It is the tradition to chant in Sanskrit, the language of yoga, at the start and end of every Ashtanga class. Most people who practice at home also use the chant when they practice. It can be a strange experience at first, and not everyone is comfortable chanting, but I found it was something that grew on me as my understanding of yoga developed and now it's an important part of how I practice every day. Let's get one of the doubts that people have about it out of the way first.
Is it something religious? No! The chant is in Sanskrit because that's the language that it was written in originally. I believe it would be more correct to describe it as cultural. Sanskrit is an ancient language, one that has been used for centuries in India as a language for texts. It is pleasant to chant as the words form vibrations and those vibrations can be beneficial to us as they start the movement of energy in the body. For me personally the chant settles me into my breath and the body ready to do my practice. I love being in a class and part of the chant as there is a collective vibration that is wonderful to be part of.
How does one learn the chant and what does it mean? Much depends on your individual learning preference. I learnt it by a combination; part reading it and saying it over to myself, part practising in class with call and response from the teacher and part by listening to a recording of the chant. That makes it sound long and difficult, but I promise you it's not! If it's something you want to try just give it a go and don't worry if you get things wrong. No one is judging you for how you chant! The same goes for any doubts you have about your own vocal abilities. If you can speak you can chant - you don't need to be able to sing!
Here's the Ashtanga Opening Chant written out in a phonetic style with a translation into English below:
Vande Gurunam Charanarvinde
Sandarashita Svatma Sukava Bodhe
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Samsara Halahala Mohashantiyai
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
Here's a translation:
I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus,
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed, Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician, Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword, One thousand heads, white, To Patanjali, I salute
Not much the wiser? Don't worry, neither was I for a long time. If you search the internet you will find many different interpretations of the meaning of each line.Here is my simplistic interpretation, much of which is based on the work of Melanie Cooper, which I hope will help make some sort of sense of it for you.
The first line is often interpreted as giving thanks and gratitude to the long line of teachers that have passed on the teachings of yoga to us. The second line is about how the practice reveals our true selves so we can be happy. This is a reference to a different kind of happiness to the way we might interpret the word in everyday life. I like to think of it as being in our true nature, in a place of calm and serenity where the turmoil, stresses and strains, highs and lows of life can be viewed with equanimity and our inner peace remains undisturbed. The chant then goes on to refer to the jungle physician. Basically this phrase is saying that the practice has a capacity to heal us which is beyond comparison, and is not limited to the physical body but includes the mind and unhelpful mental or emotional patterns. The line about pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara requires a bit of background in yogic philosophy as it comes from concepts in the Yoga Sutras. Samsara is like being doomed to repeat our patterns and errors over and over again until we are able to understand them, bring them into consciousness and break the pattern. In modern western terms we can think of it as the way in which the practice reveals our own unconscious patterns of behaviour or emotional responses. As an example how do we react when we meet a pose we struggle with for many months? Do we get angry, fearful, give up or push on regardless of potential injury? The next line is about having the form of a man and is often interpreted as referring to the fact that as humans we are both animal, yet each have a spark of the divine within us ; we are part of the whole of the universe. The conch is the shell which was used as a horn representing divine sound and calling upon us to be present and alert, ready to move forward with our practice. The discus is a circle of light and brings time into the infinite. Time has no meaning when we are fully aware and in the present moment as we are (ideally at least!) when we are practising yoga. The sword is the sword of discrimination which allows us to go straight to the heart of things avoiding confusion bringing clarity, and with the clarity peace. The one thousand heads white is a reference to the legendary serpent Ananta. The serpent has a thousand heads (white of course) and it was said that Vishnu rested on Ananta after creating the universe. In pictures the heads of the serpent are often shown sheltering him like kind of a snake head parasol. Ananta is strong enough to support Vishnu but soft and protective too. The last line is bowing down to Patanjali, the sage who first wrote down the practices of yoga. I don't think of it in crude terms of worship, but as recognising the debt that generations of yogis owe to Patanjali.
You will find two audio files below. The first is a straight run through of the opening chant, and the second is in call and response form so that you can use it to learn the chant as you would in a class. Happy Chanting!
The Ashtanga Closing Chant
The Ashtanga Closing Chant is not used all the time by all teachers. Personally I think that's a shame because it not only seals the practice but also reminds us that our yogic values and beliefs have a place in the world, not just on the yoga mat.
Here are the words in Sanskrit:
Svasti praja bhyah pari pala yantam
Nyayena margena mahim mahisaha
Go brahmanebhyaha subamastu nityam
Loka samastha sukhino bavanthu
Sarvejana sukhino bhavantu
Samasta sanamangaalini santu
Lokshakarlyana samridi rastu
Vishva shanti rastu
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
May all be well with mankind
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path
May there be goodness for those who know the earth to be sacred
May all the worlds be happy
May the rains fall on time, and may the earth yield its produce in abundance. May this country be free from disturbances
and may the knowers of the truth be free from fear.
Here's the audio file so you can hear it as it is chanted at the end of class.