In most of the classes at The Shala, the teacher will begin, and sometimes end the class by chanting a few lines in Sanskrit. The opening chant or ‘Invocation’ is a traditional part of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system and serves several purposes. It is a bridge, between your daily life and your practice, something to ‘set the mood’ when you step on your mat, and remind you that you are there to do your yoga. Eventually when you have chanted before every practice for a long while, you will find that just going through the chant gets you ready for class, it clears your mind, and helps you step out of whatever your day involved. When you look at the meaning of the chant, you discover another reason for using it to open your practice. The first stanza is all about thanking your teachers, and your teacher’s teachers for learning this practice themselves, and then passing it along so that you could learn and benefit from it. It reminds us that this practice is more than just an exercise or workout, that there is a long lineage of teachers stretching far back in time that have brought Ashtanga yoga to us. The second stanza thanks Patañjali directly. This 8th century BC yoga master was the author of the Yoga Sutras, and is the teacher that is credited for bringing this yoga practice into the world.
to hear the chant spoken by Guruji, click [here]
The closing chant is less frequently practiced, but still an important part of the Ashtanga tradition. It is a statement of intent. A statement of the effect we would like our practice to have on the world. There are several different versions of the closing, the one included below is the most common, but some teachers, such as Manju Jois, add a second verse after.
To hear Sharath chant the closing, click [here]
I will include below a link to a pdf with several chants, including the opening and closing mantras discussed.
[link not yet available]
What about the other Sanskrit words used in class?
Believe it or not, we use the Sanskrit names for the poses to avoid confusion!
The English names given to poses are sometimes the translation of the Sanskrit, but not always, and sometimes there will even be more than one English name for the same pose. For example the backbend that comes toward the end of the Ashtanga practice is called Urdva Dhanurasana in Sanskrit, but in English it is called many things including “wheel”. Wheel in Sanskrit is chakra, and chakrasana in Ashtanga is the backwards flip we use as a transition posture... much confusion! So we try and stick to the Sanskrit names of each pose.
In more traditional classes you will hear the teacher counting in Sanskrit to help keep the rhythm. They are counting ekam, dve, trini, ect… to indicate the number of viṅyāsa you are on (1st, 2nd, 3rd, ect). Each pose has a specific number of movements to get into and out of it, and these movements are counted.
While we are at it, let's examine some of the other Sanskrit words used commonly in class:
Aṣṭānga (Ashtanga) – means 8-limbed. This refers to the classical system of yoga explained in the yoga sutras by Patañjali. There are 8 different branches or practices to the system. In this tradition we learn the 3rd limb first, which is Asana, or physical posture, because we have a much easer time working with the body, and learning about it then we do with the breath or the mind.
viṅyāsa (vinyasa) – literally means ‘powerful method’ and refers to the system of breath linked movement that we use to enter and exit each pose. Traditionally the word viṅyāsa refers only to the sequence of movement found in Ashtanga yoga, but the word has now come to mean any form of yoga with a flow.
Ujjayi – translates as victorious, and is sometimes called ocean breathing, this is the pranayama (breath control) technique used in Ashtanga yoga during our physical practice. Ujjayi is best taught to you in class, but the purpose is to help leangthen the breath and smooth it out, as well as make it easer to create a balance between the length of your inhale and your exhale.
Bandha – means lock, or container, it refers to the practice in Ashtanga yoga of using three mudras to help contain the energy within the practice. When the body has poor posture, it acts at bit like a leaky bucket, with energy and motivation spilling out the weak points. By using the three bandhas in the proper way, we contain that energy and can use it in our practice. The three bandhas are Mūla, at the base of the spine/perineum, uḍḍiyāna, a few inches below the navel, and Jālandhara at the throat.
dṛṣṭi (drishti) – means gaze point, or looking place. Drishti adds focus to your practice, keeping your eyes from wandering, and helps deepen your experience within the posture. Each pose, and in fact each vinyasa of each pose has a specific gazing point which adds to the effect of that position. There are 9 drishtis in total:
Aṅguṣṭha madhyai: to the thumb
Bhrūmadhya: to the third eye, or between the eyebrows (sometimes called ajna chakra)
Nāsāgrai: at the tip of the nose (or a point six inches from the tip)
Hastagrai: to the palm, usually the extended hand
Pārśva: to the right side
Pārśva: to the left side
Ūrdhva: to the sky, or upwards (sometimes called antara)
Nābhicakra: to the navel
Pādayoragrai: to the toes