Me Talk Sanskrit One Day
Yoga-teacher training involved a lot more than just doing poses. My fellow students and I meditated in a Buddhist temple, manipulated formaldehyde-drenched cadaver organs, practiced traditional Vedic chanting, and read ancient Indian philosophical texts that were way more boring than anything we’d ever read before in our lives. But almost all these activities had one thing in common: Sanskrit. On the third day of the training, our sensei, Richard Freeman, made an announcement.
“For anyone who’s interested,” he said, “starting tonight we’re offering a supplemental course in Sanskrit, taught by Marcia.” Learning Sanskrit would help us in our yoga practice, he said. It would be a four-week course, offered on Thursdays, from 6:15 to 7:45 PM. For students in the yoga workshop, it would only cost nine dollars a class, but we had to sign up for all four classes at once. Marcia, he said, would explain more.
We were sitting on cushions in a circle, our chanting and philosophy texts arranged in front of us along with our many snacks and beverages. Richard called these our “nests.” Marcia sat among us; she, among several other teachers and devotees, came to hear Richard’s daily lectures even though she hadn’t paid for them. He was that good.
“We’re going to learn devanagari, which is the ancient script of Sanskrit,” she said. “By the end of the course, you’ll be able to distinguish all the letters, write compound verbs and consonants, and read basic chants without looking at the transliteration on the page. It really should be quite valuable.”
This routine sounded familiar to me. The fact that Marcia’s last name was Solomon made it seem doubly familiar. I had to comment, because I always do.
“Sounds a lot like Hebrew School,” I said.
“You know, I hadn’t thought of it,” she said, “but it’s almost exactly like Hebrew School.”
“I got Bar Mitzvahed,” I said, as though that were some sort of unique accomplishment.
In general, I’d been looking for something that I could do at yoga school. An unfortunately timed hamstring injury had left me at half-strength. My plans of moving to Colorado and hiking five miles a day and biking ten had given way to a less-strenuous physical agenda of limping home through the trailer park after class and smoking a strong bowl of Summit County homegrown before taking a very long shower. While many of my fellow students were throwing their legs behind their heads and walking around on their hands, I squatted forward, hands on my knees, in what my teacher called “Camper’s Pose,” so named because when you’re in it, you look like a camper taking a dump in the woods. I wanted to find something to display that unique Pollack yoga proficiency. This Sanskrit elective seemed like just the thing. But still, 36 bucks? I needed to consult the wife. I called her at home.
“I’m thinking about taking a Sanskrit class,” I said.
“So why are you asking me?” she said.
“Because it costs money.”
“How much money?”
“Like nine dollars a week.”
“That’s not much money.”
“So, again, why are you asking me?”
“I just want to know if I should do it?”
“Do you have anything else to do?”
“Not really, since I can’t walk and all.”
“Well, Pollack,” she said. “You’re there already. You might as well go all in.”
I’d reached a point in my life where “going all in” means taking a Sanskrit course. It wasn’t exactly on most people’s Bucket Lists. But it seemed right for me at the time, so I plunged forward, into the sacred, ancient mists.
Only in Boulder, and only during a yoga-teacher training, could an elective class in beginning Sanskrit, held at an obscure neighborhood studio, draw nearly 20 people: About eight of my fellow students from the course signed up, as did about eight people who’d taken the previous teacher training, and a small handful of people whose motivations remained unclear, but they probably had something do to with yoga, because you don’t study Sanskrit unless you’re interested in yoga.
Marcia sat in front of the class with a dry-erase board, on which she’d written some Sanskrit letters in extremely light-colored marker, perhaps as a gambit to get us to draw closer toward her. She was a woman of slight build, excellent posture, and Canadian descent. Her clothing tended toward the comfortable and she tied her long, graying hair back into a ponytail. Her voice tended toward, if not a stutter, then at least a stutter-step, of the kind people develop when their intellect is strong but their attitude laid-back. It was high, almost squeaky, and it tended to crack or fade off at the end of a sentence. At times, it would break into little peals of laughter, accompanied by snorting, even though she hadn’t really just told a joke. She just enjoyed Sanskrit that much, and therefore we enjoyed it as well. Marcia seemed to resemble the mama bird from the child’s book Are You My Mother? She had a sharp but kindly beak that suited her quite well.
