosary" OR ananda means "unhappiness" while ānanda means "enhanced happiness, bliss"
- chanting a mantra, especially a single-seed "bija" mantra (click here for examples), releases specific energy into the world. The more the sound (̥śabda), intention, meaning (artha) and visualization (yantra) align, the more powerful the desired effect will be. Even if the mantra is recited mentally, it is still based on the audible sound.
- chanting divine names of gods and goddesses invokes the energies they represent. If these are mispronounced, then the resulting vibration may shift into something that is not intended.
How can you use Sanskrit in your practice?
- japa: chanting mantra correctly aligns it with your intention
- learn key terms from the yoga sutras, instead of their incomplete English approximations
- learn to pronounce the asana names correctly, including their proper rhythm
History and Linguistics
Sanskrit is the mother tongue of Indo-European languages, including Latin, English, Spanish, French, German and Italian. Sanskrit is also the basis of most languages spoken in India, especially in the north. Hindi, the most common Indian language, shares the same written script as Sanskrit, although the sentence structure and grammar are quite different. Pure Hindi, called "shuddh Hindi," is directly from Sanskrit and thus shares many words with it. Hindustani is the version of Hindi that is half Urdu, which is from Persian. Hindustani is the most common form of Hindi spoken in India today. It is important to distinguish between a written script and a language. A language is a way of communicating, and has a grammar which defines its word and sentence formation. For example, "I eat soup" is a simple sentence in the English language. To write a language on paper, you need a script. In English, we use what is called Roman script, which consists of the written letters a through z. Other Indo-European languages use the Roman script as well, sometimes with little marks added above or below certain letters, called "diacritical" marks. For example, the French ague or the German umlaut. 99.9% of the time, one particular language will be written in one particular script. Many Indic languages share the same alphabetic sound structure. Each uses a different written glyph for the same actual sound. Because the sounds are the same, you can write many different languages using the same script. For example, T. Krishnamacarya, the teacher of BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar, wrote Sanskrit verses using his native Telegu script. The Sanskrit language is usually written in a script called Devanagari. Indic scripts have no capitalization. The Sanskrit alphabet in Devanagari is shown below.
When a foreign script is rendered into a more familiar script, it is called transliteration. This allows the reader to pronounce the foreign word properly without needing to learn the foreign script. For example, when a Sanskrit word in Devanagari script is transliterated into Roman script, it is much easier to pronounce.
The Sanskrit alphabet in transliteration is shown below:
Sanskrit was designed for sound. For millenia the profound teachings of India have been chanted over and over, preserving the essence of their meaning. Chanting Sanskrit forms a direct link to the vibrations of ancient India through sound. Many other cultures have preserved their texts through chanting as well.
In order to chant properly, it is paramount to pronounce correctly the Sanskrit words. When we say a Sanskrit word as if it were English, we miss the true vibration of whatever energy that word represents. This is especially true for chanting mantras, since they are recited hundreds and thousands of times in order to produce a particular effect. If the pronunciation is not accurate, then the effect of the sound, instead of enhancing, will divert the energy of the intention and focus. How would it sound if someone who did not know how to pronounce Italian for example, sang a song in Italian? Unfortunately this is the case in our Western culture around Sanskrit. There are many recordings of devoted, well-intentioned, highly talented singers who are pronouncing Sanskrit chants as if they were English.
The Science of Longevity
Ayurveda means "the science (or knowledge) of longevity (or life." It is a system of medicine that has been practiced in India for over 5000 years. Ayurveda is based upon five basic elemental principles that comprise our physical universe: earth (solid matter), water (liquid matter), fire (that which transforms solid, liquid and gas), air (gaseous matter) and space (the container for the other four elements). These elements combine in different ways to produce three energetic forces called "dosas": Va_ta, Pitta and Kapha (VPK).
Vata is the mover. Since motion causes dryness, excess Va_ta can cause dry skin, cracking joints and psoriasis. Pitta is the transformer. It changes matter from one state to another via digestion, heat production, chemical reactions, etc. Excess pitta can manifest as ulcers, skin rashes and inflammation (-itis diseases). Kapha is responsible for stability, structure and endurance. Skeletal strength, memory retention and fat storage are under its domain. Example of excess kapha are obesity, congestion and sluggishness.
