For practitioners of the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar, a chanting ritual is recognized as an enrichment to classes and home practice. Students and teachers primarily chant the Invocation to the Sage Patanjali at the beginning of classes. This tradition grew out of classes at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute in Pune. Practitioners invested in deeper study of yoga will aim to integrate the philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras into their practice and daily lives. For many Iyengar-inspired or certified teachers, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a philosophical foundation of their studios and class practice. These 196 terse aphorisms offer profound insight for helping us better understand ourselves. The four chapters, or padas, of the Yoga Sutras describe the nature of consciousness, the afflictions of the body, and the benefits of yoga practice.
I love when a class opens with chanting. It always seems beneficial to encourage students to chant in yoga class, or as part of one’s home practice. Often we’ll chant om through a call-and-response method, where the teacher says om or a line of Sanskrit and the students repeat.
But what is unique about chanting the Yoga Sutras?
In a recent course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras at the Iyengar Institute of San Francisco, renowned Sanskrit scholar, Dr. Sucheta Panchebe asked this question only after we had been studying for five hours: “Why do you want to learn to chant?” Our class spent some time sharing ideas about what is personal about chanting, what it means to us. Sometimes the sound is simply beautiful. For many, chanting the Sutras just feels good.
Years of yoga practice help bring such answers to lights, as many teachers will agree. Here are a few reasons that I came up with, all of which, interestingly, happened to begin with the letter “s”: sangha, scholarship, self-study, surrender.
The tradition of chanting the Invocation to Patanjali not only promotes respect for the yoga teachings, but sanctifies the shared studio space where we come together to practice. The community of many American Iyengar-inspired studios bonds through the initial ritual of paying homage to the Sage who penned the Yoga Sutras. The chant opens with, “Let us bow before the noblest of sages Patanjali, / Who gave Yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind.” Moreover, the collective sound and vibration connects students and teacher, as well as all individual students. Many will agree, that the sound and vibration simply feels positive and lovely.
Chanting in Sanskrit, when done in a proper way, causes a vibration throughout the mouth and body that simply feels good. When we chant the Sutras, we can observe–and for many of us savor–the sound elements of the Sanskrit language.
For fun, compare listening to Sutras chanted by a master teacher (a good example would be chanting by Mekhala Desikachar). Then, try contrasting those mellifluous chants by having someone chant the language who has never tried it before. When performed properly, the language and rhythm of chanting can have transformative and enlightening effects.
Other benefits of chanting are to practice “asana of the mouth,” as Dr. Panchebe explains. For practicing Sanskrit can help us speak any other tongue. The fundamental sounds of Sanksrit are therefore not only physical but linguistically fundamental. Those of us who enjoy languages will enjoy this quality.
The topic of chanting affords me both intellectual and emotional growth. I enjoy a focused study on the history, linguistics, and philosophy of the Sutras and their English-Sanskrit translations. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore these topics under the guidance of experts like Dr. Panchebe, John Hayden of the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco, and Dr. Edwin Bryant, editor and commentator of a recent edition of the Yoga Sutras. I am grateful for the community of teachers who help me to learn and study more.
I have practiced a self-reflective yoga sādhanā for fifteen years by now. Just recently, Dr. Suchebe’s poignant question sparked my interest in this realm of my practice and my teaching. Chanting is multidimensional, using invigorating sound to inform our bodies, minds, and spirits. By focusing my mind, voice, ears, and heart on one sutra over an extended period of time, or even for a short chanting practice, the sutra expands and nourishes me. Like a homemade bread dough, it takes work to activate the benefits and knowledge; after kneading the dough, growth occurs. After spending some time with the sutras, their meaning and value to one’s practice will resonate and inform one’s practice, as well as daily life.
Yoga practice is all about honest surrender: to one self, one’s sangha, one’s gurus. Dr. Geeta S. Iyengar writes, “We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn.” Classroom chanting can be an important instructional tool, as chanting brings us beyond the physical. I also find that chanting can remind us that our yoga practice is about going beyond our daily selves to something greater, something beyond the trials and tribulations caused by “ego.”
Scholars agree that we don’t know much about the origin of the Yoga Sutras or of the legendary Sage Patanjali who gave them to us; what is agreed, however, is that the 196 Sutras are “threads” of wisdom for overcoming obstacles to enlightenment. Each word within one aphorism is significant, each aphorism leading into the next. All interconnect and carry enlightening potential for the student who seeks to understand their meaning.
Renowned Sanskrit scholar, Dr. Sucheta Paranjpe, notes that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were not originally intended for chanting. These 196 aphorisms were actually written in prose, not meter. These dense threads of wisdom are written in such as way as to have clarity and brevity. Therefore, every letter and word—meter or no meter– is essential to its meaning and impact on yoga practice.
Perhaps one of the most beneficial and exciting aspects about chanting is simply that chanting brings people together. The meaning of the word “chant” is “community.” It seems natural that by chanting the Yoga Sutras, we can process the depth of their meaning on our own. So chanting is a means of exploring—both the language and the individual.
ABOUT THE AUHOTR
Maria Ciccone is teacher-training at the Iyengar Insitute of San Francisco; she works and practices at Adeline Yoga Studio in Berkeley, CA. For more info, visit www.adelineyogastudio.com