The Perfected Language
Aham, which means I, study Sanskrit. At 61 years old it’s not easy to learn a new language, especially an ancient and complicated one. It’s recently been discovered that the nervous system continues to create new synapses until we die, but that process is way slower in a late middle age brain than a teenager’s.
Sanskrit has intricate grammar, spelling, pronunciation and script. Roots change with gender, number and tense. And, words conjoin through complex rules called sandhis. First used for oral recitation, over time it was codified for written prayers, stories and rituals.
I’ve studied yoga now for almost two decades and svadhyaya, meaning the self-study of scriptural texts, called to me as a way to deepen my practice about ten years ago. Learning the language of the Gods, devah, was a natural next step in my evolution. I try to copy scriptural passages, add to my vocabulary and decline verbs daily. Like physical postures - think the inverted “v” shaped downward facing dog pose, or adho mukha svanasana - learning the language of yoga requires focus combined with a healthy dose of humor.
Sanskrit, like ancient Greek or Latin (all share a mother tongue) is not a living language. So, I can’t hop on a subway and travel to Queens or Brooklyn and immerse myself in its sounds. I can’t order off a Sanskrit menu in a restaurant. Can’t get the Sanskrit channel on Spectrum. And, although Hindi is derived from it, I can’t give an Indian cab driver Sanskrit directions.
One time, after I had just started taking lessons, an Indian Immigration Officer at Passport Control in Delhi did try to have a Sanskrit conversation with me. Being a smart-ass I pointed to the Hindi word namaste beyond his cubical and read it. He asked me if I spoke Hindi and I said no, Sanskrit! He then started spewing words at me asking me where and how long I had studied. I could follow some of his questions but I had to mumble in English that I couldn’t really have a conversation in Sanskrit. I just knew some words and could read the letters. My embarrassment was equal to his disappointment. He had studied the ancient tongue at Benares University in Varanasi, one of India’s most prestigious institutions in the country’s most holy city. I was mortified. Even though he was not impressed, he allowed me into the country.
I first came in contact with the language when I began practicing yoga. Before that I was a top executive in the magazine publishing business. But nearly 20 years ago, my days as a Big Kahuna (a maha in Sanskrit) with a corner office were over and I decided to walk away.
Semi-retired and totally burned out, I wandered into a neighborhood yoga studio. After a few postures my body surged with energy. My career in publishing had emphasized outwardly focused processes and short-term rewards. With yoga I was able to get in touch with something both internal and eternal. The practice fascinated me and I began taking up to four classes a week, practicing postures at home, buying special props and reading everything I could.
Like many New Yorkers who grew up in the 70’s, I am a non-religious culturally raised Jew. I don’t own a Bible and go to temple only if invited to a Bar Mitzvah. After a couple of months of yoga classes, when I first began practicing at my neighborhood studio, I was reading the Ramayana and learning about Rama, Sita and the devotion of Hanuman, the monkey god, who could leap from mountain to mountain. In Sanskrit, Hanuman’s name means one who has a prominent jaw. There is a legend that tells of him as a young flying monkey. One day while jumping from one peak to another he mistook the sun for ripe mango. While reaching for it he fell to earth and broke his jaw.
Not always from the pain of broken bones, the ancient texts suggest that people come to yoga because they recognize their suffering. Dukkha or suffering can be eliminated by the practice of yoga. This is certainly my experience.
My last two years in publishing as a Chief Operating Officer of a small publicly traded company had caused me to suffer. The first internet bubble was about to burst and our firm was running out of money. Banks would not lend to us and we were forced to sell. The future of 100 employees lay in my hands. Shareholders were outraged. My doctor said my heart, which was breaking each night from the hardships my staff would endure in the unemployment market, was going to explode from a dangerously high cholesterol level caused by stress.
It took two years for my weight and blood sugar levels to normalize. Sleep improved and I began caring about others, including my family, in less frantic and passive-aggressive ways. This metamorphosis was exciting. I was hooked and became as committed to yoga as I had been to my Rolodex.
