Namast’YAY or namaste oh no? The list of Sanskrit words yoga teachers get wrong is looong yogis, but we’ll look at the top contenders in this article. The difference between pronouncing a Sanskrit term correctly and making up the closest thing that comes to mind (it happens to all yoga teachers at some point!) can confuse your students at best, and lead to total embarrassment at worst 😳
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to use Sanskrit in your yoga classes at all, I get it. Isn’t it better not to offend anyone and just stick to, you know, English? I do recommend giving it a try, and here’s why: Sanskrit is a unifying language, and one of the oldest scripts on the planet.
If you need some practice pronouncing common Sanskrit, you’re like 99% of yoga teachers! Buuut I will say it’s pretty hilarious what some teachers come up with when they’re on the spot.. and that’s exactly what we’ll talk about in this blog post.
Sanskrit Pronunciation for Yoga Teachers
Practicing good Sanskrit pronunciation as a yoga teacher is important for the same reason that Sanskrit mantras are known for their power to awaken consciousness: sounds have power. Not just meaning, but spiritual power!
By mispronouncing a Sanskrit word, you can not only evoke an unintended meaning, but call on the wrong energetic vibrations in the universe. No, abra-ca-DA** You don’t want that in yoga class 😈
As you might have already experienced through your own practice, sound vibration impacts our physical, emotional, and mental state. This is why it’s super important to learn correct pronunciation of Sanskrit terms, which allows you, as a yoga teacher, and your students to experience their full potency.
The Nagari Alphabet
Nagari is the alphabet of the Sanskrit language. It consists of 48 characters. In comparison, the Latin alphabet (which we use for English) consists of only 26 letters. If we were to put Sanskrit into English words using this rather limited collection of Roman letters, most words wouldn’t keep their real meaning. For that reason, you sometimes see diacritical marks – little lines and dots added to Sanskrit words when written in Roman letters (e.g. Vṛkṣāsana). By using them we get a bit more playroom to create different sounds out of a Roman letter.
In order to get you started on your Sanskrit pronunciation journey, below is a list that explains a few main sounds using Roman letters in transliteration for Sanskrit:
- V; pronounced like the English letter V in “volume”, if used at the beginning of a word like Vṛkṣāsana. When you have a Sanskrit name like Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, where it is followed by another consonant, it is pronounced like the W in “wonder”.
- ā, ī, ū; vowels with a macron are double as long in pronunciation compared to their equivalents without one. For example, the ā in Śvānāsana is like the a in the English word “far”. The vowels e and o are always pronounced long.
- Ś; like the sharp sh sound in English words like “shame” or “shine”. A common Sanskrit word is Śavāsana.
- Ṣ.; like the soft sh sound we have in “dish” or “mesh”. Slightly different from the above as you would find in the Yoga pose name Śīrṣāsana (which has the sharp sh, the soft sh, and also the normal s sound).
- Ṛ; this is actually a vowel. When followed by another consonant – e.g. Parivṛtta – it is pronounced like the ri in English words such as”ribbon” or “rich”.
When to Use Sanskrit Words in Yoga Classes
Teaching Yoga, especially yoga asana, is more than just guiding students into a set of yoga poses. You offer a very ancient tool that has deep roots in the culture of India. As a Yoga instructor it is our job to keep that connection alive, so that our students don’t just come to stretch their body but connect to the spiritual practice that Yoga postures invite us for.
Speaking Sanskrit in your yoga studio can lift your students’ yoga practice to a whole new level. Some Sanskrit names tell mind blowing stories of mythology. Others provide direction on what to focus on in a pose. Using Sanskrit appropriately is a powerful way to establish a mind-body connection.
Language, Power and Appropriation
Now, we need to stay honest here. While there are a lot of pros for the use of classical Sanskrit in a yoga space, we need to remember that we can’t just throw in terms or names of poses without knowing their actual meaning or context. There is a time and space for us to do so, yet, we need to know when the use of Sanskrit names becomes cultural appropriation.
The Case for Using Sanskrit: Honoring Yoga’s Heritage
As you know from your Yoga Teacher Training(s), to teach a Yoga class is more than simply talking your students through a sequence of asana (physical poses), meditation, or practice of pranayama (breathing exercises). By using Sanskrit in your classes, you open up the opportunity to acknowledge Yoga’s heritage and all that it is.
- You dive deeper into the philosophy of Yoga – Sanskrit words have a deep meaning and tell us about the stories of India.
- You learn to appreciate Yoga as part of India’s culture with its origin being thousands of years ago! The most ancient texts in Yoga history were written in Sanskrit (e.g. the Rig Veda, or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras).
- You honor the many teachers that came before you passing down this incredible knowledge we apply today. The likes of Krishnamacharya, T. K. V. Desikachar, Pattabhi Jois, etc. didn’t talk about Half Moon or Side Angle Pose. They were teaching in Sanskrit!
- You empower your students to connect to the true meaning of Yoga and stay curious to learn about more than just the physical practice – maybe even do some self study or join a training course.
