Yoga 101: Yoga & Mantra
Eversince I started this website last month, I have been more than comfortable expanding my little yoga experience and knowledge in my own words, here.
I will also share some yoga (beside other relevant) questions that some readers have emailed to me starting with this shortened (not revised) e-mail from Liyana.
Dear Ninie Ahmad,
I just moved to the US a few weeks ago, and I just had my first yoga class at my university this morning. I missed the first class held for the semester, so this morning I just followed whatever the instructor asked us to do. I am quite familiar with the poses as I have tried yoga previously, but only through a friend. Ok anyways, at the end of the yoga class, the instructor asked us to chant a mantra mentally when we’re sitting. The thing is I have no idea what the mantra was as it was taught at the first lesson, which I missed.
But whatever the mantra is, I feel quite uncomfortable of the fact that mantra is involved, being a Muslim. So my question is, are the mantras in yoga connected to any teachings of any religion? Do you yourself practice saying/concentrating any mantras when doing yoga?
Wait, one more thing is that whether mantras in yoga are related to any religion, or are solely for discipline /concentration, I think that personally I would not be comfortable practicing the mantras. So what do you suggest I do when the other students are concentrating on the mantras? Are there any other substitute for mantra?
I hope you can help me with this. And get well soon, I hope for your recovery from the shoulder/tricep injury. Thanks!
Dear Liyana and everyone reading,
Thank you for writing / reading and congratulations on accepting the gift of yoga.
According to Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (written 2000 years ago in Sanskrit but available in many translations including English and Arabic), there are eight limbs to the tree of yoga – with each limb being a phase / stage to self-realization. In tradition stemming from this ancient text, each limb of yoga is given in a precise order through which (aspiring) yoga practitioners must progress starting from the very bottom yet the most important.
(Note: Words in italic are Sanskrit, the oldest language ever documented in the world)
1. Yama (Moral codes towards others)
- Yama indicates how individuals should respond and relate to other people, all living beings and to the environment – in order to achieve a peaceful and harmonious world.
2. Niyama (Self-purification and study)
- Niyama deals with contentment and physical cleansing / purifying of the body – both internally and externally to find some clarity of thoughts before the next stage of yoga – Asana.
Note: Most yoga practitioners and I practice Yama and Niyama to the literal translation to why we chose not to kill others living beings (Vegetarianism) as our source of food to survive as our contribution to world peace and preserving green environment (Yama) and generally cleansing ourselves with bath or shower and accepting our current state of body especially our injury and lack of-s (Niyama) before our Asana practice.
3. Asana (Poses / Postures)
- Asanas in yoga (depending what branch of yoga we each can relate to / practice the most) are scientific sequences that access every muscle in the body, stretching and toning them as well as nerves, organs, glands and energy channels.
- Asanas are not merely exercises, they are postures and transitions synchronized with Pranayama (breath) that regular and systematic Asana practice with help of tristana (union of Vinyasa), bandha (locks that protect the body) and drishti (looking point) – help open and clear the nadis (energy channels of subtle body) allowing access and harness to internal lifeforce (energy) known as Prana.
4. Pranayama (Breathing)
- For most of us, breathing is an involuntary reflex action. Yogis, however, appreciate the role breath has in focusing the mind and Pranayama is a method of using the power of breathing to control the mind. Most yoga Asanas require specific dynamics of breathing (inhale to creating space and to lengthen, exhale to twist and to be stronger) to achieve the pose easier / safer and to ensure benefits instead of injury.
Notes: The first four limbs are external disciplines that, when practiced regularly create the necessary physical and mental state from which the remaining four internal limbs can continuously sprout and unfold.
Founder of Ashtanga Yoga, the late Shri K Pattabhi Jois was often heard saying, “Practice the first four limbs of yoga FIRST, and the rest four will come without trying.” With that inspiration, I always say, “Forget the Headstands and Scorpions, simply respect others by not making noise in class and honour your body by not doing poses that you are not ready for FIRST and you would already be doing yoga” before I start my classes.
In my humble observation, the system and order work almost like (but NOT equivalent to) how puasa (fasting) works in Islam. If we understand where the Rukun (Pillar) lies in Islam, puasa falls in the third rank within Pillars of Islam hence it is almost impossible to attain blessed Puasa if we don’t perform our Solat (Prayers) while fasting and if we don’t refrain ourselves from pleasures the material world has to offer.
5. Pratyahara (Sense Control)
- Pratyahara in easiest translation is the full awareness. Our mind easily strays especially if we can’t let go of imminent social engagements or daily errands need to be done when practicing Asana that is why – rather than closing thoughts out, we learn NOT to become attached to them as they move through our mind.
6. Dhanara (Concentration)
- When practitioners achieve a high level of Pratyahara, the mind is undisturbed by stray thoughts, sounds and sensation (such as pain). In this state, it is possible to achieve a deep level of concentration and that is Dhanara (or Khusyu’ in Arabic). Within practice of Asana, Dhanara is achieved when the mind reaches a single focus by concentrating purely on inhalation, exhalation and the looking point (drishti).
