The Cultural Appropriation of Sanskrit

You walk into yoga class and by the end of it, you have probably heard some terms like “namaste” “sutra” “drishti” or “mandala”. If you’ve never questioned the meaning behind these words besides knowing them as yoga terms, you’ve probably fallen into a common pitfall of cultural appropriation.

Yikes! But not to fear, we’re here to break down an intro to Sanskrit for you. It is not uncommon to fall into cultural appropriation, and it can really happen to anyone simply because we do not think to ask where these terms stem from and the possible implications of their use. Many times we just take it for what it is, which in our small circle is a yoga term. Even then, have we questioned from where our favorite Vinyasa class has originated? Do we CARE to know? When engaging in these activities, and using certain language (in this case, Sanskrit) it is important to appreciate the cultures that gave us them, versus appropriate them.

What is SANSKRIT?

Sanskrit is a language that is thought to have come about around 1500 BCE. It is part of the Indo-Aryan languages which were spoken by individuals inhabiting Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Within ancient and medieval India, it was the language of intellectuals and was the language the early first yogis spoke and used in writing ancient yoga manuscripts. Let’s backtrack for a second and revisit those terms we talked about in the beginning. “Namaste” “Sutra” “Mandala.” These are all actual words from an ancient and highly revered language, not just something Stephanie, your yoga instructor, uses to calm you down every Friday evening. The words themselves each have different meanings:

  • Sutra: Sutras are actually different philosophies used to find true happiness and how to live ethically. They are part of eight different limbs of Yoga.
  • Mandala: Mandalas are circular forms representing the universe. In yoga, they are used as support in meditation.

What About Namaste? Should we Use it to End Class?

The term Namaste deserves its own section, as it is an incredibly frequent term used at the end of yoga classes. Namaste in english terms means “bow to you” which is usually why it is used at the end of class. The way its shared often in the West is that there is a spark within each of us, and that is used within a bow to conclude yoga classes. However in India, where it originated, it’s used as a greeting not an ending! It’s often used interchangeably with saying hello! We say it to elders and those who we want to greet with respect. As long as we understand that we are using the term appropriately, we know the history and meaning behind it and are appreciating the culture it stems from, yoga teachers should not fear using the term to wrap up class. After all, it does stem from the culture that brought us yoga.  The problem lies when we are oblivious and do not care to inform ourselves, and instead are okay with just throwing the word around it without taking into account the weight it holds.

Appropriate Usage of Yoga Terms

When incorporating the Sanskrit name of yoga poses, in order to not appropriate the culture, you may be wondering what is the best way to go about using them. First and foremost, not only is it important to learn the meaning behind different terms, but it is essential to learn how to properly pronounce them. No one would appreciate someone completely butchering the pronunciation of their name, and that goes for butchering cultural words as well. To learn how to properly pronounce the Sanskrit words of poses in yoga, there are many resources online. You may click here to learn about the pronunciation of letters and some tips on how to better do so, while practicing yoga.

Final Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. The main difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is connected to:

  1. Power
  2. Harm

So much depends on the intent, awareness, and, most importantly, the impact behind connecting to and partaking in another culture. With appreciation comes knowledge, it is being open-minded, being kind and willing to learn the background of different cultural items, languages, traditions, etc. Appreciation aims to not offend and instead celebrate different cultures. Appropriation on the other hand, does not aim to know the background of cultures, and simply takes it for face value. Knowing the difference between the two will make the biggest difference in answering “Is this cultural appropriation” when you are put in areas that may seem to be gray. For more information on our guest author, visit susannabarkataki.com for articles on forms of cultural appropriation and ways to handle it in today’s society.

By Susanna Barkataki

An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and runs Ignite Be Well 200/500 Yoga Training programs. She is an E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT). She is the author of the forthcoming book Honor Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice. With an Honors degree in Philosophy from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Education from Cambridge College, Barkataki is a diversity, accessibility, inclusivity, and equity (DAIE) yoga unity educator who created the ground-breaking Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit with more than 10,000 participants.