The Case Against Using Sanskrit: Alienation and Misuse
While it is amazing to use Sanskrit in your classes, there are also times when it isn’t appropriate. Especially, when Yogis simply want to show off. Other situations when you should avoid using Sanskrit as a teacher may include:
- You have a class full of nervous beginners who don’t even know whether they want to be there. It can be hard enough to get left and right sorted in a pose. Imagine, on top of that, hearing a completely foreign language. If you do choose to introduce Sanskrit in a beginners class, make sure you have time to explain what you are talking about without overwhelming your students.
- You don’t know, or aren’t sure about, the meaning of your Sanskrit words. Just leave it out until you are ready to share what you’ve learned with confidence.
- You teach a modern Yoga class that is anything but traditional Yoga. These days, there are MANY styles of Yoga out on the market to promote physical fitness or toning the body – Core Flow, Dance Yoga, Fit with Yoga…you probably have heard of some others yourself. While there is nothing wrong with that, most of these classes very likely include poses that were made up in recent years. It would be inappropriate to throw in Sanskrit just to make it sound like a “Yoga-ish” class.
- You guide your students through a deep meditation and Sanskrit might be foreign for them, hence, could disturb their mental focus.
11 Sanskrit Words Yoga Teachers Get Wrong
I’ve listed a few common Sanskrit words that Yoga teachers use, but often pronounce incorrectly. Don’t blame yourself if it happened to you. There are many long-term yogis out there that still don’t know how to say Namaste properly, most likely because they never had the chance to hear it pronounced correctly.
1. Namaste [nuh-muh-stay]
Let’s start with one of the most used yogic terms around the world: namaste. With Yoga becoming increasingly popular in the Western culture, many big brands are taking advantage of terms like namaste to put on their apparel and advertising. More often than not, however, none of them pronounce it correctly, or – worse than that – purposely mispronounce or misspell it e.g. namaslay, namastay…But actually the last syllable is not dragged out like namasteeee, which we are made to think. Also the syllable nam has the num sound you would find in “number,” while the second syllable is pronounced with the uh sound heard in “duh.”
2. Chakra [chuh-kruh]
This is often mispronounced as shakra, with the sh sound we use in English for “shopping”. Yet, the ch is actually quite sharp and has the sound of English words that start with the same letters e.g. “chance” or “chair”. Another important note to make is that the a in both syllables is not a long aaaa. It is pronounced with the uh sound in “duh.”
3. Muladhara [mool-uh-daah-ruh]
It is easy to get this wrong, because hardly anyone knows that the correct spelling includes macrons: mūlādhāra. That means the vowels with a macron are actually pronounced longer than their equivalents without one. So next time you say it, remember to put emphasis on the first three vowels.
4. Hatha [huh-tuh]
It makes me crunch when someone says hatha with the th sound we know from English words like “theatre” or “thumb”. Understandable though – it comes so naturally when you’ve been speaking English for a long time. But, we need to clarify this: the th in Sanskrit is pronounced like a strong t as we would say in “trampoline” or “tip”. And as with many other words, the a is pronounced as uh.
5. Bhakti [bhuk-thi]
Probably because of the influence of American speakers in the Yoga industry, it is often mispronounced as baak-tee. However, the same rules as above apply here: the a has the uh sound in “duh,” and the t is a soft sound with the tongue touching the back of the teeth rather than the front of the palate.
6. Asana [aa-suh-nuh]
Three of the same vowel in one short word can make it a little confusing as to how to pronounce these correctly. The first a actually is written with a macron (i.e. āsana). Hence, it becomes a long sound, while the other two are like the uh sound we spoke about earlier.
7. Om [aa-uhm]
It is easy to think that it is a simple o and m, but the vowel o in Sanskrit combines the sounds of a and u. The m is like a humming sound of “mmm”. When you chant om, there also is a silent syllable following the m, which eventually becomes muted completing the full sound of the universe. See the connection to Yoga philosophy?
You might also like: Om Meaning: What Is Om And Why Is It Important?
8. Savasana [sha-VAH-suh-nuh]
A lot of people pronounce the s at the beginning very sharp as we would find in “sale”. But from what we know now, the correct spelling of savasana includes diacritical marks making it Śavāsana. Hence the first s has a sh sound like “shoe”. You can also see that asana has a macron on top of the first a giving it a longer sound.
9. Shanti [shaan-thi]
Again it might be due to the impact of Americans teaching yoga these days that this often is pronounced with an a as we would find in “land”. You can probably tell by now that the a should sound like what we hear in “afternoon” (it actually is a with a macron i.e. shānti). Plus the t has the same soft sound as in bhakti.
10. Mantra [mun-truh]
Similar to what happens with the word shanti, the a is not pronounced in an American way. As a rule of thumb, any Sanskrit word including an is pronounced as un.
11. Adho Mukha Svanasana [ah-doh moo-kah shwa-NAH-sa-na]
Next to the beloved Sun Salutation, this is one of the best known Yoga poses we would find in a Yoga class. It perfectly makes sense to introduce the Sanskrit name for Downward Facing Dog pose since your students will easily remember by repeating it over and over again. Yet, one of the traps most teachers fall into is mispronouncing the name of this pose, especially, svanasana.
There are many other terms in Sanskrit language we can use in our classes – as long as we know the proper pronunciation, of course. Head over to my complete glossary of Sanskrit words used in Yoga to add to your Sanskrit vocabulary.