Jan 062016
Many students have asked me for a detailed explanation of the Ashtanga Opening Mantra as of late, and the one that helped me the most was written by my first, beloved Ashtanga Yoga teacher, John Berlinsky in Mill Valley, California. This is the interpretation I choose to share with all of my students and while I posted it years ago, I thought it might be helpful to share it again.
But first, I’d like to share a word about John and why he is so very special to me and many other yoga practitioners. I was first introduced to Ashtanga Yoga at It’s Yoga in San Francisco in a led class with Samantha Sweetwater where I usually practiced Rocket and other vinyasa flow classes. While I very much enjoyed vinyasa flow and still do enjoy practicing and/or teaching this style from time to time, something about the Ashtanga Yoga practice intrigued me from the start. I then “taught myself” the primary series from David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga Practice Manual, which of course set me on a journey to find an in-person teacher to help deepen my understanding of this practice. When asking other students to suggest a teacher, they ALL recommended John.
At this time, I lived in the city and driving over the bridge to Marin County could take 30 minutes, which to me was a haul because I worked out of my home and did not, would not, could not commute. Though in the search for another option there simply was none. No one else at that time offered a 6-day a week Mysore program in the entire Bay Area. Come to find out, people were driving 2 hours each way to practice with John. Needless to say, I had to experience his teaching for myself.
Those of you who have studied with me know this story. This was the year 2000, and I walked into a room of about 30 practitioners and took an inconspicuous spot in the corner. John greeted me and asked if I was familiar with Ashtanga to which I responded a hesitant yes. He continued teaching while I coursed through my practice until I realized I had only a few minutes to finish and get to work. So, I skipped the Marichyasana series in order to get my “abs” in, or practice Navasana (boat pose) before finishing and heading off. As I was in Navasana, John slowly walked across the room, squatted beside me and asked in a stern yet jovial manner, “What are you doing?” After I explained my reasoning, he quickly set me straight with, “We don’t skip poses in Ashtanga.” He didn’t adjust me at all, just watched over me like a concerned parent. From that moment, I knew I had found my teacher. Something about his calm, grounded, focused, yet lighthearted energy intrigued me, and I trusted him deeply. He was professional, confident yet humble, and never claimed to know it all. After only a few months of study with John I was fortunate enough to attend an advanced Ashtanga 6-month training with him, and he was the person who encouraged me to take my first trip to India in 2003.
John had this affect on many students, and greatly influenced the proliferation of Ashtanga Yoga, and yoga in general, in the Bay Area of NoCal and beyond. He still shows up early to take his practice then teaches this beautiful tradition daily. He deeply honors the fact Sri K. Pattabhi Jois gave him his blessing to teach and follows the tradition in the manner it was handed to him by Guruji.
Enjoy John’s interpretation from which so many around the world have benefitted. I bow in gratitude to John for sharing this practice, his knowledge, and experience with me, and setting me on this healing path.


Interpretation of Ashtanga Yoga mantra – John Berlinsky

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.

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