Monday, 25 February 2019

PAC 156, Language and Literature of Yoga

Sanskrit Manuscript in Devanagari: Image Source
Namaste, thank you for the opportunity to join your class today!

Here are some notes and links you may find helpful.

The Language and Literature of Yoga

Kali's Kitchen, Sanskrit Page

Sanskrit is the primary classical language of India and the source language of Yoga.

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

Although it is no longer widely spoken on a daily basis, it is used as a ceremonial language and is present (at least sporadically) in the vocabulary of most modern yoga practices.

The beautiful script pictured above is known as Devanagari.

Transliteration vs. Translation

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

When using Sanskrit terms diacritical marks are necessary to indicate sounds which do not exist in English.  Unfortunately, they are inconsistently used in modern Yoga books and websites which can make pronouncing Sanskrit words difficult.

Translation is the act of converting the words of one language into the words of another to facilitate the comprehension of meaning.

In yoga, the original Sanskrit terms are often so nuanced, that it takes multiple words, sentences or even paragraphs in other languages to convey their connotation and intention.

Image Source: The Ten Avatars of Vishnu
Sanskrit in Modern English

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

Many common words in English (jungle, pajama, avatar, suture, bandana, shampoo, cashmere, ganja, jugular etc.) are derived from Sanskrit.

Many Sanskrit terms specific to yoga are familiar to modern yogis in their original language through the names of postures, authors, and texts.

Because their meanings can be obscured in translation, the original terms (asana, ashram, guru, swami, karma, mantra, mandala etc.) have been adopted.

Hints for Pronouncing Sanskrit Words and Names

Here are a few basic tips for reading and pronouncing Sanskrit:

- Sanskrit is a phonetic language.  There are no silent letters, and each letter makes just one sound.

- The transliterated letter "a" is pronounced like "up" rather than "at".  If there is a horizontal line above the "a" (ā) it indicates a long "aa" sound. In the example, Saṃsāra, we see two short and one long vowel.

- There is a short "a" sound following each consonant unless modified by other vowel sounds as in the word yoga.

- Sanskrit features unaspirated and aspirated consonants ("b" vs. "bh" and "t" vs. "th" etc.).

- Sanskrit has no voiceless or voiced digraph "th" sound, as in "think" or "this".  Therefore the word "Hatha" (haṭha) is pronounced: "Ha-tha" ("hu" similar to "hut" + "tah" similar to "Utah", "t" with aspiration) as opposed to the common mispronunciation, "Ha" (as in hat) "tha" (as in thug).

- Transliterated "c" will always sound like English "ch" as in "church".  This "ch" sound may also be aspirated, sometimes indicated with an extra "c" or followed by "h".

- Sanskrit contains retroflex consonants produced with the tongue curled to the roof of the mouth.  Such sounds are absent in English and present a challenge for native English speakers.

- Long words are frequently compounds of two or more short words.  Knowing some words that appear frequently in yoga vocabularies such as asana meaning "posture", pada meaning foot", ardha meaning half and ananda meaning "bliss" will make it easier to understand and articulate longer words and names.

Image Source
Foundational Literature

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

Following are a few of the foundational texts of yoga.  There are others specific to the various paths of yoga, like Hatha Yoga, so please consider this short list to be an introduction.

The Foundational Texts of Yoga

The Vedas and Vedangas

Meaning "wisdom" or "knowledge", the Vedas are widely considered authoritative as representing 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, and emphasized formal ritual and rites of passage like marriage, birth, and death.  They include peace prayers still chanted in yoga classes and ashrams today, and propitiations for promoting harmony and avoiding suffering.

The Vedangas are auxiliary Vedic disciplines including ritual instruction, astrology, linguistics, phonetics, and mudras important for maintaining the accuracy and aesthetics of oral recitation.

Teachings from the Upanishads: Image Source
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 stories, philosophical theory, ethics and virtues like satya and ahimsa.

Major themes include consciousnessbrahman, atman and maya, or the Source, the Self and the cosmic illusion that keeps us from seeing them as the same.

Of several "great statements" or mahavakyas , the one mentioned in class today was:

Aham Brahmasmi, loosely translated, "I and the Source are one and the same."

The Pavamana Mantra which we chanted at the end of class,  also featured in the song Navras in The Matrix Revolutions comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: Image Source
The Bhagavad Gita

Written approximately 400 BCE, this text is one chapter of an epic poem called  The Mahabharata, which I affectionately refer to as "the original soap opera".

It highlights themes like Dharma (social duty and heroism), Yoga ("union" and the paths or practices that lead to the state of "unity", KarmaJnana, and Bhakti), and Moksha or liberation from suffering experienced on the "battlefield" of life.

Yoga and the attributes of one who practices yoga are described many times in the Gita.  

For the sake of simplicity, the key definition of yoga I have chosen to highlight from this text is:

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

Patanjali, Author of the Sutras: Image Source
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Written nearly 1600 years ago, Patanjali was the first to codify the teachings of yoga into a written format known as Sutras.

New evidence shows that the first and most authoritative commentary on The Yoga Sutras known as the Yoga Bhashya was likely written by Patanjali himself.  See 2016, New Light on Patanjali, in which Dominik Wujastyk, and Thomas Maas assert that the two works should more accurately be referred to together as the Patanjalayogashastra.

Patanjali's key definition of yoga is stated in the second line of the first chapter (PYS 1.2):

Yogaschittavrittinirodhah or "Yoga is the state in which the disturbed waves of the mind have been stopped."

In the second chapter, Patanjali outlines an "eight-limbed" path of practice to stop the disturbed mental waves, including external strategies (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara) and internal meditative experiences (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi).  This prescription is well known in modern yoga as Ashtanga or Raja Yoga.

Stories and Songs, Enhancing the Practice and Presentation of Yoga

Yoga was originally an oral tradition, passed live from person to person.  This method effectively kept the teachings dynamic and engaging for centuries.  Eventually, the teachings were preserved in a written form, but the living tradition or parampara is as important today as ever.

As such, art, dance, music and storytelling are widely employed as teaching tools for students of all ages.  Chanting, singing and other forms of sacred sound are employed to attract attention, maintain focus, reset dissonant physical and mental vibrations and uplift the individual and the environment.

You can enhance your own enjoyment of yoga, and in teaching make your lessons more motivating and memorable through the use of instruments and other artistic expressions.

In Conclusion

Both the language and literature of yoga are accessible and relevant to the modern practitioner with a little effort and an open mind.

Modern yogis can access original manuscripts, translations, and commentaries as well as classes and videos on the foundational texts of yoga to gain knowledge and awareness of the roots, history, and practices of traditional yoga as well as yoga today.

Many source materials are available for free at Internet Archive.

Additional resources at the University of Alberta:

Yoga is an interdisciplinary study at the University of Alberta.

You can register for classes which examine the history, philosophy, religion, and language of yoga in various departments.  For more information contact South Asian Studies.

Trailer for Neil Dalal's film, "Gurukulam"