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
- The combination of limbs five and six (Prathayara and Dharana) brings about a state of deep meditation where if achieved in Asanas, each posture is gracefully strung on a garland of asanas, becoming, in effect – a moving meditation.
8. Samadhi (Contemplation)
- To reach Samadhi is the culmination of all the eight limbs of yoga. It is the goal, the fruit of the yoga tree that creates the edible and ingestibly sweet tasting part of the tree for us to consume, and for us to be consumed from – within.
[ Reference from Ashtanga Yoga by John Scott ]
It is very important for me to have explained and listed in detail (but not complete) description of what makes a yoga practice fruitful – before I can answer what does Mantra (Chanting) have to do with yoga and is it at all, necessary.
Mantra is an opening or closing sequence for an Asana practice to set an affirmation our practice and to offer a dedication of our time spent on Self-Realization to any good cause (world peace, be a better person, lessen trouble and pain of others, et cetera).
My point is, unless we practice Asana regularly and attain all eight limbs of yoga (which is almost impossible for us in this selfish day and age and material world, really!), lupakan saja!
Most of the Mantras are in Sanskrit just because most of them sound more beautiful in its’ origin language (Sanskrit NOT Hindu). Just because we do not understand them, it does not mean that once delivered – we will be out of our body (or be able to levitate for that matter, ha haa!).
Just like (again, but NOT equivalent) to Al-Fatihah (the mother of all verses) in Qur’an, sad to say many non-Arab speaking Muslims in the world take the power of Al-Fatihah for granted because they do not make effort in comprehending and BELIEVING in the verse because they simply do not understand a language so foreign.
Hence for some Mantras matter, it is suffice to say, unless you know what they mean, you do not have to follow (chanting) them out loud as it serves almost no purpose almost like saying an affirmation that we do not mean.
Below is the closing mantra for Ashtanga Yoga (my choice of personal Asana practice) and its beautiful translation.
Swasthi-praja bhyah pari pala yantam
Nya-yena margena mahi-mahishaha
Om shanti, shanti, shantihi
May prosperity be glorified
May administrators rule the world with law and justice
May all things that are sacred be protected
And may people of the world be happy and prosperous
Om peace, peace, peace
‘MAY PEOPLE OF THE WORLD BE HAPPY AND PROSPEROUS.’
Subhanallah. Can any other offering be more selfless, honest and beautiful than this? I initially planned to post this entry on 9/11 notwithstanding, I chanted this as my offering to world peace this throughout the whole of last Friday.
As an alternative to Sanskrit mantra (if we are not familiar with Sanskrit at all), we can always say anything kind and affirmative in English, or in Malay for that matter (useful fact: 80% of Bahasa Malaysia derived / originated from Sanskrit). For my beginner to intermediate classes, I often chant this to my class, “If it is not now, then when. If it is not us, then who. We are the ones we have been waiting for” and I give an alternative of saying a loud, “NOW” to those who do not comfortable in pronouncing, “OM”.
While we are at it, ‘OM’ (pronounced A-U-M) is the most universal and powerful sound we can say in one breath. It means all, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. OM has been described as the primordial sound, represented in all living matter. It is NOT a word – it is a sound. It is so powerful that when uttered in one breath and repeated many times, it opens and aligns all our chakras and the millions channels of nadis (energy channels) in our body.
Being a Muslim yoga practitioner and a perpetually curious learner (refusing to learn [new languages, new things about our body and others' cultures] is a direct act of being ignorant. We are not the only ones in the world), I came to realize that Al-Fatihah is so powerful an AFFIRMATION and prayer that – very similar if not more meaningful that the word ‘OM’, it is also the only verse in Qur’an and finishes with an ‘eem’ and ‘een’ throughout its’ whole seven lines. I also recall my first Qur’an teacher said, “Al-Fatihah is mostly more beneficial and blessed when recited in one breath.”
Below is the general translation of Al-Fatihah. Wallahualam.
Bismillaah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen
Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem Maaliki yaumid Deen
Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim
Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen
In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful, Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those who have received your grace;
not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.
I hope I have justified your question and given you comfortable alternative for Sanskrit mantra.
Let’s all begin this new week understanding, believing and living this saying (and my personal favourite mantra):
Watch our thoughts, for they become words.
Watch our words, for they become actions.
Watch our actions, for they become habits.
Watch our habits, for they become character.
Watch our character, for it becomes our destiny.
I personally will dedicate my yoga practice and teaching this new week to restoring a happy relationship with our neighbour country so we all have a chance of enjoying a blessed last week of Ramadhan ahead, with lessened hatred that does not make us blood brothers and sister any happier nor better in any way.
The light in me bows to the light in you.
Peace be upon you.
(They all mean THE SAME although they sound very different, amazing isn’t it?)