Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Grant MacEwan, The Language and Literature of Yoga

Namaste 🙏 

There is a saying in Sanskrit, the original language of Yoga that in any learning environment:

We learn 25% from our teachers, 25% from our peers, 25% we figure out ourselves and 25% we learn over time. 

That said, in addition to following along with this post in today’s class, I invite you to return and review the material and links, contemplate their relevance in your life and practice, and discuss them with your classmates. 

Rest assured, not all of it was meaningful to me from the beginning, and there is always more to learn, so if some of this feels like more than you’re ready for, that’s ok, you have a lifetime to practice.

I have included several questions for your consideration. Please feel free to voice your answers or further questions for discussion during class.

The Language and Literature of Yoga

Sanskrit is the primary classical language of India, and the original language of Yoga which is considered to be one of the six classical schools of Indian Philosophy, and includes the posture practice with which we are familiar.

The word Sanskrit means "perfected" or "refined" and has a rich tradition of creative, scientific, philosophical and religious texts. 

Although it is no longer widely spoken on a daily basis, it is still very much in use as a ceremonial language.

The beautiful script is known as Devanagari, or the "vehicle of the gods". 

The Cambridge Introduction to Sanskrit  is the best introductory text I have come across and is recommended for use in the Sanskrit classes at the University of Alberta. Click in the link and go to “Other Resources “ to find free alphabet charts, videos, worksheets and more.

Yoga Sutras in Devanagari and Transliterated Sanskrit from the Arlington Centre is a free PDF of the full Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with the diacritical marks. I’m not necessarily saying this is the “best” translation, but I do find the format and language approachable and helpful for beginners.

Q. Does language matter? Do names matter? What are some of the challenges and benefits of studying Yoga with or in the original language?

Transliteration Vs. Translation

Transliteration is transposing the sounds of one language into the script of another.  The use of standardized diacritical marks allows for accurate representation of sounds unique to a language.

Q. What challenges may a student encounter during the transliteration phase?

Translation is converting the words of one language into the words of another to facilitate understanding of the meaning of words or phrases. 

Q. What challenges may a student encounter during the translation phase?

Sanskrit in Modern English

English is a member of the Indo-European language family, one of several descendants of Sanskrit.

Many non-yoga specific words in English (jungle, bandana, pyjama, suture, jugular etc.) are borrowed or derived from Sanskrit. 

Many Sanskrit terms specific to yoga are becoming well known in English through the names of postures, authors, teachers and gurus.  Because their meanings may become lost in translation, often the original words are simply adopted into our modern language.

Here is an extensive and perhaps surprising list of English words of Sanskrit origin.

Q. What’s your favourite English word borrowed or derived from Sanskrit ?

Hints for Pronouncing Sanskrit Words and Names

Here are a few basic tips for pronouncing unfamiliar Sanskrit vocabulary, places and names:

- unlike English, Sanskrit is a phonetic language, meaning each and every letter is pronounced and always in the same way.

- transliterated letter "a" is pronounced "uh” as in "around" rather than "a" as in "after" or “Canada”

- each consonant is followed by a short “a” sound unless modified by other vowels. Letters do not have names in Sanskrit, they are known by their sounds.

- knowing where in the mouth the sound is produced will help you understand how to produce the sound

- there is a distinct and unfamiliar difference for English speakers between unaspirated and aspirated consonants ("b" vs. "bh" etc.)

- Sanskrit has no "th" sound, as in English “think" or "th" as in "this".  Rather the “th” in transliterated words indicates an aspirated consonant. For example, the word "Hatha"is pronounced "ha-tha" (“t" with a puff of air) rather than the common English mispronunciation of "Ha" (as in hat) "tha" (as in thug). Note* there are two such sounds which may seem similar to your ear but are actually produced in different areas of the mouth.

- longer words and names are often compounds of shorter words, so try breaking them down into syllables.

Here is a more extensive pronunciation guide should you wish to explore this matter further.

Q. What difficulties may arise when words or names are mispronounced?

Q.  What are some benefits of speaking more than one language?

Foundational Literature

Foundational texts are works of world literature which achieve a certain status for their presentation of ideas as representative of a culture or philosophy. 

Philology is the study of literary texts, their meaning, authenticity and historical context.

The Foundational Texts of Yoga

The Vedas

Meaning "wisdom" or "knowledge", the Vedas are traditionally said to be the revelations of sages during deep meditation, carefully preserved and considered to be the roots of Indian philosophy.

They are among the oldest sacred texts in the world, written approximately 1700-1100 BCE.

They were transmitted by oral tradition alone until around 1000 CE. They emphasize formal ritual and rites of passage like marriage, birth and death. 

They also introduce dana (compassion), karma (action and reaction), sacred dance and Ayurveda (sister sciences of yoga).

The Upanishads

Upanishad means “to sit at the feet” [of a Guru].

There were approximately 200 Upanishads written between 1000 BCE and 1500 CE including sections on philosophical theory and the practice of virtues like satya and ahimsa later also elucidated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Topics include consciousnessbrahman, atman and maya, or the Source, the Self and the illusion that keeps us from seeing them as the same. It also proposes multiple etymological possibilities for Bija or “seed” mantra Om (Aum)

Of the great statements or mahavakyas of the Upanishads is Aham Brahmasmi, or loosely translated, "The Self and the Divine are one and the same." A similar sentiment can be said to be encapsulated in the sound symbol Om.

