Interpreting The Ashtanga Mantra

A few years ago I attended a workshop – by whom I can’t remember – and was given a copy of the following article. I had forgotten I had it until recently, when it fell out of one of my yoga books. I really connected to this interpretation of the opening mantra, so I thought I would complete a search and if successful post it as a blog. So here you are and I hope you enjoy it and get as much from it as I have.

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 indiv idual 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 indiv idual 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.

One Response to Interpreting The Ashtanga Mantra

  1. gstar
    gstar 15th March 2008 at 11:00 pm #

    Hi David,

    Thanks for posting this. A really very interesting article.
    This line ‘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.’ really struck me between the eyes.

    I had a vague notion of devotion associated with the mantra but this really personalizes it in a strong way for me.

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