Devanagari, she explained, is an ancient script, but is also used by contemporary Hindi culture, thereby making it one of the world’s most widely used alphabets. But the script has very different uses in Sanskrit, which isn’t, technically, supposed to exist for conversational purposes. It’s a sound language, originally meant to be chanted by Brahmins; other castes weren’t supposed to learn it, or study yoga. Still, it’s not entirely dead, but only about 140,000 people in hard-to-reach villages in rural India speak it, and that number doesn’t seem to be growing any time soon.
So for our purposes, Sanskrit serves as a sacred language, its devanagari script used mostly in the study of esoteric yoga texts. The prefix deva means “god-like.” Devas is one word used to describe Indian gods. It’s also the word from which we derive the English word “divine.” The suffix nagari is an abode, or city, or place where people live. Therefore, it literally means “the abode of the divine.” Some ancient mystics who had a lot of time on their hands, therefore, deliberately constructed Sanskrit to be difficult and inscrutable, as all holy things should be. Countless thousands of generations of yoga students have hated them ever since.
Learning Sanskrit isn’t like learning a language that people actually speak. A regular conversational language primer approach wouldn’t work. Imagine this conversation:
Vishnu: I bow to the two lotus feet of the plurality of Gurus which awaken insight into the happiness of pure being.
Shiva: I prostrate before the sage Pantanjali who has thousands of radiant, white heads.
Vishnu: You are truly the most perceptible Brahman.
Shiva: May the great noble lords protect the earth in all ways by the path of just virtue.
Vishnu: Is this the bus stop?
But in other ways, learning Sanskrit felt like old times, and by that, I mean kindergarten. Yoga has a way of making you feel young and small. Just when you think you’ve mastered that tucking-your-ankles-behind-your-head trick, your teacher makes you sing the alphabet. Marcia began by leading us through a chanting round of the Sanskrit letters. Any of us who’d studied with Richard (which was just about all of us), had done this before.
You start with the vowel sounds, of which there are 12, plus a couple of others that sound like consonants and also one symbol that’s only used in one word, so you kind of skip that one. Then you go about combining the vowel sounds with the consonant sounds. Sanskrit has five categories of consonants, with five letters per category. They’re divided by where they originate in your mouth. The first two, guttural and palatal, come from different places on the roof, which is hard enough, but then the third, “cerebral,” essentially emerges from your sinuses and makes you sound like Corky from Life Goes On. The last two, dental and labial, come from the teeth and the lips, obviously, so they’re not really so hard. To add to the fun, each letter has an aspirant partner. In other words, a simple sound like “ka” must be matched with “kha,” which sounds like “ka” plus an expulsion of air which, when done properly, gives your voice the menacing air of a stereotypical alien overlord from a bad cartoon. In any case, we chanted “ta taaa, ti, tiiiiii, too tooooooo” for a while, and then we began to practice writing the letters.
Sanskrit letters are far less recognizable, in shape, than popular alphabets, like Hebrew, Arabic, or Cyrillic, which appear obscure yet somehow familiar to our eyes. They’re essentially ancient runes, of the type that Nicolas Cage would be able to interpret in the National Treasure movies. Yet they do have an organizing principle. Everything revolves around a “danda”, or staff, a straight line that runs through the letter at some point. The rest is all bars and loops and hooks and curlicues. As Marcia told us, “an acceptable letter is one that looks more like what it’s supposed to be than any other letter.” Most of you, therefore, will have no way of knowing whether or not my Sanskrit handwriting is acceptable. Here’s a sample alphabet sheet I did:
The symbols in the third column, on the right side, are the “anusuara” and the “visarga,” super-important in knowing Sanskrit. “Anusuara” translates as “little flow,” and it’s essentially the “ummm” sound when you chant “OM.” When you see the anusuara, you know that the consonant sound is supposed to flow up through the back of your head, out into infinity. There’s no correlation to that in, say, Portuguese. The visarga, only slightly less sacred, means “projection,” is represented by two little dots like a vampire bite, and makes the sound “a-ha.”
