Patanjali: Do I Invoke or Do I Not Invoke?
A the beginning of most Iyengar Yoga classes, there is a chant that is done in a call and response fashion. What is the purpose of this? I will share with you my thoughts on this subject.
When I was in India, and had the privilege of being in classes taught by BKS Iyengar, his daughter, Geeta, and his son Prashant. All the classes always began with this chant. At the time, I had no idea what the chant meant and what the purpose of it was. All I knew is that I was in India, being taught by the most knowledgeable authorities on yoga, and I participated in the experience, even though for the most part I was inventing the words.
After a few days of chanting the invocation, it became an essential part of my focal direction. My mind knew it was time for yoga, and it was almost like the cells of my body received the announcement that it was time to be in yoga mode. My body and my mind became accustomed to the foreshadowing of what was to come. A message to my mind to focus, and for my body to be ready. Then the asana would follow.
(I did go home and learned the chant, and even taught it to my girls. They would mock chant the last verse around the house and crack up.)
As an iyengar yoga addict, I decided that if I were to share this system with others, I (Rosa) would try to stay out of the way, and just share the teachings as they were given to me, and truthfully, as I experienced or understood them. I found the teachings so profound, that I did not want to pollute them with my "improvements". BKS Iyengar is a yoga master, and his teachings have touched the essence of my being with such depth, that I want and at least strive to pass them on just as they have been delivered to me, either directly from him, or through the torch of his senior teachers. I chant OM and the Invocation of Patanjali before the class, just as I experienced directly with him.
The invocation still helps me to focus my often agitated mind in my own practice.
We call the chant "the Invocation to Patanjali". So who is this Patanjali, who feels the need to be invoked? Patanjali was an ancient sage, who codified the path of yoga. He organized the teachings of yoga in a systematic and progressive way. His teachings have lived for 3-5,000 years, passed down verbally from generation to generation. Think about it. We get to study and practice something that has been around for thousands of years. And we don't even have to go in a cold cave up in the Himalayas in search of a guru. We get to practice in gyms, trendy yoga studios, and pay lots of money for private instruction. The cool thing about all this explosion of yoga, is that we get to decide how much or how little we take in from the ocean of yoga. Some are looking for exercise, some for enlightenment, some are there for fellowship.
Just as one can choose how much to delve into this subject, as far as I see it, the invocation is optional. It may not speak to you. It may make you uncomfortable. This is when modern yoga can be adapted. The invocation can be an invitation for the ancient sage to bless us with the teachings of yoga. Or it can be a meaningless chant, or just a nice song. It depends on the intention you choose to put behind it. A very wise student of mine who practices Orthodox Judaism, asked me if Patanjali was a sage or a god, as she is not into idol worship. As a Catholic, neither am I. Patanjali was not a god, although there are theories of him being a semi divine being. He was a sage, who took the teachings of yoga and organized them for us. Believe it or not, there are yoga teachers out there who have never heard of him, lest alone think of invoking him...
And what if I am not into invoking? There are some Iyengar Yoga teachers who do not use the chant. And they are still good people! Some only chant OM, and I have had some students who instead of chanting the invocation use this time to do their prayers. It has helped them to maintain a daily spiritual practice. Either way, the mind stuff is controlled and brought to a standstill to prepare for the practice of yoga. With or without Patanjali, the teachings can help us to understand our own Self. The dark cloud that creeps up in the mind, obscures our ability to have a direct view of the essence of who we are. That majestic essence which is a part of a greater collective consciousness. That unmanifested light that resides in all of us and makes us shine. Maybe we really all are semi divine beings of radiant light. Even if our name is not Patanjali.