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A little while ago I found out that I was regularly mistranslating a yoga pose in my classes. But you know what the crow is, don’t you? Everyone knows what the crow is. Bakāsana - that arm balance where your knees rest on your upper arms? That’s what I thought too, until I found out I was wrong. Turns out that, despite perhaps seeing myself as having a better grip on Sanskrit than the average yoga teacher, I was translating quite a few Sanskrit words incorrectly - so now I’m spreading the word.
Okay first things first. If you haven’t googled it already to make sure, why not check the translation of bakāsana using an online Sanskrit dictionary like this one? (Hint: it is generally better to enter just the first part of the word such as ‘baka’ and leave off the āsana bit). That’s right – it’s the crane. This posture gets its name from the Sanskrit word ‘baka’ which means (you guessed it) ‘crane’ and is thought to resemble a crane wading in the water. The pose is said to have many benefits, such as strengthening the arms, wrists and abdominal muscles, opening the groin, stretching the upper back and encouraging mental and emotional balance.
But now isn’t the time to have a meltdown if you got it wrong. There is a lot of confusion out there! YogaJournal.com even includes ‘crow’ in brackets when translating bakāsana, I’m assuming to make sure that everyone knows what they’re talking about. Some sources suggest that bakāsana refers to a (perhaps more advanced) version of the posture with straight arms, whereas kākāsana refers to a version with bent arms. There is a great image on pinterest that clearly shows the difference between the two. Regardless, baka definitely translates as crane, but kāka does indeed translate as crow.
Maybe the source of the confusion is different terminology in different yoga traditions. In Iyengar yoga and the Aṣṭāṅga Vinyāsa tradition, the posture is known as bakāsana (generally translated correctly as crane), but in the Sivananda tradition, it is known as kākāsana, even if the arms are straight. In Sivananda and Satyananda yoga, bakāsana is a different posture altogether – a standing one-legged forward bend.
Some people might ask why bother learning the Sanskrit at all? Well, I think there are many reasons, but most importantly for me it is a mark of respect. You wouldn’t study horticulture without learning the Latin, or music without learning the Italian. It’s the universal language of yoga. If nothing else it is really helpful when teaching students for whom your first language is not theirs. And when you say or think the Sanskrit name in a posture, it’s as if something clicks into place – a little like finding the right micro-bend in your knee or position for your neck. It’s a lovely feeling.
If you’re like me and don’t like making mistakes, it might help to remember that yoga teaches us to be humble and to seek the truth. To acknowledge and accept when we are wrong and to learn to love our imperfections – and those of others. Anyone who has been practising or teaching for a while can no doubt look back on early practices and acknowledge a few wrongs – or am I the only one? My sincere apologies to any students to whom I have taught the incorrect translation. As you will have heard me say many times, yoga is a journey – we’re always learning and revising. That’s what makes it so wonderful.
And if you already knew it was the crane then do spread the word! I believe it’s important to inform others gently and kindly, when the time is right – just as we would want to be corrected when learning a new language or yoga posture. Because common usage often overrides what is correct, and I want to show as much respect as possible for this beautiful and very old language. Or maybe I’m just a wannabe Sanskrit geek at heart. Spread the word yogis and yoginis – it’s the crane.
Stay tuned for the next post in a series of articles looking at Sanskrit faux pas.
Jenny is the author of Yoga for Travellers, a how to guide for anyone wanting to practise yoga on the road, both on and off the mat. She loves yoga and travelling and hopes to pass these passions on to others. For more information please visit the Yoga for Travellers facebook page.
Graham is a London based yoga teacher, teacher trainer, occasional academic, and Sanskrit geek.
1.Spoken Sanskrit online dictionary http://spokensanskrit.de/index.php 2.Yoga Journal online http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/crane-pose 3.Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakasana 4.How to do crow pose or kākāsana (bakāsana) http://www.sunwarrior.com/news/crow-pose-kakasana-bakasana 5.Crow vs Crane https://www.pinterest.com/pin/75364993737818657 6.https://www.sivananda.org/teachings/asana/crow.html 7.B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga 8.David Swenson, Ashtanga Yoga – the Practice Manual 9.Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha