This mantra is parts of two different mantras combined, and today is traditionally chanted at the beginning of the Ashtanga yoga practice. The first part is from a medieval text on yoga called the Yogataravali attributed to Adi Shankara. It thanks the gurus, or teachers, that have come before us. The first line “I bow to the lotus feet” of all gurus uses imagery of lotus feet to indicate the special nature of the guru. This is an image often used in Indian and Hindu temples. Feet in that culture are considered unclean – in fact it is considered rude to point one’s bare feet towards others, especially in a temple. The gods and spiritual gurus, however, are said to have lotus feet: pure feet (the lotus flower is a symbol of purity and clarity because of its ability to grow in muddy waters). The gurus are said to be heavy with knowledge, and therefore their guidance allows us to know our true selves. The mantra goes on to say that teachers act as “jungle doctors” – like witch doctors or shamans, removing the poison of the cycles of suffering and delusion just as one might suck snake poison out of a bite. As students today we might question ultimate devotion to a teacher, and rather take this part of the mantra to be one of gratitude for any and all teachers that help us on our path, including the Self, the teacher within.
The second part of the chant is the first part of a classical chant to Patañjali, the ancient sage credited with codifying the Yoga Sutra. In thanking Patañjali we’re thanking a teacher who made it possible for us to study our minds, spirits and selves: all eight limbs of yoga. Patañjali is described to have: the torso of a human, a thousand bright or white snake heads, holding a conch shell (this symbolizes state of alertness and readiness to face obstacles, which are inevitable on the path of yoga), a discus (which signifies the destruction of ignorance and is a symbol of protection), and a sword (to literally cut the ego, pride, or sense of “I” which is an obstacle covering our pure Self).
For me, the opening mantra is a moment to give thanks for the practice of yoga: to all the wisdom contained in its teachings, to the teachers that have come before me and passed down knowledge and shared their experiences, and to the circumstances that allow me to continue to practice, study, and share yoga daily.
वन्दे गुरूणां चरणारविन्दे सन्दर्शितस्वात्मसुखावबोधे ।
निःश्रेयसे जाङ्गलिकायमाने संसारहालाहलमोहशान्त्यै ॥
आबाहुपुरुषाकारं शङ्खचक्रासिधारिणम् ।
सहस्रशिरसं श्वेतं प्रणमामि पतञ्जलिम् ॥
Vande guruṇāṃ caraṇāravinde sandarśita-svātma-sukhāvabodhe ।
Niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne saṃsāra-hālāhala-moha-śāntyai ॥
Ābāhu-puruṣākāraṃ śaṅkha-cakrāsi dhāriṇam ।
Sahasra-śirasaṃ śvetaṃ praṇamāmi patañjalim ॥
I bow to the two lotus feet of the teachers,
through which my understanding of the sweetness
of my own Soul has been revealed.
My ultimate refuge, acting like a Jungle doctor:
pacifying the delusions caused by the poison
and suffering of cyclic existence.
[He] who has the form of a human torso,
bearing a conch, a discus, and a sword,
colorless, with a thousand heads,
I bow to Patañjali.
Translation by Dana Tarasavage