Thursday, February 16, 2012

Humbly Starting Over

Oh, isn't that how it always goes? We fervently devote ourselves to something, and then we can't keep up with our own enthusiasm. Well, it has happened to me before, anyway.

In my last post, I imposed a self-created system of deadlines so that I could learn Sanskrit in a timely manner... and then I totally walked away, overwhelmed by it. It makes me laugh now. I pick myself up and try again, this time with gentle patience as my walking stick.

Truth is, I am overwhelmed by the task of teaching myself a dead language. As one friend pointed out, it isn't like I can find a Meet-Up group in town with a group of people practicing their Sanskrit together. 

I have come up with a few tips for myself, and anyone else who has taken on a big task: 

1. When in doubt, go back to the beginning. 

I was charmed initially while reading the introduction of the text I am using. The sweetest perspective on learning itself-- so Eastern. So straightforward it seems barely worth including in the book, yet I found myself going back to find those words when I got snagged. I will paraphrase for you: 

~Review in a relaxed state of mind before doing the exercises. Then the exercises will be more enjoyable. If the exercises seem difficult, review more. Do not strain in remembering thus "programming" your mind to forget. Memorization should be easy, comfortable and frequent. ~

It's almost as if the author of the text has been where I am. Duh. Leads to my next point... 

2. Be gentle with yourself in the process of learning. 

I love that "do not strain in remembering thus programming your mind to forget". It brings me back to one of the first Sanskrit words I learned-- a favorite of mine to teach during yoga classes-- Ahimsa. 

Ahimsa is the first of the yamas & niyamas-- the ethical system of yoga, the lifestyle, the foundation of all yoga, perhaps of all Eastern thought-- the concept of non-violence. We must be non-violent with ourselves. 

When I impose standards on myself that are too high, bad things happen. :) Perhaps I become rigid and short with others, unkind, or perhaps I give up on my task altogether. No good. In order to be successful in our spiritual pursuits, we must throw out our culturally ingrained "no pain, no gain". 

3. Remember your motivation. 

When facing a big task it is helpful to keep in mine the goal, the objective, the reason for starting in the first place. Reconnect with what drove you to start in the first place. 

I want to metaphorically sit at the feet of the ancients, understand the words that came out of their mouths and onto paper thousands of years before us. Cultural context is everything, and the taste of a language has so much to do with that. Understanding the taste of Sanskrit can help me to better understand this beautiful journey I am on called yoga. 

What helps you to stay motivated to make your dreams reality? Please share in a comment below.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Learning Vowels

The book I am using gives examples of english words when describing how to pronounce sanskrit vowels. Like the difference between the a in "America" and the a in "father". They are two different different lengths of the same sound. Try it-- say both words. Can you tell?

Our Roman script isn't this specific/thorough-- but sanskrit is so deliberate. I love it.

At any rate, I am finishing up the chapter on vowels and moving to the sounds of the consonants. This seems a bit more involved than vowels so I went searching for a video online which would pronounce the consonants for me.

I ended up finding this great video on vowels instead. Thought I would share it with you-- its a succinct  review for me, and I hope a fun experiment for you. It is 9 minutes long-- but if you are interested, your attention will be wrapped. Be sure to pronounce along with him. Good stuff (and the intro made me smile-- "Esoteric Teaching Seminars").

Monday, January 9, 2012

Practice and all is coming...

I continue my studies in Sanskrit-- which as I shared earlier begins with Devanagari (the script and pronunciation)-- though the holidays do take us away from our disciplines a bit, don't they?

What is it that motivates us to plug along and get through it while in school? 

Deadlines and the next class session when we know the instructor is going to expect us to have read our stuff. In self teaching, we don't have that incentive. As we find with yoga practice-- really with any endeavor-- self-discipline is key. We must stick with it to achieve our goals, to receive the benefits. I believe Pattabhi Jois said, "Practice and all is coming..." 

