Chanting the Ashtanga Opening and Closing Mantras
If you’re new to Ashtanga you may be wondering why we chant mantras at the start and end of our practice. Maybe you’re wondering what the mantras mean, what benefit they have, and what’s the best way to go about learning them?
This article will answer those questions.
The opening and closing mantras we use as part of our Ashtanga practice are Sanskrit mantras, the language most classical yoga texts were written in. Classical Sanskrit is more than 2500 years old, Vedic Sanskrit; the language of the Vedas is much older (1500 BCE approx). Today, Sanskrit is no longer a spoken language, however chanting Sanskrit mantras is very common in India where there is a long tradition of transmitting sacred texts orally. Mantras and philosophical texts were, and still often are, memorised in full before translations are provided.
The word mantra comes from the root “man” which means “to think’ and “tra” or the root “trai” which means to protect. So chanting mantras is a way to protect the mind and enhance your concentration. If we’re chanting mantras our minds are occupied with what we’re doing rather than spinning off in all directions, and the sounds we make create positive vibrations that soothe our nervous systems.
Chanting at the beginning of our practice allows us to focus our attention. The mantras provide a container for our practice and a way to separate it from the rest of our day-to-day activities.
Chanting in Sanskrit requires us to touch the tongue to different parts of the hard and soft palate. The resulting vibrations stimulate the hypothalamus and pituitary gland; parts of the brain that control the endocrine system. Therefore, chanting mantras is also said to help with hormone regulation in the body.
All Sanskrit words have a “bija” or “root/seed mantra”. This sound is said to be created by, or contain the meaning of the word, therefore it’s essential that the pronunciation is correct. That’s why chanting orally is the best way to learn Sanskrit mantras. If you’re trying to learn the opening and closing mantras, do so by listening to, and then repeating the mantra aloud. Here are some Youtube clips to get you started ( opening mantra closing mantra )
While you’re still working on learning the mantras you can begin and end your practice by chanting the mantra Om (Aum). It’s the most important mantra because it contains every sound on the vibrational spectrum, and is the sound of the universe or the primordial sound. Each part (A-U-M) represents birth, life and death, and according to Patanjali (YS 1.28/1.29) chanting Om is one way to obtain the state of yoga.
As previously explained, it’s not necessary to know the translation of the mantra to experience its power. That said; many of my students prefer to know the meaning of the mantra they’re learning. Essentially, the opening mantra thanks the long line of Gurus and spiritual teachers that came before us for providing the knowledge that will enable us to free ourselves from samsara (the cycle of birth and death). In particular we’re thanking Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras who is often depicted as half snake and half man.
The closing chant sends out a wish for a peaceful world, asks for good leaders who will help protect the earth, and for happiness for all living beings.
You can view the full translations along with the devanāgarī script and transliteration here.
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