ISSUE #016 - Jul 09, 2019

Pronunciation of Sanskrit and the Preservation of Prāṇa

Dr. Katy Jane

“Prāṇa is the vibratory nature of Being…When prāṇa manifests, Being vibrates and in vibrating assumes the role of a particular pattern of breathing to produce a specific pattern of individual life.” ~ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

One thing I noticed about my Sanskrit teacher (and almost all brahmins I’ve encountered) was his inexhaustible energy. It was once Navarātri, and my teacher celebrated these “Nine Nights of the Goddess” by conducting a series of Vedic fire ceremonies together with a team of fellow priests. All was going fine until one of the priests made a mistake. It was a tiny mistake, but nevertheless a mistake and the entire ceremony needed to be redone. The priests who’d been chanting for hours now would have to stay up all night and repeat the entire procedure.

I’d have been exhausted at the prospect, but instead after more than 8 hours of continuous chanting in Sanskrit they glowed with a kind of effervescent energy. None of them seemed tired in the least. In fact, it appeared to me as the hours passed their voices became even more vigorous. And no one felt like sleeping when the dawn approached.

There’s a noticeable difference between spending an hour speaking in English and an hour chanting in Sanskrit. In the former case, you find your energy depleted. That’s because we have no mechanism in our modern languages to recapture the life force that gets expelled with our exhalation as we speak. In the latter case of Sanskrit, however, the rules of pronunciation (varṇa) are designed to redirect the prāṇa back into the physical and subtle body—and that’s why it’s called the language of yoga.

Each sound made in Sanskrit stimulates one of five regions of speech in the vocal cavity—guttural, palatal, retroflex, dental and labial.  These are each marma points—or meridians—that open prāṇic pathways, or nadis, that sends energy (that would otherwise be exhaled) back into the subtle body. Your speech in Sanskrit, therefore, serves as a powerful form of prāṇāyāma that preserves and enlivens your life force.

The Sanskrit vowels and consonants are found to be especially soothing to the mind and nervous system. They are most often “natural” sounds we make as we inhale and exhale, such as so (inhale) and ham (exhale). As the breath travels out of the body, we make the 50 “perfected” sounds of saṁskṛta when the five organs of our speech—the larynx, the base of the tongue, the tip of the tongue, the teeth, and lips—touch these five regions that connect mind with body. When the syllables are precisely pronounced, the vibrations enervate these nerve centers like an acupuncture needle, directing prāṇa to their corresponding body parts and nerve centers.

Ayurveda ascribes a Sanskrit syllable to 108 points on your physical body called marmāni. These points are gateways to the subtle body, connecting to the deep energetic centers (cakras) via a matrix of 72,000 nerve channels (nadis). If you’ve ever had an acupuncture treatment, you’ll understand what a marma is. An acupuncturist determines where the energetic block is located in the internal structure of the body that’s causing the symptom. She then inserts a needle into one or more points on the body’s surface that sends a current of energy to that area of stagnancy through subtle channels. The pressure on those points sends an energetic flow from the surface to the inner and subtle structures of the body, enlivening a connection that promotes health and wholeness.

Similarly, when a Sanskrit syllable is pronounced perfectly it sends an energetic current through its corresponding marma points, enlivening a pathway to invigorate your central nervous system. Along with it, the syllable carries healing prāṇa (within your breath itself) back to the body-mind.

Hence when you chant in Sanskrit—or even pronounce the name of a yoga āsana while forming its shape—you initiate a re-circulation of lifeforce that flows according to a pattern of points in the body. When you say the name for a yoga posture in Sanskrit, for example, you emit a pulse of prāṇa along a series of marma points associated with those sounds. The physical alignment of a posture, therefore, has a “sonic shape” that correlates with it and replicates the energetic core of the thing in nature that your body is forming.

For example, the name for “cobra pose” in Sanskrit is bhujāṅga consisting of the syllables bhaṁ, uṁ, jaṁ, gaṁ, naṁ and aṁ. Bhujāṅga is the physical and sonic form of a specific type of cobra with its body coiled and its hood extended. The syllables that make up the name for such a creature are identical to its physical form, traced along the marma points associated with those syllables.

Envision yourself making the shape of a cobra. As you pronounce the Sanskrit syllables—bhu, jāṅ, ga—you’ll re-direct your prāṇa to the corresponding marma points in the naval center, the back of the ears, the center of the forearms and the palms of the hands and feet.

Every Sanskrit name for the yoga postures creates a similar kind of “sonic shape” traced along its marma points, which match the energetic flow of all forms in nature that you can replicate with your body and breath in yoga. And interestingly, the cues that yoga teachers provide to properly align you in the posture follow the sequence of syllables exactly.

When learning the yoga postures and how to teach them properly, it’s indispensable, therefore, to master the Sanskrit names and their associated marma points as a preparation for formal prāṇāyāma—and as a bridge between the physical and subtle limbs of yoga.

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ISSUE #016

On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma
Image: On Prāṇa & Prāṇāyāma

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