The yoga people I met were so different from the hard driving folks in the media business who concentrated on selling as many ads as possible or maneuvering exclusive rights to articles and authors. Salespeople and editors worked from daybreak to midnight. My yoga friends didn’t care if I worked a regular job. They were concerned with loftier ideas like moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. And they knew how to rest in savasana; retreating into the earth like a corpse.
There is a famous darshan, or devotional, print of Kali. The scary goddess, her bright red tongue extended, bejeweled with a necklace of skulls is holding a decapitated head. She is dancing on Shiva in a field of bones. He’s the corpse, time-less. She is a representation of time. The scene is a meditation on the never-ending cycle of birth and death and rebirth. The yoga practice was a rebirth for me.
Like a free diver, I decided to delve deeper into yoga. My new friends knew the seriousness of my practice and recommended a rigorous training program run by a teacher with the nickname “Sergeant Swami” (she would pull my hair to make sure my head was directly on top of my spine!) Then I was at a yoga party where everyone confessed that she had made them cry at one time or another. From this tough teacher I learned postures, anatomy and basic philosophy. And, it was during that intense preparation, in the spring of 2005, that I first formally encountered Sanskrit.
In high school I had been a lackluster Spanish student. Sophomore year a teacher named Senorita Sussman gave me an “F”. The failure traumatized me. I had to repeat the course. My GPA dropped and that kept me from getting into my first choice of colleges. My mother even had to march into school for a one-on-one conference with Sussman that swiftly unraveled into a yelling match. My mother insisted that the teacher had failed the student vs. the other way around.
The experience left a lasting impression. Impressions are serious business in yoga. Students try to rid themselves of their effects. In Sanskrit impressions are called samskaras, a word that also connotes habitual ways of behavior.
As a result of my Spanish class samskaras, I met my initial Sanskrit classes with less than boundless enthusiasm. Still I ploughed through the basic alphabet and concepts of pronunciation with the Sarge. There was a philosophy and theology underlying Sanskrit that intrigued me.
Vowels are particularly important especially the basic sound “a” which sounds like the “a” in the English syllable “la” but with a little “u” sound like “ugh.” “A” in Sanskrit is considered the origin of all sounds. Kind of like “In the beginning was the Word,” in the Bible. In Sanskrit the “word” is a sound and the sound was “a.”
Consonants are organized by vibration and the placement of the tongue in the mouth when spoken. There are five consonant placements; guttural at the back of the throat, palatal at the soft palate, retroflexed, where the tongue curls and touches the roof of the mouth, dental where the tongue touches the back of the upper teeth and labial pronounced at the lips.
“Ka”, like the “c” in cut which is guttural where “Ca” - think Cha Cha Matcha - is palatal. “Ha” - a guttural sound and a cross between ha and huh - is the last sound and “M” - a labial sound like in “Mmm Mmm Good” - is the after sound, or the sound after the last sound.
Aum (“a” through “m”) or Om (after conjoined by a sandhi) is the chant recited before and after thousands of yoga classes every day. The syllable encompasses all sound and it’s sometimes described as the sound of the big bang or the vibration of the universe. Texts suggest that if you chant Om over and over again it’s all you need to contact the Atman, the big Self. According to Juan Mascaro’s translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, Om “is beyond the senses and is the end of evolution. It is non-duality and love. He goes with his self to the supreme Self who knows this, who knows this.”
There is a tale in the Bhagavata Purana, the stories of the Hindu God Krishna. In it Krishna is portrayed as a sweet though mischievous child who is out picking fruit with his elder brother. He can’t reach the fruit in the trees so instead he decides, like any normal toddler, to eat a handful of mud from the ground. When he gets home his mother, who has been told that he ate mud from other children, forces him to open his mouth so she can see for herself. Instead of mud she sees the whole universe in his mouth. She is quickly overwhelmed by its scope and closes his mouth because she can’t bear the illuminated magnificence of her son. Sanskrit is like that…the entirety of the world in your mouth!