Arjuna and Krishna, the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita

Written approximately 400 BCE, this text is just one chapter of an epic poem called  The Mahabharata.

It is one of the most heavily translated texts in the world. It highlights themes of  Dharma(duty and heroism), Yoga (and the paths of yoga, KarmaJnana and Bhakti), Moksha or liberation from suffering and the cycles of suffering on the “battlefields" of life.

One key definition of yoga in this text is:

Yoga karmasu kaushalam (Yoga is skill in action.) found in Chapter 2 verse 50.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Also known as the Patanjala Yoga Shastra, written approximately 1600 years ago, (perhaps as late as 325-425 CE suggests recent research by Dr. Philipp Maas), Patanjali was the first to codify the teachings of yoga into a written format known as Sutras. Ideally these terse aphorisms are studied in the original language along with the first commentary called the Yoga Bashya.

Yoga Studies Podcast, Philipp Maas

Yoga Sutra Chant, The Sanskrit Channel

One of Patanjali’s key definitions of yoga is stated in the second line of the first chapter:

Yogaschittavrittinirodhah (Yoga is the stopping of the disturbed waves of the mind.)

In the second chapter, the author famously outlines a strategic "eight-limbed" path of practice which moves from external practices (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara) to internal experiences (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi). The path is known as Ashtanga or Raja Yoga. This practice is widely regarded as central to modern Hatha Yoga.

The sound symbol Om is mentioned in chapter 1, sutras 27-28 as the energy of manifestation which should be chanted repeatedly (japa) to encourage introspection and remove obstacles to the state of samadhi.

Q. How do these “definitions” compare/contrast with the modern interpretation of yoga in Canada?

Q. Is reading these texts in their original language necessary to achieve the goal of yoga?

Please note* This is by no means a full list of the foundational texts of yoga! It is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg! Please do explore further.

Krishna playing his flute

Mantras, Stories and Songs

Traditionally, Yoga was an oral tradition, passed from person to person keeping the teachings both alive and lively.

Singing, chanting, poetry and recitation, in fact all forms of sound, speech and writing are venerated in yoga philosophy. Personified as a beautiful Goddess, language is seen as a muse for creativity.

Storytelling is used widely as a teaching tool for students of all ages.

Music and sacred sound are central to the theory-practice continuum. They attract the attention, help maintain focus, reset dissonant physical and mental vibrations and uplift the environment.

Q. How can some knowledge of Sanskrit enhance my experience of yoga?

In Conclusion

I hope that I have passed on to you some of the reverence and enthusiasm I feel for the Language and Literature of Yoga, as well as points for reflection and some resources with which to follow up on your curiosity. 

Thank you for your time and attention today. Namaste!

Monday, 18 October 2021

Welcome PAC 156

Namaste 🙏 Welcome to Kali’s Kitchen!

I named this blog after Kali, the Hindu goddess of time because I recognize that while some learnings happen immediately, some need time to “stew”.

As I mentioned today, there is a Sanskrit saying that we learn 25% from our teachers, 25% from our peers, 25% we figure out ourselves and 25% we learn over time.  So in addition to reviewing today’s presentation, I invite you to come back and look around anytime as your studies and contemplations brew.

Today we discussed “The Language and Literature of Yoga”.   Click here for a full recap.

As well, here are a few additional resources for you:

The Cambridge Introduction to Sanskrit  is the best introductory text I have come across and is recommended for use in the Sanskrit classes at the U of A. At the link above you will find free alphabet charts, videos, worksheets and more.

Yoga Sutras in Devanagari and Transliterated Sanskrit from the Arlington Centre is a free PDF of the full Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with the diacritical marks. I’m not saying this is the “best” translation, but I do find the format and language approachable and helpful.

In addition to PAC classes, The University of Alberta offers courses related to yoga in the departments of History, Philosophy and Religion.  We have extraordinary scholars on faculty and I encourage you to explore this subject further.

Thank you for attending and sharing with me today, it was a joy to spend time with you!

Monday, 22 February 2021

Sunday, 31 January 2021


This Valentine’s, I’m in it for ALL the love!

Starting February first, I’m celebrating with a 14 day creative meditation, origami photo project. You yogis and yoginis will quickly recognize  that it’s inspired by the classic Buddhist Loving Kindness Meditation.

It is an opportunity for me to share my passion for paperfolding, a timeless art of transformation and mindfulness.  It’s also a chance to reflect on and offer appreciation for all the forms of love in my life.

I hope it will inspire you too, to reflect on the presence of love in your life and express and celebrate it your way.

Hop over to or to my Facebook page, tarawoltjen, to see the whole series.

Please also feel free to share your reflections.  Together we can make this a practice in “Unity in Diversity” and a loving tribute to the most nourishing relationships in our lives.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha

Wishing you a beautiful, peaceful, obstacle-free day.!

In traditional yoga, malas (flower garlands) are used as offerings for revered teachers and in devotional rituals.  

Marigolds are popular as their bright color is reminiscent of the fires of transformation as well as the cheerfulness and resilience required on the path of self-realization.  

The seeds for these marigolds came from the Peace Garden at the Sivananda Ashram in Val Morin and have been empowered with decades of the mantra "Om Namo Narayanaya" and the wish for world peace.  

The perishable nature of a flower garland is a reminder of the fragility of beauty and life.  Nonetheless, the seeds can be saved, grown, and shared for generations to come.