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Sanskrit is everywhere in yoga. Postures all have Sanskrit names; we often chant it before we start our practice and end with three Oms, we learn about the power of mantra and many of us may even have been given a mantra to use as a basis for our meditation. Sanskrit is deeply woven into the fabric of yoga and the deeper we go into yoga practice, especially when we start to move away from asana towards more subtle practices, the more we realise that Sanskrit is impossible to get away from.

Learning Sanskrit can deeply enrich our understanding of yoga, but many of us shy away from it because it seems impossibly difficult to learn. We think that if we can’t even pronounce ‘asana’ properly, what chance have we got of actually learning to read it?

Hope is here.

The BWY have teamed up with St James Schools’ Sanskrit @ St James, a charitable outreach of the Independent Educational Association Limited, to offer Sanskrit classes to our students and teachers. Their principal aims are to communicate the benefits of studying the Sanskrit language, to develop teaching and learning materials and to promote public Sanskrit examinations worldwide.

If we have sparked your curiosity, read on.

History of Sanskrit

The Sanskrit language, (from saṃskṛta ‘completely formed, perfected, refined’) is thought by scholars to be approximately 3,500 years old. It could be much older, as Sanskrit was traditionally transmitted orally through memorisation. The earliest compositions, including the Rigveda, originated in the north-west ‘seven river’ region of the Indian subcontinent and were spoken or sung in Vedic Sanskrit, a close forerunner of the Classical Sanskrit we know today.

Sanskrit is the predominant language of Hindu philosophy, as well as some of the principal texts of Buddhism and Jainism. It also unites many world languages, being at the root of most Indo-European tongues, e.g., Sanskrit root: jan to be born – English: generate. The perfection and integrity of Sanskrit was described and preserved by Indian grammarians circa 500 BCE. Hence, we can read and understand original teachings, conveying knowledge relevant to practical life and well-being, today.

Sanskrit has been written in many scripts, but those mainly used today are Devanagari and transliterated English. The basic alphabet consists of 42 letters (9 vowels and 33 consonants). The letters are systematically arranged in families according to mouth position, which makes learning them relatively straightforward. The sounds have special qualities related to aspiration, ‘voicing’ and degree of contact and each symbol has one pronunciation only.

Why is it important for yoga teachers to learn it?

The study of Sanskrit is important to Yoga practitioners, especially teachers, as ancient texts in Sanskrit hold what one might call the ‘essential knowledge’. With so many wild interpretations of what words mean in the ancient texts, it would be a great advantage for yoga teachers to be able to read the original texts themselves and make up their own minds!

Many teachers say that accurate pronunciation of Sanskrit is not important if the intention is right, but this is not correct. Pronunciation is important if you want to reap the benefits of the sound and meaning of a mantra, for example. Accurate pronunciation benefits the speaker and listener alike and affords the teacher greater insight, authority, and confidence. Many important concepts from the tradition such as atman, sattva, citta, jnana, dhyana, punya, ahimsa, satyam and shanti will be introduced as part of the syllabus, and pronunciation refined.

The study soon begins to uncover and reveal a conscious element which is otherwise partly, if not completely, lost in translation. Though there is an objective truth to the meaning of words, in Sanskrit, whatever is perceived and understood in such a way is inner and personal and must be experienced directly. In the case of teachers, the quality and awareness developed by those able to connect directly with this knowledge must add to their own understanding and practice, benefitting those under their guidance. As key elements are being learnt they can be passed on to others as enrichment during yoga classes.

Sanskrit@StJames Sanskrit Courses

St James classes are held weekly online during school term-time. They start with reading and writing the alphabet and introduction to sentence structure. Each class begins and ends with chanting sānti mantras or verses from the Bhagavad Gītā which comprise set texts in the Cambridge IGCSE syllabus. The primary focus of the course is the spiritual, philosophical and cultural literature from the syllabus. Supportive of that is the teaching of the vocabulary and grammar needed to understand and work with the texts. Care is also given to correct pronunciation.

Follow-up homework is given each week, and regular practice is encouraged. Free videos and extra resources are provided as support, along with class recordings.

Participants who complete a full two-year course will be at a stage suitable for entry to the IGCSE level assessment. Course availability varies. To see details of the latest Two-Term Foundation course for adults please visit:

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