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Ashtanga practice is traditionally begun with the recitation of the mantra. What we call the Ashtanga Mantra is really two shlokas from different sources. The first is a verse from the “Yoga Taravalli” by Sri Shankaracharya and the second verse is from a longer prayer to Patanjali.
The Ashtanga mantra has been translated a number of times with various interpretations of the individual words. Instead of looking at the mantra as a literal translation of the Sanskrit, I see the mantra as an invocation and living part of our yoga practice.
Many times we routinely recite the mantra before practice without really feeling a connection to it. Regarding the mantra as an invocation sets the tone and the intention of our practice. This provides a guide to experience our asana practice in a larger philosophical context — a context directly related to the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.
I see the mantra as metaphorical in the way it guides us in our own practice. The first line, “I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru” is not necessarily a command to pray to the feet of an individual that we think of as our guru, but is a metaphor for the practice itself. By thinking of the practice as the guru, we offer ourselves to it and look to it for guidance. The first line is an invocation to surrender to our practice. The word surrender, however, can be interpreted it two very different ways. Taken in the western context, surrender is a term of weakness and giving up. In the context of hatha yoga philosophy, surrender is a quality that comes from fearlessness, trust and confidence — a quality of strength. These qualities are made clear in the Bhagavad Gita. In surrendering to our yoga practice, we offer ourselves to the practice itself, trusting that it will lead us in a beneficial direction.
The remainder of the first verse of the mantra defines what the practice itself can do when we think of the practice as the “supreme guru.” The second line contains two words that, to me, capture the essence of yoga practice — sukha bodhe. Sukha is usually translated as happiness. Bodhe comes from the Sanskrit root “bd” pronounced bood, as in “to know”. Buddha is probably the most widely known word from this root which means “one who knows or has knowledge.” Together, the words Sukhava bodhe describe a true goal of yoga practice: the knowledge of happiness. In the context of the mantra, the supreme guru reveals the sukhava bodhe of our own self, or svatma.
The third line of the mantra uses a metaphor for ashtanga practice. The jangalikayamane is one who is able to cure or heal. The words “nih sreyase” mean “without comparison” or “beyond better.” In other words, the curative possibility of practice itself is without equal. It is beyond comparison with any other thing. The last line of this first verse, like the second line, tells what the supreme guru may do. This line also includes two words that capture the essence of yoga practice. Moha means delusion and S(h)antyai means pacification. This last word is related to the word shanti, or peace. Mohasantyai can be thought of as the pacification, or peaceful resolution of delusion. This relates to the two previous words Samsara Halahala the poison of samsara or conditioned existence. Our samaras hold us in conditioned patterns of limitation. These are limitations that we experience in our practice, in our emotional and spiritual lives and in our egos. Often we are unconscious of these patterns which create negative, or poisonous, delusion. To think of yoga practice as a vehicle for the pacification of this delusion is a powerful idea that calls for devotion, willingness and surrender within ourselves.
This first verse of the mantra guides us toward the potential offerings of our practice. The mantra doesn’t encourage regarding practice or the “perfection” of asanas themselves as goals. Practice is not about achievement or acquisition. Thinking back to the idea of surrender, the mantra offers a possibility of what practice may bring us if we approach it with reverence, trust and humility. The second shloka of the mantra is an homage to Patanjali. The Patanjali Yoga Sutras, a root text of hatha yoga philosophy, are a guide to yoga as a spiritual practice and an examination of our own true self and nature. The Patanjali Sutras can be seen as the “supreme guru” of the first verse of the mantra. The sutras clearly define the ideas embodied in the first verse and greatly expand upon them. By bowing, or offering pranamans to Patanjali, we symbolically acknowledge yoga practice as a spiritual practice which offers “sukhava bodhe” or, the true knowledge of happiness.
This is a special time of year! The air is cooler, the holidays are approaching, and we look forward to celebrations with our loved ones, family and friends. Growing up, I enjoyed family gatherings, but honestly never really cherished them as I do now, having grown older and having experienced the loss of loved ones. I realize now how precious these times are, how quickly time passes, and rather than indulgence, I look forward to laughter, playfulness, hugs, kisses, and meaningful conversations.
It’s a time of Thanksgiving, or giving thanks, and giving in general. In fact, that is the exact opposite of how I viewed this holiday when I was young. It just didn’t dawn on me that aside from spending time with my family, it wasn’t about eating so much of my grandmother’s favorite dishes that I could no longer button my pants. Of course, I was thankful for that deliciousness, but today my scope of thankfulness has grown to include so much more… the ability to practice yoga, the connection with loved ones living and passed on, watching my children grow into young , responsible little people, the birds, the Earth, and simply the ability to breathe. It’s this deep gratitude for the simple yet profound things in life that to me brings the most joy, and it is this idea I am trying to teach my children.
One of the teachings of yoga that I have found most helpful is the idea of santosha or contentment (Yoga Sutra 2.42). Contentment means looking within for happiness, to be just as we are without seeking external things for satisfaction or joy. If something comes to us, let it, if we lose something, then let it go, but our sense of equanimity and balance does not depend on these external fluctuations. We can apply this useful tool in so many ways, especially during this time. If we find ourselves stressed about holiday preparations, pause for a deep breath and focus on something that is going correctly or perhaps on the fact that whether or not the meal turns out perfectly, the opportunity to spend precious time together is what really matters. Cultivating gratitude and giving thanks for what is at this moment is a wonderful doorway to santosha.
When we take time to focus on things for which we are grateful, it opens our mind to a broader perspective. We’re less consumed by our own downfalls, problems or short-comings, and more readily available to focus on others and how we can help those in need. Each and every moment of life is a gift and the sooner we wake up to this awareness the sweeter life becomes and remains. Every experience becomes richer, even the seemingly mundane tasks like paying bills and doing dishes, even the challenges including loss, and especially the sweet times. As Maya Angelou said, “When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.” And when we practice santosha, we wake up the miracle that we are alive.
Sending you and your loved ones many blessings for peace this holiday season.
Yoga Sutra 2.42 From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.
santosha anuttamah sukha labhah