Ashtanga Mantra

Ashtanga Mantra

Everywhere in the world, Ashtanga yoga practice begins with this mantra. To a long-time practitioner, it becomes a familiar friend and a welcoming presence, a signal to release the body and mind into the present moment. Mantra is not a blind devotion or guru-worship or religious indoctrination. It is a tool that we use to focus our minds.

This transliteration is written phonetically for ease of learning. It is broken up by syllable for easy pronunciation. The IAST transliteration, along with the Sanskrit and full translation, is below.

vande gurunam charanara vinde

sandarsita svatma sukhava bodhe

nishre yase jangali kaya mane

samsara halahala moha shantayai


abahu purusha karam

shankha chakrasi dharinam

sahasra shirasum shvetum

prana mami patanjalim


The opening mantra conveys a literal meaning, a metaphorical meaning, and an attitude. Each is equally valid and necessary.

The attitude it engenders is one of receptivity. It serves as a reminder that we learn by the grace of our teachers—whoever and whatever they may be—and that, no matter how “advanced” we become, we always come to the practice as students. To be effective Yoga practitioners, we must expunge arrogance or conceit and be willing to learn and grow.

Metaphorically, the first verse expresses gratitude to any and all teachers and the role they serve as healers; poisoned as we are by our participation and belief in cyclical patterns, our teachers help us to pacify harmful delusions. They are shamans, or physicians, who can enter the twisted “jungle” of our minds and guide us toward healing. They have walked the path that we are on, and they can provide guidance. Gurunam, or “the plurality of teachers,” can also mean “teachings as a principle,” encompassing all beings and situations, intentional or accidental, that have provided the fuel and means for us to learn.

According to most teachings, the second verse describes the archetypal Yogi, Patanjali. Alternatively, it can be translated to be in reference to the same subject as the first verse (the plurality of teachers.) We are thankful for his contributions to the Yoga system and also seek to emulate him in Yoga practice. He is described as holding three objects, which is to say, having three main characteristics:

  • A conch shell. The conch shell is traditionally used at the start of puja (ritual ceremony) in India. It symbolizes divine sound, truth. The yogi seeks both to “hear” and generate truth.
  • A wheel or disc. The chakra, or disc, represents a comprehension of cyclical patterns, of time, and, inversely, of eternity.
  • A double-edged sword. The Yogi uses the “sword” of discrimination to “cut” or distinguish between truth and illusion. The Yogi seeks to cultivate the intelligence of discrimination; this quality is “double edged” because it shreds both external and internal illusions. Falsehoods of “external” reality fall away from the Yogi, and so too do internal self-deceptions, self-concepts, and ego structures. This process is often quite painful, perhaps more so than being cut with a physical sword.

Having mastered these, Patanjali is further described as having “a thousand radiant white heads.” This is often visually represented as cobras “hooding” or surrounding Patanjali’s head. This references Kundalini (“coiled one”), which is represented as a serpent sleeping coiled at the base of the spine. All sensation and experience is ultimately a manifestation of Kundalini. Patanjali, having reached a level of mastery with form and spirit, has awakened Kundalini.

Literal Translation

वन्दे गुरूणां चरणारविन्दे सन्दर्शित स्वात्म सुखावबोधे ।
निःश्रेयसे जाङलिकायमाने संसर हालाहल मोहशान्त्यै ॥

आबाहु पुरुशाकारं शंन्खचक्रासि धारिणम् ।
सहस्र शिर्समं श्वेतमं प्रणमामि पतञ्जलिम् ॥

vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde sandarśita svātma sukhāvabodhe ।
niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne saṃsara hālāhala mohaśāntyai ॥

ābāhu puruśākāraṃ śaṅkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam ।
sahasra śirsamaṃ śvetamaṃ praṇamāmi patañjalim ॥

I praise the lotus-feet of my teachers,
who show [the method of] becoming aware of the joy in my own self;
They serve as jungle physicians,
pacifying the poisonous delusions of cyclical existence.

I bow to Patanjali, who has a half-human form,
a thousand radiant heads, a conch-shell, a discus, and a sword.

This translation is with the assistance of my teachers and lineage.

Alternative translation:

I praise the lotus-feet of my teachers,
who show [the method of] becoming aware of the joy in my own self;
They have the knowledge to show everyone the way through the jungle,
pacifying the poisonous delusions of cyclical existence.

They are the few, among multitudes.
With a conch-shell, a disc, and a sword they rend asunder;
They have a thousand radiant heads.
I bow to these philosopher physicians.

This has a somewhat different flavor than many common translations for this mantra. I am not a Sanskrit scholar. Translation is, by nature, inescapably imprecise and there is always a measure of interpretation and adaptation necessary. By presenting this translation, I am not implying that other translations are incorrect. However, there is a tradition in Sanskrit of playing word-games and deliberately crafting passages that can be legitimately read in several different, but ultimately consistent, ways. The first verse is from the Yoga Taravali, a classic yoga text. The second verse is of unconfirmed origin.

The feet are considered important because the feet are the organ of action for travel, the vehicle for the journey of wisdom. In India, aspirants commonly touch the feet of their teacher or a statue, and then their own forehead, in hopes that some of the शेषा shesha (dust or residue) of that journey will bring good fortune on one’s own path. There are many variations on this: sometimes a devotee will touch their teacher’s feet, then their own eyes, ears, and mouth.

Shesha also refers to the remains of an offering. When puja (ceremony) is done, the flowers/food/etc offered to the deity is not thrown away. Instead, it is considered to have been blessed by the deva (deity) and is distributed amongst the worshipers and attendants.

These are the dictionary definitions of the words in the mantra:

वन्दे : Vande : I Praise

गुरुणां : Gurunam : The plurality of all teachers

चरण : Carana : Feet / Root

अरविन्द : Aravinda : Lotus Flower

सन्दर्शित : Sandarsita : Shown / represented

स्वात्म : Svatma : Sva Atma : Own self / True nature

सुख : Sukha : Pleasant or joy

अवबोधे : Avabodhe : Avabuddhyate :  To become aware of / to inform or explain

निःश्रेयस : Nishreyase : Best

जाङल् : Jangal : Jungle

कय​ : Kaya : Every one

अमनि: Amani : Way or road

संसार : Samsara : Cycle of worldly existence

हलाहल : Haalaahala : Deadly poison

मोह : Moha : Delusion

शान्तयति { शान्तय् } : Shantiyai : Pacify

अबहु : Abahu : Few

पुरुष : Purusha : Men

आकर : Akaram : Of multitudes

शङ्ख : Shanka : Conch Shell

चक्र : Chakra : Disc or wheel

असि : Asi : Sword

दारि : Dari : To tear asunder. Darinam is the “plural” case, meaning an uncounted/uncountable number.

सहस्र : Sahasra : Thousand

शीर्ष : Sirsam : Heads

श्वेत : Sveta : White

प्रणाम : Pranama : Bow or respectful salutation

मीनाति { मी } : Minati { Mi } : To make

पतञ्जलि : Patanjalim : to Physicians / Philosophers (the name has become a title)

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