According to the tradition one chants a mantra when beginning and ending one’s practice session in Ashtanga Yoga. A mantra is a sound or word often used for concentration while meditating but it is also commonly used in yoga practice. The word mantra comes from Man, which means mind and Tra, which can be translate with protect (or getting rid of). Mantra could therefore be said to mean “that which protects [or frees] the mind”.
The opening chant/mantra used in Ashtanga Yoga consists of two verses that come from different sources. The first verse is part of a longer text called the Yoga Taravalli written by the philosopher Adi Sankara sometime around AD 700. The second verse is part of the Patanjali Invocation. This mantra contains references to Indian mythology, a tribute to “the supreme guru” and Patanjali, who is believed to be the author of the Yoga Sutras, one of the most important texts on yoga. A guru is a teacher or guide who helps the individual to get from ignorance to wisdom – or from darkness to light (Gu means darkness and ru means light). The Patanjali mantra is usually also chanted before studying the Yoga Sutras. Together the two verses of the Ashtanga yoga opening chant express gratitude to the line of teachers that have enabled us to practice Ashtanga yoga today.
The closing chant/mantra is a more general prayer or wish for the happiness and prosperity of the world and of all people. At the end of the mantra the word Shanti is repeated three times. Shanti means peace and is recited three times to create a balance between the physical (external), psychological/mental (internal) and the spiritual realms.
Both the opening and the closing mantra are in Sanskrit. They both begin and end with OM (AUM). OM can have many meanings, but is said to primarily represent the universal soul; all that has been, all that is and all that will come.
Chanting the mantras is optional and if you don’t want to chant you may just listen while the group chants.
sahasra śiraśaṁ śvetaṁ
I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru
who teaches knowledge, awakening the great happiness of the self-revealed
who acts like the jungle physician
able to remove the delusion from the poison
of conditioned existence
To Patanjali, an incarnation of Adisesa,
white in color with a thousand radiant heads,
(in this form as the divine serpent Ananta),
human in form below the shoulders,
holding the sword of discrimination,
a wheel of fire representing infinite time,
and the conch, representing divine sound,
to him I prostrate.
May the rulers of the earth keep to the path of virtue for protecting the welfare of all generations.
May the religious, and all peoples be forever blessed
May all beings everywhere be happy and free
Om peace, peace, peace