In order to keep me moving on this self-study, I have to develop a sort of curriculum. Anyone who knows me personally will smirk with that statement, because I am a systems-type person and welcome such an opportunity. I am going through chapter by chapter in a textbook I purchased online, and am working through assignments....

...and grading myself. The first test I did was more than a bit discouraging. I got 50% in translating from sanskrit to english, and 87% in translating english to sanskrit. *humbling* Being the lenient self-instructor I am :), I allowed myself to re-take the test, and received 100% in both the second time 'round.

Now for the system and the deadlines to hold me accountable. I get more grace than an academic semester, as I am not held by a 16-18 week timeframe. I will complete a lesson/chapter every 2 weeks and report back to ya with some interesting tidbit or highlight from each.

Monday, December 19, 2011

'A' is the sound of exhalation

First thing's first. Learning the vowels and how to write them in devanagari.

In Thomas Egene's Introduction to Sanskrit: Part I, I love that his suggested approach to learning this system, an approach which to me is a practical one, steeped in ahimsa (first of the yamas- nonviolence). He suggests, "review the alphabet, grammar rules, and vocabulary frequently and in a relaxed state of mind... if there is any hesitation in recall, immediately look at the written form, rather than straining and thus 'programming' your mind to forget. Memorization should be easy, comfortable, and frequent." Sounds like yoga to me.

MY lessons begin with "a" seen below:

I practice writing it with its variations, and speaking it at the same time. So simple, but very fun.

There are short a's and long a's. Above is the short version. The difference in sound, is the difference between the "a" found in the word "America", and the "a" in the word "father".

Found the following tidbit at (one can visit this site to hear the vowels being spoken as well). In bold is a part I find particularly exciting:

The importance of the vowel a

The vowel a is especially significant in the Sanskrit tradition, as this verse from the Bhagavad Gita shows:
Of letters I am a. Of compounds I am the dual.
I alone am unending time, the Founder facing every side.
Bhagavad Gita 10.33
Why is a so special? The traditional answer is that a is the origin of all vowels and the basis of all speech. If you read this answer carelessly, it might not make much sense; after all, what does a have to do with letters like "k" and "b," and how does it relate to other vowels?
But this answer should not be taken so strictly. Recall that a is the sound of exhalation. a requires no extra effort and no movement of the tongue or lips to come forth. This is what the answer means when it says that a is the origin of all vowels; since a is the unadorned sound of air leaving through the mouth, all other vowels are modifications of it. Since a is the sound of breathing, and since breath is the basis of speech, we can say that a represents the fundamental basis of speech.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I teach a class at Yoga North called Yamas & Niyamas on the Mat. Each week, we discuss one tenant of the two limbs of Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga, and then practice it in the 3rd limb. See below for a visual-- found this beautiful illustration online-- credit on the image. Sorry it un-tidily comes off the page, wanted you to be able to read the text on it.

This month we had an extra week to expand our horizons so we are looking on down the line of the 8 limbs by looking at the 4th limb-- Pranayama.

For class, I principally use the resource The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele (amazing practical tangible accessible). Still, pranayama isn't discussed in the book, so I turned to other resources, namely the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Sutra 2:49-- “After mastering the posture, one must practice control of the prana [pranayama] by stopping the motions of inhalation and exhalation.”

So, as you have gathered from previous posts, I am not yet reading devanagari (the sanskrit characters). So I rely on other's translations to understand the principles.

This Pranayama is a compound word. To understand it's meaning, lets take those words apart.

  • Prana: breath of life, energy, spirit, breath, life, vigour, power, wind
  • Yama: progress, going, road, path, end, carriage, motion, way, chariot

Wow! There is a lot there. We start to get a sense of the fullness of this word.

  • Pranayama: suspending the breath, control of the breath, breathwork

Swami Pradhavanda wrote: "Prana means the vital energy by which we live. Because this energy is renewed by breathing, prana may sometimes be translated as "breath". But the word has a much broader reference-- for all the powers of the body and all the functions of the senses and the mind are regarded as expressions of the force of prana."

