The opening mantra – Ashtanga Yoga

वन्दे गुरूणां चरणारविन्दे सन्दर्शितस्वात्मसुखावबोधे ।

निःश्रेयसे जाङ्गलिकायमाने संसारहालाहलमोहशान्त्यै ॥

आबाहुपुरुषाकारं शङ्खचक्रासिधारिणम् ।

सहस्रशिरसं श्वेतं प्रणमामि पतञ्जलिम् ॥

Oṃ

vande gurūnāṃ caraṇāravinde 

sandarśita svātma sukhāvabodhe |

niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne 

saṃsāra hālāhala moha śāntyai ||

ābāhu puruṣākāraṃ śaṅkha cakrāsi dhāriṇam |

sahasra śirasaṃ śvetaṃ praṇamāmi patañjalim ||

Oṃ
I bow at the feet of the Supreme Lotus of  Gurus who teach knowledge,
thanks to them happiness has been awakened by showing the way to know the Self (my Soul), my last refuge, which acts as an antidote to the poison (ignorance) of the “snake”, which pacifies the disappointments caused by cyclic existences (samsara).
To the one who is human in form, under the shoulders, who wields a sword (discrimination), a shell (divine / primordial sound) and a disk of light (a wheel of fire that can also represent time), with a thousand radiant white heads (infinite), I bow to Patañjali.

Ashtanga Yoga traditionally has both a chant, an opening mantra and a closing mantra. Given the roots of this discipline, mantras are always chanted in Sanskrit, many believe it is a language that was cradle to the other ancient languages of the world. The major international Sanskritists all agree to state that it is not a likely true. In any case, in India, the meaning of mantras is said to be universal and comprehensible on a subtle level even by those who do not know this language, since Sanskrit is the language of the heart!

Oṃ is a primordial syllable, considered sacred which represents Īśvara. Īśvara is a special being who is unaffected by the afflictions, actions or results of the action and is therefore regarded as the seed of all knowledge. Īśvara is the first Guru and above all he is unconditional from time. Oṃ must be sung, while the mind rests on the full meaning of its “qualities”. If sung with an open mind to this, it removes obstacles to knowledge of the true Self.

Mantras help to move the consciousness of practitioner on a higher level of vibration (as it happens with Gregorian chants and similar). This in turn brings us closer to our true Self, the aspect of ourselves that remains eternal and leaves the practitioner with a sense of peace, calm and centering. It has now been scientifically proven that singing can alter a series of physiological processes: stabilize the heart rate, lower blood pressure, produce endorphins and increase metabolic processes. For these reasons the chanting of the mantras integrates perfectly with the physical practice of the asanas (postures) and the even more subtle one of Prāṇāyāma (“breathing”) and meditation.

The opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga is a kind of prayer, a blessing of gratitude offered to the lineage of past teachers and their students. They brought this ancient practice to us, making it survive for centuries so that we too could experience its benefits. Reciting this mantra is said to purify the energy of the space in which we have chosen to practice, it prepare our mind, body and emotions for Ashtanga’s sequence. Singing the initial mantra ritualizes even more the habit of practicing regularly.

Patañjali and its symbolism 

Almost nothing is known about the historical person of Patañjali. We don’t even know if the author of the Yoga Sūtras was an individual who really existed or not. One of the hypotheses is that the Yoga Sūtras are a work that could have gone through several centuries and to which many authors have contributed with the drafting of their ideas. With the lack of information about it, in fact it is really difficult to trace how, when, where and by whom, this work was born. Patañjali is mythologically described as an incarnation of Ananta, the serpent of the world. This is why he is usually represented as half human and half snake. When he is in a rolled up position, the snake actually forms the basis of the human torso sitting upright. Ananta literally means “infinite“. He is considered the king of the nāga, semi-divine “deities”, half-human half-serpent, still revered in India as a symbol of wisdom. The 1,000 shining heads also symbolize infinity. The shell is a symbol of the sound from which everything originated (Oṃ). The disc is a symbol of time that destroys everything, therefore Patañjali exceeds the dimension of time, it exceeds the beginning and the end.

There is an age-old diatribe on the representations of Patañjali whether they have a sword or not, in my opinion the sword in this sense reminds me very much of the symbolism for example of Mañjuśrī who with the “sword of wisdom cuts the veil of māyā (illusion) as well as ignorance (avidyā)“. In addition, the sword can also be a symbol for viveka (discrimination). So the sadhaka (the yoga practitioner) is a person with an acute sense of discrimination and ability to discern. Viveka is an important tool for achieving freedom (mokṣa) in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Patañjali in my opinion therefore can be considered a bit of a reference figure, in the sense that the sadhaka aspires to obtain these qualities through practice to remove suffering and achieve freedom, the ultimate goal of Yoga.

नमस्ते
Namaste

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