These are the kinds of things you learn in Sanskrit class.
For our week-one homework, we had a list of sight words, mostly simple two-syllable numbers that could easily be sounded out. All the syllables ended in the “a” sound, because those didn’t require any extra swoops or loops or swirls. It was just straight letters. Marcia encouraged us to have the alphabet sheets by our sides. “Speaking and looking at the same time,” she said. “There’s a correlation in the brain. This is how you learned to read as a child.”
At night, after I read my 100 English translation pages of the Upanisads, enough to put the most ardent sufferer of night terrors to permanent sleep, I got out my sheet and sounded out my sight words: “Ka….” Hunt and peck…”Ga.” “Pha….la.” “Va….na” “E…ka…pa…da.” I could now read “My lotus foot” in fewer than ten minutes.
In week two, we learned how to combine consonants with other vowels besides “a,” which proved hard because every person’s Sanskrit handwriting is different and one man’s “ai” is another man’s “o.” Marcia had us attempt to write out our names in devanagari, and then give that writing to another student, who then attempted to transliterate. My partner managed to divine “Ne-uh-la Pau-li-kah,” which is more or less what I wrote,” and I decoded “Liza bita”, which I guess is Sanskrit for “Elizabeth.” And that’s why Hindu gods and heroes have relatively simple names like Indra and Rama.
Week three brought us compound consonants, which were really confusing and difficult, all the more so because after 21 days of yoga school, including up to five hours a day of physical practice, we were all starting to feel pretty wrung-out. The last thing I wanted to do was attempt to sound out Verse 2.14 of the Bhagavad Gita in the original text. Did you know that in the Gita, each verse has four lines of eight syllables apiece? I do, now. In any case, after class I went home and lay on my bed, my mind crusty and my muscles screaming, and read, “Matra sparshas, Kounteya,” which somehow means “physical sensations, truly Arjuna;” because Arjuna, like every Hindu epic character, has something like a thousand names, one of which, apparently, is Kounteya. I proceeded: “Shetosha sukha dukha daha…”
“Causing cold, heat, pleasure or pain,” I read, “Come and go and are impermanent. Therefore, manage to endure them, Arjuna.”
In this case, Krishna, our narrator and charioteer, could easily have been referring to yoga school, and to studying Sanskrit. This was definitely something to endure. My brain felt puréed, but there was no question that I could now tell my “pa” from my “ma” in Sanskrit. That’s the first sign of acquisition in any language.
By the fourth week, we were all very, very tired, and mostly lay insensate on bolsters as Marcia tried to lead us through the reading of some of Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras. As I’d often been in Hebrew School, I was bored out of my wits. Yet I also felt kind of invigorated. Despite my total exhaustion, my mind felt more active than it had in a long time. I love languages, I realize, even ones that I can’t speak to other people.
That said, we did pick up some useful tips. In the course of the month, Richard taught us how to say “shit” in Sanskrit (sesa, a pretty direct antecedent of the English word) and “how’s it going,” which transliterates as svasti ho, but is also one of those awesome multipurpose words, like aloha and shalom, that can be used in multiple situations and contexts.
If we wanted to learn further, Marcia told us as our class clock ran out, we could order a Study Guide from the American Sanskrit Institute. One of the guys had already subscribed. The folder was thick and imposing, hundreds of pages and possibly a little evil. It appealed to me. If I was going to teach yoga, and it increasingly looked like I was, I would have to have something in my arsenal other than the physical stuff. Because of the hamstring, I hadn’t touched my toes in about two months. The path of intellect awaited me. Therefore, I’d push ahead with my Sanskrit by contacting the American Sanskrit Institute. They’d sent me the folder of death. And then I’d vocalize compound consonants from ancient Vedic texts until my eyes bled.
Neal Pollack’s new book, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, is out today. Check it out.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 3 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 4 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 5 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 6 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 7 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 8 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 9 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook
- 10 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Strartup