Sometimes a bit of inquiry into and reflection upon the opening mantra gives me more motivation to commence asana practice with the chant, and inspires me to let practice support a broad and deep experience of yoga.
Practice is always better when it starts with a mantra, which feels like such a natural way to ease into meditation on breath and vibration.
It strikes me as significant that Pattabhi Jois, an accomplished Professor of Sanskrit, chose to teach a method of yoga that emphasizes asana as much as it does, leaving the japa, pranayama, philosophical study and other gems in the treasure trove of yoga techniques for further pursuit upon one’s own perseverance, initiative and calling. These days we are hearing a lot of encouragement from our teacher Sharath to study and explore yoga techniques in addition to the asana practice.
Jois’ dictate of 99% practice and 1% theory has really stuck in Ashtanga lore, reflecting the collective resonance of his no-nonsense, down-to-action style. Yet, there is probably more to it than that. I do recall seeing a video (?) in which he said something to the effect that he wasn’t teaching western students more Sanskrit because there was not so much interest. Could it also have been that since his limited English was part of it? This might be yet another good question for the old students.
My sense is that while our Guruji valued practice immensely, he must have had some connection in his mind between the practice of jumping back, opening hips, lengthening spines etc., and the lofty realm of the Vedas and Upanishads. Was his style of teaching somehow intended to cultivate the possibility of asana leading to the yoga of Sanskrit Philosophy, in which he was a decorated scholar (Vedanta Vidwan)?
A student of Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga may or may not find her own way to let asana practice lead to other aspects of yoga. But when I look around among my own peers, it feels like a lot of folks are interested in Sanskrit, japa, kirtan, puja, etc.
My intuition tells me that Jois intended to use the asana practice as a practical way to find and stay on the path to yoga’s more esoteric knowledge of yoga. There are probably many students for whom being near Pattabhi Jois gave the feeling that through practice the sweetness of all yoga is there for us to experience.
In fact, rather than branding a ‘Jois Yoga’ or ‘Yoga for Therapy’, Jois called the method he taught ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ after Patanjali Yoga, which has minimal attention to the physical postures of yoga and puts much more emphasis on the mental aspects of meditation. Yet, he seemed to be reticent about students wanting to ‘do meditation’, pranayama, or even chant the Gayatri mantra on their own without a serious foundation in the basics from a qualified teacher.
So how did Pattabhi Jois choose the two shlokas (verses) for the opening mantra? I use the word choose (which ironically, Sharath says we are suffering from too much of;-) because, like so many other things, the opening mantra is a bit different among various Krishnamacharya students, which leads me to think that there was some choice made by Jois, Iyengar and others.
What we do know is that the first verse in the Pattabhi Jois tradition is from Adi Shankaracharya’s Yoga Taravali. We’ve noticed the images of this Advaita Vedanta guru on the wall of the yoga shala, and know that it is an important part of Jois’ lineage. This particular verse in the Taravali pays respect to the gurus who have come before us and passed down the heritage of spiritual practice.
Yet the practice of Yoga Taravali, as my very limited inquiry has revealed, is not exactly asana-based yoga, but subtle and advanced pranayama and nada yoga techniques. I am left thinking that there must be some connection here with our practice of building a foundation for yoga by daily repetition of physical posture sequences.
The second part of the opening prayer is dedicated to one guru in particular, the great sage Maharishi Patanjali. The Iyengar Yoga tradition also uses that same verse to invoke Patanjali, along with another verse. This other verse is also commonly chanted when reciting Patanjali’s seminal work the Yoga Sutras. It is:
yogena cittasya padena vacam malam sarirasya ca vaidyakena |
yopakarottam pravaram muninam patanjalim pranajaliranato’smi ||
Let us bow before the noblest of sages Patanjali, who gave yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech and medicine for perfection of health (translation from here).
Yes, Patanjali is the name behind the royal path of yoga, but also a guru of Sanskrit and Ayurveda! Maybe the many gurus from Patanjali to Pattabhi Jois are inviting us to study these subjects along with our yoga.