What's in a Name?

Over the years I have noticed that the traditional names for yoga poses - particularly Sanskrit ones - have quietly left my teaching vocabulary. Instead, I tend to use descriptions that focus as much on the transition movements between postures as the postures themselves. In my own practice, this helps me to enjoy the journey, rather than focus on the end result. And in class, I find a greater quality of attentiveness arises when students are given permission not to be goal orientated in this way.

But not everyone is comfortable with this approach. Several times recently I have been asked to 'say the names'. One memorable client said the Sanskrit made practice seem more 'authentic' - which gave me pause for thought. Do we become more spiritually elevated when in uttanasana than when standing with the body folded forward? Is it more soulful to engage with upavista konasana than to sit with the legs out wide?

When I told this client that the Sanskrit names were largely mundane descriptions similar to the instructions I gave (eg, janu sirsasana / head to knee pose), she seemed disappointed, as if the tantalizing mystery of yoga had been taken from her and replaced by something just plain ordinary.

It could be argued that using Sanskrit names to describe yoga postures connects us to a sacred lineage that reaches into the venerable and distant past, but as Mark Singleton points out in his intriguing work on the origins of yoga, this is not so. In fact, according to Singleton's extensive research, the modern postural yoga practice most of us would recognize can only be traced as far back as ... the 1920s.

So if it isn't a name, or a tradition, or a lineage that makes for an authentic yoga experience, what does?

I find myself telling students that it is the quality of presence we bring to class that counts, not our physical adeptness or impressive flexibility. I am drawn to yoga for its ability to refine my awareness: my mind settles, I connect more clearly to my body, outer distractions diminish and I am able to marvel at the complex topography of my inner landscape. I am flesh and blood, muscle and bone, thoughts and feelings ... But I am also life force and vital energy and pure, unadulterated, intelligent consciousness. If I focus too much on achieving rather than experiencing ('doing' headstand, rather than exploring the possibility of it), something of that union with the more subtle aspects of myself gets lost and my yoga practice becomes gymnastics.

I admire the approach of American teachers Paul and Suzee Grilley, pioneers of a particularly mindful system of practice called Yin Yoga. So intent are they on breaking down a student's expectations of a pose that they have renamed everything, giving instructions based on physiological target area rather than alignment and appearance. This is not exactly radical, but it is demonstrative of the freedom that comes when we allow ourselves to step back from labels and simply experience what is. Rather than imposing a concept from the outside and forcing (an often uncomfortable) fit, we are able to define our experience from within, understanding ourselves more profoundly in the process.

Names are useful. They are a familiar short hand that enable us to navigate our way on and off the mat. To know what 'bridge pose' looks like, (or that it is called sethu bhandasana in Sanskrit) is a helpful pointer when we want to move the body in a certain way for certain reasons, but to get too caught up in the image of 'bridge pose' is to fall into a potentially tricky trap: form should not be valued over content. Instead, let us celebrate the richness of an inner experience that allows the body to lead us where it needs to go, in its own uniquely knowing way. Approximate 'bridge pose', go in the direction of it, but understand that it is our own, personal expression of a pose that tastes sweetest.

Penny Jane Fuller 2014

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