Why We Learn Mantras in Ashtanga

“Yoga,” says Tim Miller, “contains a heavy element of the intelligent use of sound.” By this, Tim means actually using mantra, bhajans, seed syllables, kirtan—all of the musical tools offered to us by traditional Indian forms of worship—to change the nature of our internal life.

The opening mantras.

Tim integrates sound into all of his teaching. If you’ve spent any time at all with him, you’ve sung the Hanuman Chalisa (which is in Hindi, not Sanskrit) many times, and been encouraged to learn it. Tim spent time each afternoon during the August Second Series teacher training singing bhajans and traditional songs to Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, and Durga. But for most Ashtanga practitioners, “mantra” initially means the opening and closing prayers.

The opening mantra of Ashtanga is actually two different poems. The first half was written by Adi (the first) Shankaracharya some 1200 years ago. The second half is a prayer of thanks traditionally recited at the beginning of study of the Yoga Sutras. Together, they represent Guruji’s acknowledgement of his family traditions and of his teachers and the important role the Sutras play in the physical practice.

Over the years of my practice of Ashtanga, the opening prayer has been introduced to me in different ways. My first teacher, like Tim Miller, did not do the opening mantras as call and response, but instead said them straight through. We were expected to learn them in order to participate, so I did. I have to say I agree with this style—I don’t think call and response encourages memorizing, any more than a led class encourages you to memorize the sequence.

The closing mantra, “Svasti Prajabhyah” is a much newer addition to the practice. Neither Tim Miller nor Eddie Stern are exactly sure when Guruji began teaching it, some time during the 1990s—but by all accounts it was prior to September 11, in case you were wondering. It’s very old, from the oldest Vedic text, the Rg Veda. Tim does this prayer after the ten breaths in padmasana. Mysore asks you to stand just before savasana to do it, followed by a sun salute. I teach it seated, after padmasana. All have their rationales and effects. All are intelligent uses of sound, giving up the fruits of our practice, sending them beyond ourselves.

When I teach the opening and closing mantras myself, I take a beginner’s approach, annunciate as clearly as I can, and shorten the lines. (It’s shala policy to do call and response.) When it comes to explaining the meaning, I “speak when spoken to.” When a student asks me about it, I give them a handy cheat sheet with a translation and a CD. The CD has two different renderings by Guruji—one very traditional (fast, with the Sanskrit meters in tact) and one taken from a led class, call and response. It also has David Swenson and Richard Freeman doing call and response and straight-through versions. I tell them to play it in the car while they’re driving in L.A. and not only will they memorize it, but it’ll keep them calm.

Now, I have a new CD I can give them. My friend and fellow Omkar108 teacher, Pranidhi Varshney has put out a recording of both the opening and closing mantras, as well as other traditional chants, which she’s titled Pranidhana. I’ve been in Pranidhi’s class when she opens with her stunning voice. Her tones are rich and peaceful—on the CD with light musical accompaniment. You can hear it, buy a copy, or download here, as well as read translations of the mantras. (A portion of the proceeds go to Yoga Gives Back, one of our favorite yoga causes.)

Perhaps you’ve heard David Swenson say that he doesn’t emphasize the mantras because he thinks it will “scare” students away. I don’t subscribe to this. It was the use of mantra that caught my attention that first Ashtanga class—here was a physical practice that began with a poem. It had me at “vande”—a perfect iamb. And over the years and many repetitions of it, I believe what I’ve been taught. They have potential to do transformative work. As Tim describes it: “When we use the inhale as a sibilant, the exhale as an aspirant, we gain discernment,” he says, “Something happens. We are lifted out of our normal pattern into a hyper aware place, with more freedom of mind… more intuitive.” It can give us, he says, “a sense of the rightness or wrongness of our movement in practice, while at the same time teaching us to be non-reactive.”

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Why We Learn Mantras in Ashtanga”

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m especially glad to learn about the origins of the opening mantra. I am so curious about the way some of the sounds of the opening chant—especially, for whatever reason “samsara halaha mohashantyai”—create such a strong emotional response in me, and not because of what they signify, verbally, I think, but just the sounds themselves. That particular line almost always makes me so happy, I almost laugh.

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