The Opening & Closing Mantra of Astanga Yoga

by Sasha Van Aalst

The Opening Mantra

vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde sandarśita svātma sukhāvabodhe |
niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne saṁsāra hālāhala mohaśāntyai ||
ābāhu puruṣākāraṁ śaṅkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam |
sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ praṇamāmi patañjalim ||
I bow to the lotus feet of Gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self-revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the Jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara. 
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders, 
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads white, 
To Patanjali, I salute. 
As we take our stance before we start, from the stillness of our own vessel we each reach out through sound together. Perhaps you are familiar with the moment we chant; this pause we take to ask for and envision guidance as we start a collective ritual through the practice of asana. It seems we are dialling a number and tapping into some kind of shared, subtle knowledge, a common understanding, a focussed vestibule. A potent action that sets an intention and facilitates a direction. 
The first part of the opening chant originates from Yoga Taravali, a text written around 700CE by Shankaracharya. With this verse, we ask for guidance from the source of all gurus, in all forms, the ones that went before and the ones that are here today. In reverence, we bow down to their lotus feet and ask for them to show us their accumulated knowledge gained from direct experience. We ask them for guidance in removing delusion so that we may be blessed by the discovery of radiance, happiness and joy through the revealing of our own true Self. They act like jungle physicians. Their wisdom and teachings are like ancient, authentic medicine, healing the suffering inevitably and continuously caused by our human conditioning and keeping us in ignorance of our own true nature. They help remove the fetters of the mind and show us stillness, peace and a way to find the purity of mind and heart. 
With the second verse, we acknowledge Patanjali. Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sūtras, an ancient text on Indic philosophy presenting teachings focussing on the realisation of the innermost conscious Self through the practice of meditation. We are reminded to bring the philosophical context of our asana practice into taking care of our daily lives. Radiant and white are his thousand heads as he sits tall carrying cosmic tools - a conch shell representing divine sound, a disc representing infinite light or time and a sword for slicing through discernment. Here we envision Patanjali as an illuminated example for us to hold in our mind's eye.
Then the room quietly continues, vessels pulsating together all different, guiding each other in a similar direction.  

The closing mantra

svastiprajābhyaḥ paripālayantāṁ nyāyena mārgeṇa mahīṁ mahīśāḥ |
gobrāmaṇebhyaḥ śubhamastu nityaṁ lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhinobhavantu ||
May all be well with mankind. 
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path. 
May there be goodness for all those who know the earth to be sacred. 
May all the worlds be happy. 
We end our quiet ritual with these words. They are there to help us acknowledge a broader notion of what the world is other than the self and the visible world we know around us. We offer up our effort of practice and the blessings we receive from our actions to all other sentient beings, to a greater good. We turn the viewpoint from the microcosm of ourselves, to offer the happiness, freedom and peace we experience in the broadest sense of macrocosm - worlds and beings, seen and unseen. Let there be peace.

About Sasha Van Aalst

I first came in to contact with yoga in a white room with a tree in the middle and Katiza Satya gently guiding how to salute and acknowledge the sun. I was young, tender and touched - a trace of wonder left behind. Years later while studying Art History at the University of Amsterdam, I began discovering Ashtanga Yoga in 2009 here at Delight Yoga. I've been practicing daily since 2012.