Updated: May 20, 2021
Yoga is one of the six orthodox philosophies of ancient Indian Darshanshastra (science of philosophy). 5000 years back, the Indian civilisation had progressed to an extent where they were pursuing and engaging in spirituality, higher consciousness and tapping into the cosmic energy.
During that time many philosophies grew. Some were orthodox and believed in a higher being (Brahman- not the creator Brahma, but a pool of cosmic energy with no beginning or end, that nourished each and every form, whether living or non living in the Universe) and some unorthodox, believing in the present and the now (the physicality of everything and believed in only that can be seen or experienced by the five senses of human beings). Interestingly, what was unorthodox in those ancient times led to the advent of modern day thought. Believing in only what can be seen or proven through hypothesis or tools of reality is today's orthodox thought.
Yoga believes in the higher cosmic energy and emanates from the ancient orthodox school of thought. All yogic procedures are created on a foundation of the union with this substance, this energy, this being.
When you are involved in your day to day activities the state of your mind is all about your circumstances. To be able to tap into the cosmic energy the status of your mind needs to change and align itself with the cosmic force. It should be able to open itself to imbibe those energies. Beginning a yoga session with invocations helps your mind disconnect with the present & now and align yourself with this force.
The hymns that I chant before my yoga sessions are the ones introduced to me by Iyengar Guruji’s daughter Ms Sunitha Parthasaarathy, my yoga guru. These hymns instil humility in a sadhak (anyone who is leading a way of life to reach their goal). The chants slow down the breathing and makes the sadhak more aware of the asanas and pranayama that he or she is going to do in the session. It also reminds a sadhak about the importance of a guru, one who trains, guides, corrects and improves your sadhana (discipline to achieve a goal) or abhyasa (practice).
These aren’t religious chants but hymns in praise and gratitude to Sage Patanjali (the universal Guru whose work with the yogasutras is widely respected) and your Guru, who is going to be your guiding light on the path of Yoga. Joining palms and bowing are ways of inculcating humility. Winning over your ego (aham or ahamkara) is one of the most important steps of spirituality in Yoga and these invocations and gestures help us move towards this.
Pre session Invocation and Chants
Aum Aum Aum
A chant of two and a half swara (vowels). It is said to have the frequencies of the sound made by the rising sun and the cosmos. Chanting this word helps in tapping the energy from the universe and channelising it into our bodies. It is a primordial sound that enhances our consciousness.
Aum. A non religious vedic symbol, associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. These chants are not connected to any God, so they are secular. If you still feel that you would want to avoid this chant you may close your eyes and only concentrate on deep breathing. I have seen some people chant Amen instead.
All orthodox sciences believe that the way towards uniting our soul’s energy with the Universal soul’s energy requires a medium. The thoughts of any or all Gods that help you concentrate and meditate can work as that medium. So, it doesn’t matter what you would like to chant - whether it’s Aum, Amen, Allah or any other word till the time you are slowing your breathing down and reining in your high-strung mind to slowly push it towards meditation.
In my class, I begin with chanting Aum three times while gently exhaling, in a slow and steady manner. Each time, I request my students to deepen their breathing and gradually disconnect from their day to day routine.
The next chant is to extend our gratitude to the Sage Patanjali who compiled the information on Yoga. Before his compilation in the first millennium BC, Yoga was practiced in a scattered manner with instructions given in gurukuls (residential schools of ancient India where all students studied with Gurus or mentors who resided at the school too). Patanjali was a very talented sage who was exceptionally good in Yoga, Sanskrit Language and Ayurveda- the Medical Science of those days and was a spiritual guide to many.
Yogena Chittasya Padena Vāchām
Malam Sharirasya Cha Vaidyakena
Yopakarottam Pravaram Muninaam
Patanjalim Prānjalim Rānatosmi
Meaning: The spiritual sage who has gained control over his mind using Yoga, who has control on the language using Sanskrit Mahabhashya or the Sanskrit Grammar and who has control on all his bodily functions including excretory toxins by using Ayurveda. I join my hands (from elbows to palm) in namaskaar or gratitude to such a supreme Sage Patanjali.
