Language Without Whim and Fancy

Yoga teachers need to follow certain rules and disciplines when teaching Satyananda Yoga. One such rule is the use of Sanskrit names for yoga practices; other disciplines of this tradition are to maintain simplicity, to focus on clarity, and to adhere to the style as propounded by the masters rather than indulge in personal fancy.

History and therapy

Sri Swami Satyananda and Swami Niranjanananda emphasized the need to use the correct names. In a satsang given on 10 February 1983, at Caxton Hall in London, UK, Sri Swami Satyananda explains why he insists on the use of Sanskrit names:

“In this country, some yoga teachers use English names for yogasanas, some use Sanskrit names but do not pronounce them correctly. Maybe they consider it useless to place importance on the sounds of Sanskrit names.

“We must use both names in order to avoid confusion, for we are responsible for posterity. After two hundred years, research scholars might do research on yoga, and if they just have the names lotus pose, cobra pose, peacock pose, they will be confused as to how this peacock pose came about. There will be a gap in history. Therefore, we must use both names for the postures: mayurasana or peacock pose, bhujangasana or cobra pose.

“So do use both names, do not be guided by your individual whims and narrowness of mind, and do not become blind to history, for history is a current. This current has to be maintained. If you lose the link, in two hundred years researchers will call it cobra pose and wonder whether this cobra pose came from the English people, Danish people, the Balkans or who. Where did it come from? If they happen to hear bhujangasana, they will say, ‘Okay, let us see. This is Sanskrit, it must have come from somewhere in India.’ Then they will be able to link the cultural movements taking place in England with reference to India. These are historical blunders which I try to avoid as much as possible and you should also do.”

Swami Niranjanananda views the importance of Sanskrit names from another angle. The sounds of Sanskrit names have therapeutic value and thus influence body, pranas and chakras:

“It is good to have an understanding of Sanskrit names. The Sanskrit word bhujangasana is translated as ‘cobra’. However, the Sanskrit name is a combination of the mantras bhu, jan, ga and each syllable affects the chakras in its own way specific to that posture.

“In the past, the Sanskrit names played an important role in the system of yoga. The yogis were able to perceive the problem in the patient and relate that problem to a chakra. Common sense says that indigestion relates to manipura chakra. The yogi would have felt that a particular chakra was being affected by an illness, a condition of body or mind. By prescribing bhujangasana he would have instantaneously given the idea to the patient and yoga teacher that this particular posture dealt with the awakening and rebalancing of certain major and minor psychic centres. In this way, Sanskrit names played an important role in ancient therapy.

With the advent of science, the system of observation and treatment of illness has been refined, but the Sanskrit names have been retained. Everyone should try to maintain them as much as possible.”

Aim for clarity

Other than the use of Sanskrit names, the general language in a yoga class should be clear and simple. There is a tendency among teachers to adapt their language to modern trends. A student should never have to guess or wonder about the meaning of an instruction but be able to follow it spontaneously and focus on the practice. Instructions are guidelines leading the students gently into the practice and the experience of the practice. They should never deter or confuse the yoga practitioner.

A few examples demonstrate where this trend can go and how far it takes the student away from simplicity, clarity and the original intention of the Satyananda Yoga tradition:

Update your visuals leaves tremendous scope for interpretation at what has to be done. Who would know what to do with an instruction such as Set up your legs? Expressions such as Zoom into the feeling of your legs, or now run your awareness through your right leg – are just attempts to replace the straightforward ‘become aware of your legs’.

‘Body-mind’ is an expression which may read easily but given as an instruction is an unnecessary abbreviation. Instead of saying the breath relaxes your body-mind, it would be more pleasant to add a simple ‘and’ and have ‘the body and mind relax’. With an instruction such as Now tune into the feedback of your breath – the student is at a loss about what to do. ‘Become aware of your breath’, ‘watch your breath’, ‘watch your breath slow down’ are clear instructions which guide students. Vague instructions are no instructions.

Trendy language has no place in a yoga class. Students should ‘feel at ease’, ‘be comfortable’ and not have to figure out what to do when they hear – let yourself be guided by your comfort zone.

Bridging the past to the future

Besides lack of clarity, the teacher should express respect and appreciation for a teaching and tradition that has withstood the tests of time and been part of every civilization on earth. To start a class casually with, Let’s all do three Oms does not express the due sentiment. Introducing the class with ‘We shall chant the mantra Om three times together’ sets the tone of esteem for the science of mantra, and for the intent of the yoga class.

In the same vein, the announcement, 'Let’s do the beginning (or finishing) Shanti mantras’, is not only dismissive but incorrect. At the beginning of a class or sessions the Shanti Mantra is chanted, at the end the Shanti Path. The dignity inherent in the tradition must be communicated with equal dignity: not flippant but light, not solemn but sober.

Sri Swami Satyananda’s concern was to safeguard the tradition within the ‘current of history’. Satyananda Yoga is not fancy or fashionable yoga. It is classical yoga through and through in its content, its mode and language of delivery. Therefore, teachers should heed Sri Swami Satyananda’s advice and ‘not be guided by their individual whims and narrowness of mind’.

At the conclusion of the World Yoga Convention 2013, Swami Niranjanananda expressed his wish to the assembled delegates:

“Our gurus were our Rama, and we, the first generation sannyasins, were the monkeys. We did the bidding, and helped build the bridge to fulfil the vision of Rama. Now, as future generations walk upon that bridge, it is our request and prayer that you maintain the bridge in its pristine glory and purity, so that when our masters walk again on this hallowed earth, they see that the light they had lit so many years and centuries ago still continues to burn bright, and still gives light to all the travellers. This is our wish.”

Swami Yogatirtha