If you’ve ever taken a traditional Ashtanga Yoga Led Primary Series class, you probably started practice by repeating a chant your teacher leads in Sanskrit line-by-line. Some people find this intimidating or off-putting. “What am I saying, though?” “What is this weird language?” “What have I gotten myself into?”
So I thought I’d shed some light on the chants to help you ease into them and perhaps even enjoy partaking in them.
Practicing the chants of Ashtanga Yoga is a really beautiful way to invoke intention and presence into the heart of your yoga practice, increasing the potency of your time on the mat. The opening chant honors the past and wisdom that has come before us, the asana practice itself celebrates the present moment, and the closing chant prays for the future.
Regardless of your religion, beliefs, or lack thereof, the chants of Ashtanga are for everyone in the same way that yoga itself is not practiced by only one specific religion. In the first chant, there is some imagery based on Hinduism and Indian culture, but
that's just because they're the ones who wrote the chant. Remember that in reality, yoga is not a religion. If anything, it's the ancient teachings of psychology.
The Opening Chant of Ashtanga Yoga.
Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde
Sandarashita Svatma Sukava Bodhe
Samsara Halahala Mohashantyai
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
I bow at the lotus feet of the Guru
And behold the awakened joy of my own soul.
The ultimate refuge, the jungle doctor.
Pacifying the poisonous delusion of repetitive existence.
I bow to Patanjali,
Who has assumed the form of a
Brilliantly luminous man with thousands of snake heads
And who bears a conch shell, a wheel, and a sword.
I acknowledge and appreciate the teachings of yoga that have brought me to my mat today so that I can find peace and freedom within myself.
The yoga practice itself is my guru; the means to ultimate sanctuary, the natural healer
Which removes the pain and suffering caused by disillusioned ego.
I thank Patanjali, who wrote down the powerful teachings of yoga for generations to come.
This is the part of the chant uses imagery that holds strong cultural symbolisms. It describes Patanjali in the form of basically half man, half Ananta (the divine and infinite serpent). In Hinduism, snakes are considered eternally divine and represent creation and awakening (Brahma), preservation and protection (Vishnu), and destruction and renewal (Shiva), as well as sthira and sukha (moving through processes with equal parts effort and ease). Patanjali assuming this form indicates the sacredness of the teachings he's bringing forward. Yoga is a divine science.
In Patanjali’s hands he holds the conch shell, representative of divine sound; the call from within that brings us to the practice of yoga. The wheel is representative of infinite time; the present moment in which the yoga practice brings us to. The sword is the sword of discrimination; the ability to cut through illusions, see our Selves clearly, and act from a place of peace and clarity in all we do.
Ashtanga Closing Chant Translation.
Svasthi Praja Bhyaha Pari Pala Yantam
Nyayena Margena Mahim Mahishaha
Go Bramanebhyaha Shubamastu Nityam
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi
Let prosperity be glorified
Let rulers rule the world with law and justice
Let divinity and erudition be protected
Let all people of the world be happy and free.
Om, peace, peace, everlasting peace.
This one is pretty straightforward if you ask me. At the end of our practice, we finish with a prayer for peace onto the world.
I hope this helps some of you relate to the chant more. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out.
Love and Peace!
Translation Source: Astanga Yoga Anusthana by R. Sharath Jois.