In Iyengar Yoga classes the world over it is usual to start classes with students sitting in a simple cross-legged position. We take care to be evenly balanced with a lifted and open chest and with our hands in prayer position. We close our eyes and start to focus our attention inwardly in an alert and quiet way. We then sing two verses (slokas) from the Invocation to Patanjali.
New students sometimes happily join in the singing, once they grasp the words, others feel more unsure about singing something they don’t understand and want to know more about why we sing.
Lord Patanjali was a great sage thought to have lived in approximately 200 BC. You will see a symbolic Indian statue of Patanjali in our yoga hall.
Patanjali wrote great works to explain three things – grammar, medicine and yoga intended to help us understand how to purify our body, mind and speech. His writing on yoga is in the form of the Yoga Sutras - a set of 196 aphorisms - beautiful, compact verses with complex meaning that convey the essence of yoga. Singing the Invocation to Patanjali is a way of giving thanks and respect to Patanjali, invoking him for our yoga practice and at the same time acknowledging the deep roots of yoga.
The singing is ‘call and response’ so the teacher sings first and the students repeat. This signifies that we are there to learn – to listen carefully and to respond. Singing itself is uplifting and the different voices and tones combine to create their own harmony in a completely natural way. The vibrations of the singing fills ourselves and the space we are in and helps to us to feel our connection with others in the class.
After singing the Invocation we bow our heads while we lift our chests. This action is both a sign of respect and also a symbolic way of bowing the head to the heart and joining the two. Yoga means union and this is one of the unions we look for in yoga.
As you become familiar with the words it becomes a way of leaving behind whatever has happened before class; a quiet pause that leaves you uplifted and calm and prepares you to make the most of the yoga class.
The Invocation to Patanjali
The first verse describes what Patanjali gave us and the second describes his symbolic form as the incarnation of the Hindu snake god Adisesa represented by his statue.
Yogena cittasya padena vacam
Malam sarirasyaca vaidyakena
Yopakarottam prvaram muninam
To the noblest of sages, Patanjali, who gave us yoga for serenity of mind, grammar for purity of speech and medicine for the perfection of the body, I salute.
Sankha cakrasi dharinam
Sahasara sirasam svetam
I salute before Patanjali whose upperbody has human form, whose arms hold a conch, and disc and a sword, who is crowned by a thousand headed cobra. Oh incarnation of Adisesa my humble salutions.
You can hear how the invocation should sound here