By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio
Many yoga traditions begin or end class with the chanting of “Aum” (“Om”). In the Iyengar tradition, we add the invocation to Patanjali, the Indian sage and scholar who wrote the Yoga Sutras.
Although chanting is a well-known practice in Indian culture where yoga was born, it is a new and odd experience for many in the West, who often misunderstand it as part of religious ceremony.
In the most basic sense, chanting at the beginning of a class creates a moment between our hectic day and the focused work of yoga. It connects us to the other students around us and all the yogis who came before us, creating an atmosphere of support and camaraderie in practice.
Most of all, it is a time to bring reverence and respect to all the teachers of yoga who have given us the opportunity to practice today.
Aum, sometimes written Om, is a combination of three sounds—a, u and m. Indian tradition holds this as the “universal sound.” It is the expression of the subtlest vibration that runs through all of nature.
BKS Iyengar points out that “Philosophically, (aum) is regarded as the seed of all words. No word can be uttered without the symbolic sound of these three letters, a, u, and m.”
When chanted continually and with feeling, the vibration of aum connects your individual vibration with the vibration of all that is around you, not just others in class, but the entire universe itself.
The connection inherent in that vibration brings lightness and energy to a mind and body that might be agitated and disconnected.
In the Iyengar method, after the chanting of aum three times, we go on to chant the invocation to Patanjali.
Before Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, the practice of yoga was passed on orally from teacher to student. The writing of the Yoga Sutras enabled this once very exclusive practice to be shared with many around the globe. Today, the Yoga Sutras play a key role in passing on the ancient philosophy and practices of yoga.
Translated into English, the invocation reads a bit like a résumé. It sounds better when we recite it in Sanskrit. We chant it knowing that, without Patanjali, there is a great possibility that none of us would be practicing yoga today. Our reverence for the opportunity to practice yoga is what makes the chant special.
The invocation starts with simple thanks to Patanjali for all of his cultural contributions, including treatises on Sanskrit grammar and Ayurveda (the medical side of yogic practice), not to mention his expertise as a classical dancer. It then goes on to describe his mythological form.
As with many great figures in Indian pre-history, Patanjali has a myth surrounding his little-known beginnings. It is said that Patanjali’s mother, Gonika, a reverent and humble woman, prayed at the river Ganges for the son she did not yet have. As she prayed with her hands in anjali mudra (palms together), suddenly into them fell a tiny snake sent by the gods.
This small serpent quickly transformed into a human baby, growing up to be the sage Patanjali (pata=falling, anjali=prayer).
The invocation describes his lower body made of a three-coiled serpent, the top half a man. In one hand, he holds a conch shell that is used to call students to practice, and in his other hand, he holds a disc, a weapon to destroy all obstacles. He is protected by a thousand-headed cobra hood.
I feel privileged to be able to pass this experience of chanting on to my students. I am energized by the memory and the legacy of all those who have come before us in this great practice.
When we come together in voice and in vibration, we find strength in the connection of consciousness. And as my teacher has taught me, we begin to better train the mind to listen to and join with others, releasing our own ego before we proceed in practice.
For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit yogarockford.com or call (815) 968-9642.
From the March 30-April 5, 2011 issue