When I started teaching yoga, those initial lessons carried me through years of explaining asana, a term which used to imply a meditative seat but also means a contortive ability to put your leg behind your head. Urdva means upwards, Adho means downwards, Pavritta means revolved. A pigeon pose in Sanskrit is called eka pada rajakapotasana, or one footed royal dove seat. My teachers instructed using Sanskrit and I also enjoyed the elegance of saying urdva hastasana rather than hands up posture.
Sometimes my teachers would chant mantras, or sayings to help the mind go towards a state of meditation. “Man” in Sanskrit means mind and “tra” means to cross-over, like transport. Due to the belief in my linguistic shortcomings, I was never particularly gifted at recitations and got frustrated by all but the simplest phrases, forgetting longer mantras after the first line.
However, to this day I meditate using the first mantra I learned fully, it is known as Asatoma Sadgamaya and comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, written sometime between 900 BCE and 600 BCE.
It goes like this:
Om Asato Ma Sad Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from darkness to light
Lead me from the fear of death to immortality
Om Peace Peace Peace.
This mantra continues to give me courage to forge ahead in my studies even though I don’t always recognize improvement. I wish I had benefited from a Spanish mantra in high school, the darkness to light line really resonates.
In those first encounters with the alphabet and chants I learned that Sanskrit also had a rhythm, an English word that is derived from the root rta or divine order. The chakras or energetic wheels of the body, are sometimes linked anatomically to the endocrine system and each have a sound associated with them. The muladhara (root) chakra located at the base of the spine, resonates to the syllable lam. The manipura (lustrous gem) chakra is located at the solar plexus and vibrates to the sound of ram. And, the vishuddha chakra, at the pit of the throat turns to the sound of ham.
In a fit of extreme capriciousness and about eight years into my yoga studies, before I was studying Sanskrit seriously, our family purchased a house in Greece. Though I had failed Spanish and my family teased that I could “butcher any word in any language,” I became the designated Greek learner. I tried to slay the ghost of Senorita Sussman and began studying modern Greek with a teacher named Athena who came to my apartment every week. Athena carried a briefcase full of vocabulary cards and suggested I listen to Greek radio every day on the internet. After two years of study and despite my ability to now order psari psimeno at the taverna down the street, I gave up. I never had a passion for learning the language and in New York, besides Athena there was no one to talk to. Perhaps I knew I would always be the xenos, foreigner in the rural fishing village we now affectionately consider our part-time home. No amount of gammas, deltas and omegas was going to change that.
When I first told my family that I was dropping Greek to take Sanskrit they were puzzled. My kids just thought I was going off on some weird Mom life tangent and my husband, normally a very practical, organized and controlled person, was entirely confused by the irrationality of it. Everyone had been supportive of the Greek efforts. Why would I want to take up an esoteric line of study when I have a Greek carpenter I need to discuss building bookcases with and a butcher I need to order lamb from?
But as my yoga study deepened it became clear that in order to understand fundamental concepts of philosophy, physiology and psychology I would need to comprehend certain textural material. That’s when I decided to take lessons and contacted Prem Sadasivananda, whose name roughly translates into love eternally Lord Shiva. I’ve been working with Prem for three years now, he’s been studying it for 30 and his teachers in India for much longer.
I met Prem while moderating a New York City panel discussion about yoga teacher/student relationships. At the time he was a swami, a renunciate, in the Sivananda, (the bliss of Lord Shiva) tradition. It’s a lineage that teaches Vedanta, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. While its classes have a physical posture component, the teachings are also concerned with the ethics, scriptures, rituals and meditation techniques.
Prem, a Serbian immigrant and asylum seeker, was, at the time of our meeting, second in command of the New York Sivananda Center. He had run their London ashram for several years (sram means to toil so an ashram is a place where you toil in a disciplined manner.) He has since formally left the the organization and now teaches privately, through online webinars and to small groups around the country.