This shloka helps bring humility to the sadhaka or the practitioner of Yoga. It reminds us that the knowledge that we are going to use was brought to mankind in a comprehensive form by a Sage from the 1st Century BCE. This sanskrit verse provides us with the peace and serenity required to begin our practice.
Ābāhupurushakāram Shankha Chakrāsi Dhāranam
Sahasra Shirasam Shwetam Pranamāmi Patanjalim
From hands to the head he has the shape of a human, he holds a conch shell and a disc in his hands, there are thousands of white rays emanating from his crown chakra (on the head), I bow to the Lord Patanjali.
This shloka describes the physical attributes of Sage Patanjali to give you an idea of what he looked like. During those days there wasn’t any method of photography so the only way you could envision the sage in your mind's eye were by memorising the shloka. This helps you in imagining the Sage while you extend your gratitude to him.
Gurur Bramhā Gurur Vishnu Gurur Devo Maheshwarah
Guru Shākshāt Param Bramhā Tasmai Shri Guruve Namah
Meaning: Guru is Brahma, Guru is Vishnu, Guru is Mahesh/ Shiva. Guru is the Universal life force of the ultimate Brahma- the truth, so I bow down to my Guru.
This is also a hymn that brings in humility. It is a medium to thank the Guru- your guide/ mentor who introduced you to the art of Yoga. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the organiser and Mahesh or Shiva is the destroyer of the Universe. A Guru is all these and a lot more. A Guru presents you to the truth and thus a Guru is the ultimate truth, the ultimate Brahma, the formless and timeless energy that sustains the Universe. These verses remind us of how small we are, yet how powerful we could be if we align ourselves to the Universal energy.
Hari is the word that describes the remover of all sins, all dualities and Maya. Aum is the higher consciousness which will help you to identify illusions and look beyond them. A single chant of Hari Aum, regulates your breath after finishing your chants, brings completion, allows surrender and prepares us for the session.
Post session Invocation and Chants
Aum Vageeshwaryay Vidhmahe, Vākvādinye Dheemahi, Tanah Saraswati Prachodayāt.
Meaning: Aum, let me meditate on the Goddess of speech, art and music. Oh Saraswati, bless me.
This hymn asks for the blessings of the Goddess of intellect so that our mental capacity to differentiate the illusion from reality increases and the mind attains enlightenment & knowledge.
Aum Sahanā Vavatu, Sahanau Bhunaktu Sahaveeryam Karwavahai
Tejasvināvadheetam Asatu Ma Vidhwishāvahai
Aum Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
Meaning: Aum, let us be together, protected and nourished. Let us join forces for the good of humanity and gain knowledge together. Let our cumulative efforts bring light, joy and purpose in life. Let us avoid the poison of hatred. Let there be peace in the Universe, around us and inside us. Let there be peace in the three realms.
This is a peace mantra that invokes peace and prosperity for the Universe, for our planet and for ourselves. It also invokes blessings to strike harmony between the Guru and students.
All these hymns might appear religious to some, so it is perfectly alright if you don’t wish to chant them. In such cases, I ask my students to concentrate on their breathing and invoke the feeling of gratefulness towards their body, mind and spirit. This allows them to enjoy this world and their surroundings and connect their spirit with the Universe.
This practice can be great for Asanas and Pranayama, however, for people who would want to gain the benefits of spirituality from Yoga, understanding the core philosophies of Yog and exploring the depths of our being, our consciousness and our spirit using the same philosophies, is crucial.
Understanding and being in touch with Maya, the concept that the life we live in, is an illusion created by our own minds under the influence of our ego, is necessary. Unless you are able to let go of the ego, Yoga for your spirit, will elude you.