Learn Sanskrit On Your Own
Zoë Slatoff-Ponté began travelling to Mysore in 2000 to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. But her interest in yoga soon expanded beyond the physical asana practice and eventually she went on to receive a Master’s Degree in Asian Languages and Culture from Columbia. Her master’s thesis was a translation and exploration of a Sanskrit text on yoga.
In her new book Yogavataranam, Slatoff-Ponté has created a Sanskrit textbook for the modern yoga student - in other words all of us yogis who are interested in this complex language but somewhat intimidated by it.
Integrating traditional and academic methods of learning, she teaches grammar and reading of the Sanskrit language through classical yoga texts. Beautifully illustrated by Ben Ponte, this book is definitely one that every yoga teacher and aspiring Sanskritist should have. Lisa Dawn Angerame talked to the author about how it came about.
Lisa Dawn Angerame: What made you decide to take on this project?
Zoë Slatoff-Ponté: When I began teaching Sanskrit classes at my yoga shala,
Ashtanga Yoga Upper West Side, I realized that the existing textbooks did not address the specific interests of yoga students. Most textbooks use very basic fictional sentences as examples and I began to wonder whether it would be possible to actually teach the language through yoga texts and yoga related concepts.
Many students learn Sanskrit with the intention of being able to one day read these texts,
so I thought why not bring the means and the ends together by teaching grammar through the texts themselves. As my class notes accumulated, I began to think of the possibility of sharing the work with others by developing it into a book.
LDA: How long did it take to put it together?
ZSP: It took 6 years to write the book! I woke up at 3:30 every morning and write for an hour or so before I do my yoga practice and teach. Then I did a bit more writing later in the day. I don’t think I actually believed I would ever finish it the first few years, but I just focused on one section at a time and it came together slowly and steadily.
LDA: Six years! That is dedication. One thing that struck me as I went through the book is that you generally don’t transliterate, meaning that the reader must be able to read the traditional script of the Sanskrit language without converting it directly to English translation. It is the student's job, which is difficult, so we can only read the verses that we already know by sight. Why did you decide to do it that way?
ZSP: In both the traditional Indian and the Western academic method, transliteration is generally not used to teach and learn Sanskrit. One reason for this is that correct pronunciation is considered fundamental to understanding meaning and by learning the devanagari (the actual Sanskrit alphabet) first, emphasis is placed upon the oral component from the beginning. I know, it’s hard! But I think it is very worthwhile and a fundamental part of learning the language and a way to honor that tradition. There are audio files that accompany the book to assist in making that transition. (Click here to accesss them)
And, learning the alphabet can also be a meditation in itself. As adults, we don’t often get that opportunity to sit and write an alphabet, to slow everything down and concentrate, to feel like kids again in that way. And I think that learning to read in devanagari, awakens a curiosity and develops a relationship to the sounds of the letters, to the way in which letters and different sounds are joined together, which not only informs how you read a text but enlivens the mind at the same time.
LDA: I have to say that I do love writing devanagari – it is fun! How did you pick the verses you use as examples?
ZSP: I really enjoyed selecting which verses to use to illustrate each grammatical principle. I chose verses from a wide variety of yoga texts that would be relevant to yoga students for both grammatical and philosophical reasons. I wanted to give enough context for students to be able to understand each verse, but also a wide enough selection to pique readers’ interest to explore the texts further themselves.
LDA: How do you decide how to translate Sanskrit into English? For example, you start by saying that the word yoga has 78 different definitions. Then, you call out specific words including siddhi and buddhi and give your own specific definition of each, fulfillment and understanding, respectively. As a student of the Yoga Sutras, I am always wondering about the origins of words and how our English lens might skew them. Could you comment on that?
ZSP: Thank you - that touches on what I consider to be one of the fundamental questions involved in translation. Part of what I wanted to show in this book is how many choices are involved in translation and to let people in on the process. We do all read these texts through our own individual lens, which is a combination of our cultural, linguistic, spiritual, and psychological backgrounds. I don’t think it is possible or desirable to give a literal translation - but I also think it is important to stay as close to the intended meaning as possible. It is a fine line to walk. We can use the process of translation to become more conscious of our own perspective and our ways of seeing the world.
There are also commentaries on most of the major texts, which shed light on the specific meanings. Among other things, the commentaries give synonyms for words in the text to help you understand the author’s intention. Often there isn’t an English word that feels like the perfect equivalent, so one has to try to find the word that best conveys the depth of a word and speaks to the meaning of the verse and the text as a whole.
LDA: This is not the kind of book you sit down and read from cover to cover. It is a guide, one that you will carry around with you for years and years. Thank you Zoë.
Illustration by Valeria Clark