Four years ago Prem and his “special friend” Devika (little goddess) fell in love. Because of this relationship he had to leave the ashram and move into Devika’s Manhattan walk up. They remain celibate in the traditional sense and he still wears swami garb of maroon, gold and orange. Although the ashram rules state that he can no longer call himself a swami, their partnership does not prevent him from holding classes in the Sivananda tradition.
Almost all ancient yoga texts suggest the process of attaining wisdom starts with the desire for more knowledge and the search for a teacher or a guru. A guru is a person who leads a student, a chela, from darkness (gu) to light (ru.) A teacher also observes a student over a period of time, commonly thought to be 12 years. During these dozen years, the chela assists the guru and may become an apprentice. Among other things the guru helps the chela (a word which comes from the root to serve) decide when they’re ready to teach.
The idea of attaining a certain level of experience through lessons and apprenticeship, while understood by Prem, is not fully realized in the contemporary yoga scene or for that matter in the American public educational system.
The two of us use the latest in technology; live interactive browser-based lessons with white boards and chat functions. I have both text books and You-Tube videos that chant the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Each week he prepares an appropriate lesson. We work one-on-one.
This past week we worked on translating two verses from the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. I recited, he corrected and I repeated. We also discussed how to use the past tense. Karomi means I do, akaravam means I did. While it may not seem obvious, they both share the root kr.
Before we digitally meet, I pay him through PayPal. And once a month I buy him lunch, the Royal Thali Special at Pongol, which is strictly vegetarian. We eat alone or with another student and discuss philosophy, scripture or some sort of mash-up. Our relationship is both modern and time-tested.
We also discuss our nascent publishing project, a workbook for yoga teachers on the yama and niyama, the ethical self-restraints and observances of yoga. We both feel too much time is spent learning how to put a leg behind a head in yoga classes and not enough on how to cultivate svadyaya and virtuous action. Our desire is to inspire qualities like truthfulness (satya) and non-harm (ahimsa.) Prem believes the inflation of the ego, over attention to the physical benefits of practice and the inattention to ethics may come out as aggression, anger or abuse in teachers. Our book won’t sell as many copies as “10 Time-tested Ways to a Better Yoga Butt” but we’ll be happier.
Over the past 19 years, I have met hundreds of teachers but only know about 10 who study Sanskrit in any organized fashion. There are about 8 teachers who run around the entire country and teach the basic alphabet in teacher trainings like the one I took from Sergeant Swami. It’s a small sangha, or community. Community and friendship (mitra, from a word meaning to bind,) is a source of support as your study becomes more and more arcane.
I do have three close friends who study Sanskrit. Rose, has been practicing for many years via a different system than the one Prem and I use. She used to be a professional card reader on the Vegas circuit and now lives and teaches yoga in Denver. She regularly works with a friend translating texts.
Several years ago she gave me a copy of a well-known chant which starts Om Saha Navavatu. It is a prayer said before a lesson between a student and a teacher that blesses the session and invokes feelings of joy, vigor, brilliance and peace in order to attain knowledge. It is still difficult for me to remember the whole chant despite copying and reciting it every week.
Angie is just beginning her Sanskrit studies and like me is working with Prem. She and I took our first yoga teacher training together and she frequently joins Prem and me for our lunchtime explorations. She’s another media business refugee, who now works in the wellness travel business.
Perhaps most advanced in her studies is my friend CeCe, a respected New York City based teacher who chants for an hour every morning. She has a photographic memory honed by her training in theater. In the fall she is off to England to get a master’s in Sanskrit at the University of London’s prestigious School of Asian Studies, affectionately known in the yoga world as SOAS. I am more than a little envious.
It’s unlikely I will ever master Sanskrit, or even become as proficient as my friends Rose and CeCe but this doesn’t stop me. Every time I sit down to my notes and textbooks I do so with a sense of curiosity that I hope will last for the rest of my life. Perhaps one day I will be able to recite the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of the Lord) in the proper rhythm and translate the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on the Force of Yoga) line by line. But really, learning Sanskrit is a way to engage my brain, study for the pure love of it and learn how not be attached to an endgame or set of goals. No grades, no scores, no results!