What does this mean for us? Why do we do it?

Sutra 1:34 reads--- “The mind may be calmed by the even sending forth and control of the life-breath.” 

Through practicing conscious breathwork, we begin to realize the effects that breath has on our entire system. Relaxing the nervous system, thereby relaxing the physical body, the mental and emotional states.

Donna Farhi wrote, "When the diaphragm moves in the luxurious expansions that mark full breathing, all the organs are massaged, rolled, churned, and bathed in new blood, fluids, and oxygen. The organs get squeezed and released like sponges. Breathing stimulates all of the body to work better and this why it has such a profound effect on our sense of wellbeing."

There are a number of recorded ancient pranayama practices which come with great caution to only practice with the guidance of an experienced teacher, and to only practice with intentions of good. This is powerful stuff-- the exploration of prana. With a foundation of the yamas, niyamas, and asana-- pranayama can help us continue through the 8 limbs, eventually finding Samadhi.

In the meantime, remember to simply breath. Take 3 deep breaths right now, and settle into your chair. Experience your self as a prana body.

Namaste folks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Samskrta Samadhi

How does one begin the study of an ancient language when one doesn't have a teacher? Great question. Still working on that. In the meantime, I am teaching myself.

My heady passion of delving into the depths of transliteration and translation have to be tempered (to some extend) for the time being. We must crawl before we walk. So I am learning devanagari and pronunciation of sanskrit vowels and consonants.

I did some research and found an excellent textbook on the topic-- by Thomas Egenes: Introduction to Sanskrit (comes in two volumes). There are a number of really great resources online, some of which are linked in the side bar. A CD or website which includes audio can be very helpful in pronunciation.

Devanagari refer to the written characters of this language. As seen below:

Devanagari means the "city (nagari) of immortals (deva)". Amazing.

So here I go again... loved this parallel:

Sanskrit (samskrta) means "perfected" or "put together", "together"= sam. I find this breakdown of the words fascinating because of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga, laid out in the Yoga Sutras, the 8th limb is Samadhi. Samadhi is the yogic equivalent of enlightenment-- union. Oneness.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I have had an interest in learning the ancient language of sanskrit for some time now. It is a beautiful ancient language in which many yogic texts are written.

I am a yoga instructor, of course a practitioner as well, and have an ongoing zeal for delving deeper into the practice and wisdom of yoga. Surely this comes first and primarily through practice of yoga. But what is yoga?

In this time and place (America 2011), we have, in a sense, invented/evolved yoga into what it is today. From what we know, yoga in the West is different than the ancient yoga which inspired so many wisdom texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and more. This is a bigger topic of it's own, one I hope to share my thoughts on later (and learn yours as well).

So I practice what I know. And I am curious about what I don't know. What reading the texts in their first tongue can teach me. What this ancient language holds, which we skim over.

An early find on my sanskrit search yielded this exciting li'l discovery:

Most yogis are familiar with the posture Sukhasana ("easy" pose). Which, as a Beginning Yoga teacher, I can tell you is anything but "easy" for standard Western bodies with tight hips and lack of strength in the muscles along the spine. At the studio which I teach (Yoga North), we sometimes joke about "who named this easy pose anyway?"

If we break down the word Sukhasana*:

  • "asana" refers to a yoga posture
  • "sukha" can translate to a number of things: pleasure, joy
  • and the similar "sukhi" translates happy or shining (as in the mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu-- May all beings everywhere be happy and free.)

So this makes me think about the posture differently, particularly because the classic purpose of the asana (posture practice) is to prepare the body to sit for long periods of time in meditation. This Sukhasana is a common choice for seated meditation-- and what comes in meditation? An even mind, concentration, oneness, bliss. Sukha.

Now that makes sense to me. This is a posture which brings happiness.

*All this said, these are my excited uneducated speculations which lead me to deeper study of the language. If you are an Sanskrit expert reading this, I welcome your gentle critiques/corrections.

Thank you! Namaste.