Each of us is born with out own genetically unique combination of VPK, called "prakrti." Growing up, we digest not only food but ideas, sights, sounds, etc. When our combination of VPK strays from our prakrti and becomes off balance, called "vikrti", we experience symptoms or dis-ease. Usually our primary dosa is the culprit. For example, if our prakrti, in terms of VPK, is 1-3-2, we are primarily pitta and secondarily kapha. Our pitta will most easily become aggravated and will produce hot symptoms like rashes, fever, burning sensations and acne. Generally this would be treated with pitta reducing food, herbs and lifestyle. Treatment is based upon the principle of opposites. If too hot, experience cool things. If too heavy, experience light things. I use the word "things" because everything we come into contact with has an energetic and affects our body and mind, including food, sensory perceptions, thoughts, etc. Ayurveda prescribes not only appropriate diet but a beneficial lifestyle as well, always based upon the attributes of each unique individual. Thus it may treat the (seemingly) same condition differently for different people.
Ayurveda is about understanding your body, mind and spirit in order to PREVENT disease and love a long, healthy, happy life. Self-observation, discipline and moderation are the keys to success. When we begin a diet and lifestyle program to reduce the excess dosa, keep in mind that you are allowed to indulge once in a while if that will keep ou on the program over time. Be disciplined about your diet and lifestyle, not rigid. The closer you follow the recommendations, the faster your health will improve.
Newsletter 1 Nov 2009
Origins and Significance of 108
Newsletter 2 Jan 2010
What is Yoga?
Newsletter 3 sent Mar 2010
Investigating the Cakra Colors
Newsletter 4 Article sent May 2010
Birth and Pranava
Newsletter 5 Article
Celebrations of Light
Newsletter 6 Article
Yoga Sutra Variations
Newsletter 7 Article
Clearing Away Obstacles
Newsletter 10 Article sent Apr 2012
The Many Faces of Milk
Newsletter 11 Fall 2012
Bhagavad Gita 2.67 - Mind follows the senses
Newsletter 1 Sanskrit Verse
Bhagavad Gita 3.34 - Raga and Dvesha
Newsletter 2 Sanskrit Verse
Bhagavad Gita 2.48 - Yoga is Equanimity
Newsletter 3 Sanskrit Verse
Shiva Samhita 5.83 - Heart Cakra
Newsletter 4 Sanskrit Verse
Bhagavad Gita 7.8 - Raso'ham, Pranava
Newsletter 5 Sanskrit Verse
Bhagavad Gita 13.18 on Light
Newsletter 6 Sanskrit Verse
Yoga Sutras 1.33 Compassion
Newsletter 7 Sanskrit Verse
Bhagavad Gita 2.24 Elements
Newsletter 8 Sanskrit Verse
Bhagavad Gita 2.22 Reincarnation
Newsletter 9 Sanskrit Verse: Fall 2011
Ganesha Gayatri Mantra: Overcoming Obstacles
Newsletter 10 Sanskrit Verse : Apr 2012
Gayatri Mantra to Fire
Newsletter 12 Sanskrit Verse : Aug 2014
Free Sanskrit Chants
Chant to begin a class
Wholeness cannot be added to or diminished
Gayatri to the Sun
Homage to the Light of Knowledge
Liberatiion from Death
Fire Ceremony at Sunrise and Sunset
To Forgive our chanting mistakes
Free Shakti Mantras
Short Mantras with Specific Effects
For auspiciousness, beauty and prosperity
Om Hrim Hamsah So'ham Svaha
For the spiritual heart
Aham - Maha
Individual I meets universal I
Importance of Sanskrit to Yoga Therapy
IAYT Journal Dec 2009
Yoga Aktuell Apr/May 2014
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I think Nicolai's presentation was EXCELLENT. I really enjoyed learning about the cakras. He made it sound so much more logical and grounded than most present on this topic. Connecting the marmas, nadis and cakras just makes sense! And I had never really looked at the verses in the HYP (Hatha Yoga Pradipika). Most importantly, I had one of my most settled meditation experiences last night. I could have sat for hours! Chanting was a wonderful way to awaken the energy in each cakra. I truly could feel the support of that kundalini energy moving up my spine. I was a little "high" when I came home and had to stay up for a few hours to settle.