Attachment is actually a big no-no in yoga philosophy where you are taught to develop vairagyam or dispassion. Arjuna, the famous warrior and one of the two main characters, with Krshna, in the Gita, is repeatedly chastised by the god to act without attachment to the fruits of his actions. Action is the fundamental concept behind the word karma (again from the root kr – to do, or to make.)
Modern physics postulates that every action, or everything we do, has a reaction. Ancient yogis understood this too. Reactions become bijas, seeds, or the residues of action. These residues in turn have qualities or gunas. The gunas can be tamasic (dark,) rajasic (active,) or sattvic (illumined.) The key is to work, through increased awareness, and get as many sattvic or harmonious residues as possible. Through concentration and meditation these bijas can eventually burn off leaving no more samskaras in the citta or the field of the mind. They can also be burned off by svadyaya combined with a healthy dose of sustained physical practice and reverence for a god or something greater than your individual self.
Perhaps the most famous definition of yoga comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yogas citta vritti nirodhah. Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind. In other words, no more thoughts, memories or behavioral habits. Just pure unchanging consciousness.
Translating scripture is considered a sattvic action. Texts were usually written in either verse or in sutras. Sanskrit verse, like much poetry, requires close attention to meter and rhythm. Sutras, on the other hand, are aphorisms that string together to make up a whole. Think suture, a word that sutra is related to.
Mrdu-madhyadhimatratvat tato pi visesah, a real tongue twister, is the 22nd sutra in the first book or chapter or pada (foot) of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. According to scholar Edwin Bryant it means “among those who apply themselves intensely to the practice of yoga there is a differentiation in the degrees of intensity; mild, mediocre and extreme.” According to other experts there are even further derivations of each of those categories. I think if I were a Sanskrit studying hurricane I’d be classified as a medium mediocre storm, or madhya Madhya, others, including my family, might put me in the mild extreme, mrdu adhimatratvat category.
Roots are a very important idea in Sanskrit study. I get fascinated by the roots of words like dhru. Dhru means that which is firm or fixed. Lasting or permanent. It is the root of the word dharma which has more than three pages of related meanings in the Monier–Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary including rigtheousness. I interpret my dharma as my personal firm and hopefully righteous path through reality.
Roots of behavior, what is fixed and what is transitory, the yamas of purity, truthfulness and non-harm are all concepts that can be meditated on. It is taught that what you concentrate on in meditation is what you can overcome or become in time. The Sanskrit word for concentration is dharana, another word derived from dhru.
Recently Prem gave me a Sanskrit name, Mahadevi, or great goddess. Maybe he recognizes that I’m still attached to the Big Kahuna idea and should meditate on that. Or perhaps it’s just my dharma. Maybe there’s a little Kali in me, ready to slay my past and begin again. He’s also suggested that I am ready to begin teaching the Sanskrit alphabet and some common words and concepts to students.
I am overjoyed at his trust and confidence in my abilities. My practice is bearing unexpected fruit. Even though I am not supposed to get attached to the fruit I can eat an apple or two if they fall off the branch right in front of me.
With intense concentration it is said that yogis can attain siddhis or spiritual powers. This is where the ideas of yogis levitating comes from. Adepts can even travel through space and time.
One of the powers is bandha-karana-saithilyat pracara-samvedanac ca chittasya para shariraveshah or “by loosening the cause of bondage, and by knowledge of the passageways of the mind, the mind can enter into the bodies of others.”
Maybe one day I can travel through space and time and enter the body of a young Spanish teacher at Ossining High School and change my Spanish Two grade. See how I turn out in an alternate universe. The plot of a soon to be published novel perhaps.
If I don’t achieve that state of enlightenment, I might just have to rely on Facebook (in Sanskrit, mukhapushtakam) and message the now nearly 80 year old Senorita Sussman about my progress. I can’t believe I’m still thinking about her. Some seeds really take a long time to burn.
Om, Om, Om.