Piedmont Yoga Studio News December 2010: A Lesson in Sanskrit | iHanuman


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Piedmont Yoga Studio News December 2010: A Lesson in Sanskrit

My formal Sanskrit education recently passed the one year mark, so I suppose it's time to share a bit of What I've Learned So Far. First let me say that before starting this weekly class last Fall, I spent 20 frustrating years trying on and (mostly) off to teach myself Sanskrit. I went through maybe three or four "teach-yourself-Sanskrit" primers, which for the most part were about as readable as Finnegans Wake. So if you have an irresistible urge to humble yourself with Sanskrit, take my advice and find a good tutor. Unless you're unusually adept at imbibing overly complicated foreign tongues, tackling Sanskrit solo from a book is equivalent to getting the resident teenager to clean up her &%#@ room, which is to say, next to impossible. My teacher, bless him, acquired his Sanskrit at Oxford, and has toward thick-headed me, at least so far, displayed the proverbial patience of Job.
Reading Sanskrit is hard enough, but speaking it for me is torture. When I was an undergraduate in college many eons ago, I decided for reasons I no longer remember that I wanted to study French. It's possible I took this step because, near the end of the 60s, I was in my Jean-Paul Sartre-Existentialist phase. This I do remember clearly, even through the haze, purple and otherwise, surrounding those years, because right around then I lost a girlfriend when her mother found my copy of Our Lady of the Flowers hidden under her bed and forbid her on pain of death to see me ever again. Anyway, though I studied diligently my pronunciation was atrocious. When it fell on me to read aloud in class, my French teacher would invariably retreat behind her desk, in a sort of self-protective maneuver, and only come out again when it was the next student's turn. A few years later in Berlin I studied German, which I also couldn't pronounce, and now I can add Sanskrit to the list.

Nevertheless I've picked up a few tips that have cleaned up my egregiously sloppy Sanskrit pronunciation. One of the most important concerns the "V," which like all the consonants, semi-vowels, and sibilants in Sanskrit, automatically trails an "A," like this, "VA." Technically then the Sanskrit alphabet consists mostly of syllables, not letters. This "V" looks our "P" turned backward with a roof over it. It's well known to yoga students as the seed mantra of the second chakra, called the SVADHISHTHANA, traditionally situated between the pubis and the navel. Look closely at this word and try to pronounce it. If you're like me, or at least like I used to be, you'll say SVA-DISH-TAHNA, right? Wrong. It turns out that when the Sanskrit "V" follows a consonant, as here it follows the dental "S," it sounds more like a "W," ergo this chakra is the SWA-DISH-TAHNA (we'll leave off the pronunciation of the "A" for now). So don't forget, the next time you do Downward Facing Dog Pose, even though "dog" is spelled SH-V-A-N-A, our canine friend in Sanskrit is a pronounced SH-WANA.

But the real shocker for me so far concerns our favorite class-closing salutation, NAMASTE. This word is a compound of two smaller words, the nominative singular "namas," which means "bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration," and "te" which is (as my teacher analyzes it) the "dative singular enclitic second person pronoun" meaning "you," or more correctly "thee." Notice this is the SINGULAR form of this word, used when saluting ONE person. Now in English when we say "hi," it doesn't matter if we're greeting one person or many, it's still "hi." But Sanskrit nouns are declined or inflected, depending on whether you're talking to one, two, or three or more persons (Sanskrit has a dual case when speaking to two persons ... but don't ask me why). So while NAMASTE is the correct way for the students to salute the teacher, the teacher on the other hand (assuming there's more than two students in the class) is addressing many persons, which requires the plural form, NAMOVAH (and pronounced with an aspirated final "H," like NAH-MOE-VAH-ha). As we say in English, Oy, this language is meshugeh. We'll come back to What I've Learned So Far in Sanskrit again next year. But for now NAMAS ... uh, NAMOVAH.

But now it's time to salute the twelfth and last month of the year, which is oddly enough called December, which literally means "ten month," instead of, well, something like Duodecimber ... just don't ask me to pronounce it. For the sake of space I'll be brief in describing our workshops. You can find details about these events on our website, www.piedmontyoga.com, and unless otherwise noted, register there online as well.

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