Once I started practicing yoga around the age of 18, I learned the opening prayer. The 8th century Indian theologian Shankaracharya contributed to the ancient shloka, or prayer, that is not only chanted for yoga practice, but can be done by anyone. Before our practice every day, we chant it to pray to the guru so that his or her blessings and great spiritual knowledge guide us stage-by-stage on how to get rid of the obstacles on our spiritual journey.
To understand how important chanting this prayer is in Ashānga yoga, you must first know the meaning of saṃsāra halāhala mohasantyai. Saṃsāra, is a Sanskrit term that broadly means the whole of society and the cyclical nature of the world. Disturbances that arise here are the obstacles that impede our growth.
Saṃsāra provides many attractions and distractions, good and bad, but, mostly, it increases the fluctuations of the mind. We get drawn to material things and situations that make us happy for a while, but then, ultimately, they disturb our thoughts, which can lead to sadness and even depression. It’s an endless cycle. This is what is referred to in the opening chant as halāhala, or poison, and it affects our sādhana. If the mind is not stable, it is impossible to grow in our spiritual journey.
We start the opening chant with vande gurunam caranaravinde to give respect to the guru so that he can guide us through this saṃsāra. The guru has gone through this process and has found a solution through yoga practice of how to gain certain steadiness in the mind and how to judge things.
Before social media and the digital world, our connections involved mainly family, school, work, and community. The effects of saṃsāra were a result of those environments alone. In India when I was a kid, if I wanted to know anything that happened in America, it took time for news to travel, and, back then, it was mainly through newspapers. There was a communication gap for weeks, sometimes months.
Now, through technology, we can view the whole of humanity if we try, whenever we want. As the world becomes closer, the saṃsāra becomes vast. Through our communication devices (i.e., smart phones and computers), straight away, we know what happens in the farthest reaches of the world, and oftentimes, about things that we don’t need to know. We react, form opinions, and have feelings for things that are not remotely close to us. We see how people don’t like other people or their religious practices, ideologies, politics, and belief systems. The result is that we confront more people, more attractions, and more saṃsāra. Greater saṃsāra increases unwanted thoughts coming to our minds, reaching further into our psyches, and this creates unwanted suffering and more poisons.
Every living thing has a right to live peacefully in this world. Plants, insects, birds, animals, humans all have the same right. We have the right to live in a society that is happy and healthy; a pure society with no poison where everyone should be able to pursue their spiritual journey and do what they want in their personal practice.
A spiritual journey is personal; it shouldn’t be driven by a society. A spiritual journey or practice is not born of one religion. It is not religious; you have to understand that. Spiritual practice is for gaining higher consciousness. Many religions divide people, but spiritual practice makes us come together. This is why we pray in the opening chant to the guru to rid saṃsāra of the halāhala. We pray to rid society of these evils to obtain mukti, or moksha, the freedom from ignorance, to put an end to the poison, and start our spiritual journey.
So how do you create saṃsāra that is a harmonious place where we can coexist with all living things? Where we can live up to our maximum best self? How do we eradicate the poisons from ourselves so that there is no negativity in society? How do we strengthen our mind, thoughts, and action?
Just like a spiritual journey is personal, so are the answers to these question. “Nih sreyase jangalikayamane” states that we must be like the jungle doctor, or snake charmer, jangalikaya, who removes the poison of the snake in the jungle of saṃsāra. We too must try to remove the poison, and disturbances, in our own lives. It’s a thought process. We have to focus on ourselves. If you think negatively, you start misunderstanding that everything in life is negative, and then your mind becomes negative. This is a big challenge, but it does not mean that you should separate yourself from people in this world. There are different kinds of people (both positive and negative) and we have to coexist with everyone. We must learn to mingle. We have to find a solution where everyone stays harmoniously and healthy.
In practicing yoga, we will learn many things through our own sādhana. Over time, the practice calms the nervous system and the mind gets trained not to get distracted and to allay the negativity. When the mind is pure, and steady, and stable, then our actions will be pure, and steady, and stable.
This is why we pray so that our guru can guide us how to lead a life that’s more peaceful and harmonious, where we respect others, and others respect us. Once we live in that kind of environment, then our spiritual journey will reach the highest level.
At the beginning of a new year, we should all pray for the year to come. Our new year in Kannada, Ugadi, comes in the spring, and we always pray that the past is the past, and let us start a new beginning with good thoughts with good intentions, peacefully. We always start like this, but, unfortunately, the decision we make at the start of the year often gets caught in saṃsāra later in the year and, therefore, our thoughts may go in a different direction.
This is why it’s very important that we practice yoga and begin our practice praying that our whole lives will be very positive. Through our daily practice, we fortify the oaths that we make, they stay with us for the whole year, and the year passes in a positive way.
We are many people with different practices and religions living in this saṃsāra. If we want to coexist and live happily, we have to respect each others’ practices as personal journeys and rid the world of samsara. This is received from our guru’s knowledge and blessing and this is how we will live harmoniously.
Photography by Danielle Tsi