What follows is the Sanskrit, transliteration, and English translation of the Ashtanga Yoga opening mantra, followed by a more detailed explanation of what the mantra means beyond the literal, and why we take the time to chant before we practice. This comes from my teacher Magnolia in San Francisco (go practice at MysoreSF).
वन्दे गुरूणां चरणारविन्दे सन्दर्शित स्वात्म सुखाव बोधे ।
निःश्रेयसे जङ्गलिकायमाने संसार हालाहल मोहशांत्यै ॥
आबाहु पुरुषाकारं शंखचक्रासि धारिणम् ।
सहस्र शिरसं श्वेतं प्रणमामि पतञ्जलिम् ॥
vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde
sandarśita svātma sukhāva bodhe
saṁsāra hālāhala mohaśāṁtyai
sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ
I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru
Who teaches knowledge, awakening of the great happiness of the Self revealed
Who acts like the jungle physician
Able to remove the delusion from the poison of conditioned existence
To Patanjali, an incarnation of Adisesa, white in colour with a thousand radiant heads (in his form as the divine serpent, Ananta), human in form below the shoulders, holding the sword of discrimination, a wheel of fire representing infinite time, and the conch representing divine sound.
To him, I prostrate (bow, give thanks).
Why do we chant?
Ashtanga practice is traditionally begun with the recitation of the mantra. What we call the Ashtanga Mantra is really two shlokas (verses) from difference sources. The first is a verse from the “Yoga Taravali” by Sri Shankaracharya (one of the most important saints of India, a yoga master and a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, a nondualist Eastern philosophy) and the second verse is from a longer prayer to Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras (approx. 2500 BC). The original language of the mantra is Sanskrit, the oldest recorded language. Sanskrit was evolved in such a way that each sound is connected with a particular state of consciousness, so that a Sanskrit mantra, if you do it over and over again, will take you to a certain state of consciousness.
The mantra has been translated numerous times with various interpretations of the individual words. Instead of looking at the mantra as a literal translation of the Sanskrit, it is helpful to see it as an invocation and living part of our yoga 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. We chant so at the very beginning a feeling of sanctification comes from inside; nothing can be learned unless one has the humility to learn. Setting this intention acknowledges yoga as a spiritual 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 surrender ourselves to it and look to it for guidance. In this usage, surrender is not a quality of weakness; rather, it means fearlessness, trust, and confidence.
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 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”. Together, the words Sukhava bodhe describe a true goal of yoga practice: the knowledge of happiness.
The third line of the mantra uses a metaphor for ashtanga practice. The jangalikayamane (doctor of the jungle) is one who is able to cure or heal. The words “nih sreyase” mean “without comparison.” In other words, the curative possibility of practice itself is without equal.
The last line of the first verse, like the second line, tells what the supreme guru may do. Moha means delusion and Shantyai 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. 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.
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 a 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. 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.
-From writings by BKS Iyengar, Richard Freeman, Magnolia Zuniga, and John Berlinsky.