August 9, 2012

Making Sense of Ashtanga Chants. ~ Rocco Marinelli

What do you feel when you chant?

It’s been said that Sanskrit is the language of the heart, its meaning universal. But this is an act of faith that can and should be questioned. Modern neuroscience fascinates me because it is consistently validating the practices of ancient traditions such as yoga and Buddhism.

When leading Ashtanga classes, particularly beginners, I often observe apprehension as students attempt to pronounce the syllables properly. Even students in Mysore class with years of practice have learned the chants by rote. The question I’ve been asking students lately is, “what do you feel when you chant”? The general answer is not a lot.

Far from universal meaning, I see looks of doubt and heightened self-consciousness. Even though I studied the translations, memorized the words and call them in Mysore each day, I struggled to feel anything.

Keywords stuck out; samsara halahala, dharina; but I knew that I could be cultivating so much more for myself, and for my students from the bookend meditations.

It’s a scientific fact that thoughts of gratitude make you happier. The opening chant is a prayer of gratitude and cultivating these feelings leads to more positive emotions. It sets a foundation of mindfulness and compassion on which we practice. We pause to give thanks to our teachers and to reflect on the poison of conditioned existence. Complementing this is the closing chant when we should be cultivating loving kindness and compassion.

It’s one thing to read a translation and to understand the words, but to recite it in class and to feel its meaning can be more difficult. If we become self-conscious because of a fear of correct pronunciation, we can feel ill at ease, doubt may kick in, rendering the chant vacuous.

Loving-kindness training and thoughts of compassion light up a part of the brain called the insula. The insula is vital in detecting emotions in general and in mapping bodily responses to emotion like heart rate and blood pressure. Numerous studies have shown that positive emotion induced by loving-kindness meditation increase a person’s sense of ‘oneness’.

The words we chant have as much effect on our mind as asana does to our body. They stretch the brain like utthanasana (forward bend) stretches the hamstrings. In that sense, if we’re not feeling anything as we chant then we’re not practicing at our edge.

With maximum respect to tradition and short of suggesting we chant in English, (although I believe there is a good argument for it) I have been using the Memory Palace visualization technique, combining it with images that evoke feelings, so that memorization may progress to meaning. The Memory Palace is a simple device used to remember a sequence of words or images by going on a mental journey through a space you are very familiar with such as your house. Often, the crazier the images we imagine the more likely we are to remember them, however the focus for the chants should be in the feelings that are evoked as we move through the visualization.

Note: I have used simplified translations below, focusing on feeling and intent rather than literal meaning. It’s also what has worked for me, so you can change any of the visualization around and explore what works to create more feeling for you.


  1. When standing in Samastihi first pause to get a sense that everyone in the room, including you, is about to share this physical practice, including this chant right now. Through each breath-movement we are all embarking on the same journey.
  2. As you chant Om imagine that you are entering the front door of your home, or any place that you know intimately and that you feel safe and secure inside. The energetic resonance of your Om pushes the door open.
  3. Just inside the front door are two enormous carved stone feet with lotus petals scattered around. Standing on top is someone you know and love, someone who has been responsible for teaching you many things in life. Vande gurunam charanaravinde.
  4. They step off the giant stone feet and walk with you in to the lounge room where the floor is covered in sand. Feeling the sand between your toes and the sun on your face, you get a strong sense of the happiness and insight that teacher has given you. Sandarshita svatma sukavabodhe
  5. Turning down the hallway or walkway you stand in the niche of two bookshelves, feeling safe and secure. Nih Shreyase jangalikayamane.
  6. Moving in to your bedroom there is a large wheel, the kind you used to spin on in the playground as a child. Standing in the middle, the force of the spinning wheel draws all your habits from your body, flinging them away. Samsara halahala mohashantyai.
  7. In the next bedroom (image search Patanjali here and get a good memory for his image) is a Patanjali lamp; Abahu Purushakaram. Switching it on, the aura is so bright that you cover your eyes, but even then the bright presence and warmth is felt Shankhachakrsi dharinam
  8. Walking in to the bathroom you stumble in to the dunes of the Saharan dessert and all around in the air are the wondrous sounds of the chant. You are acutely aware of the union of the voices of those around you, and your own, together in chorus. Sahasra sirasam svetam.
  9. Looking now outside through the window, you see Patanjali hovering in the sky; luminescent, we bow to give thanks to his wisdom. Pranamami Patanjalim.

Rocco Marinelli is a former Corporate from Melbourne, Australia. When his jerry built stand-up workstation was dismantled by Occupational Health & Safety for the sake of aesthetics over ergonomics he got the sense that the office was no longer for him. Quitting his job at the end of 2011, he travelled to India to study Ashtanga Vinyasa. He now lives in Istanbul where he teaches Ashtanga Vinyasa and is subbing the Mysore program at YogaŞala. Connect with Rocco on YogaŞala.


Editor: Seychelles Pitton

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