Each day, before I begin my yoga practice, I chant this ancient Ashtanga Invocation in Sanskrit:
vande gurunam charanaravinde
sandarasita svatmasukahava bodhe
smasara halahala mohasantyai
sahasra sirasam svetam
But in my early Ashtanga years, I resisted this part of the practice ritual. I had all sorts of reasons – the language was difficult to pronounce and memorizing it seemed impossible. The words felt meaningless. I looked up the English translation which, at the time, was equally confusing. In class, I would just hum along at times and in my own practice, I would pass over it entirely. I’d learned the joy of the sound of “Om” early on, but it took nearly a couple years of regular practice before this chant began to speak to me – quietly. And, suddenly I felt equally drawn to the mystery of it.
It took a few weeks to memorize it. I would write down one line at a time, work out the syllables and then repeat it over and over in rhythm while I hiked in the woods each morning. Just one line. Over and over. By the end of the walk, I had found a melody for it. After I had gone through all of the lines, I started putting it together – adding one at a time. In about a month, I had it down and would sing it straight through while walking. Over and over. It felt good.
It was probably during this time that the meaning of it became more clear to me, though I couldn’t yet articulate it. One day, I understood – and the words that describe it are below – my own words, my own meaning. It may hold something different for someone else, but I’ve come to understand that it works that way. Tradition and myth allows us to be a part of something bigger – a mythical story – but we’re also able to assign it a personal meaning. Ritual of any kind can serve as a tool to tap into the insights that are lost to day to day distractions. It’s a reminder to be still, to come home to the self. As Joseph Campbell said, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life” – what we’re capable of knowing and experiencing within.
Traditional Translation of Invocation: I bow to the lotus feet of the guru who awakens insight into the happiness of pure Being, who is the final refuge, the jungle physician, who eliminates the delusion caused by the poisonous herb of conditioned existence.
I bow before the sage Patanjali who has thousands of radiant, white heads in his form as the divine serpent, and who has, as far as his arms, assumed the form of a man holding a conch shell and a discus of light and a sword, representing infinite time and discrimination. om.
What it means [to me]:
I surrender my emotions to the quiet and all-knowing part inside me, to awaken my insight and wisdom of what is true, and there I can find refuge – a quieter space – to heal myself and therefore healing outside myself. In this way, I am freed from the veil of delusion caused by my conditioning and my fears.
I bow to the earth as the wise sage and to all creatures, who symbolize the divine nature of man and animal. I hold the conch shell and listen to the wisdom of the Universe. I hold the sword of strength, courage and truth. We are One.