Yoga classes begin with Shanti (peace) mantras in Sanskrit. Here’s what the most popular opening mantra means.
Here’s the verse.
Om Saha Nau-Avatu, Saha Nau Bhunaktu,
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai, Tejasvi Nau-Adhiitam-Astu Maa Vidvissaavahai,
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih||
ॐ सह नाववतु । सह नौ भुनक्तु ।
सह वीर्यं करवावहै । तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
May we (both) be protected; may we (both) be nourished;
May we work together with great energy, May our knowledge be radiant;
May there be no differences or disputes between us
Om, peace (inside), peace (around), peace (between)
This verse is special because it is mentioned in four Upanishads (sacred scriptures), which were recollections of sacred (and whispered) teachings from the seers to their students. The secrets whispered are subtle and spoken to listeners that have grasped the foundational thoughts beforehand.
This is in contrast to a public lecture that’s spoken aloud to a larger audience, which would contain more broad statements that villagers would understand. If a noisy crowd at an election rally asked me the value of Pi, I would scream back 22/7. But if Ramanujan, the mathematician asked me this question in private, I might whisper 3.14159265358979323 (and would you like to know more?). The sophistication of the listener dictates the subtlety of the conversation.
No specific God (or gods) are invoked in these verses. Instead, the sense here is of a joint prayer to higher powers. “To whom it may concern”, one might say. Just because these are in Sanskrit does not make them particularly Hindu or Indian. Sanskrit is a scientific and lyrical language, beautiful in it’s ability to pack meaning in tight rhythmic verses that can be sung together. That’s why we are able to sing the verses- they are meant to be sung aloud.
As an opening verse, the shanti mantra creates a safe space for a conversation (or an asana practice as in our case). We pray for protection. But protection isn’t enough, because we are not sitting here in a safe room shivering in a corner. We are here for work of the highest order. And so, we must ask for more than just protection.
We also ask for nourishment. We are going to give our everything to the practice, and we need the energy to continue to flow into us. This nourishment fills our bodies, our breath, our minds and our spirit. Without this nourishment, we will tire soon, and our work will be incomplete. So we ask for nourishment.
But we do not act alone (individually). We need to act as one — moving together and gaining energy from each other. Like firewood, if we burn alone, we will flame out fast, but if we burn together, we will keep each others’ fire going for much longer. Or in a concert when the performer feels the energy of the crowd give her energy to go higher and higher. Together. So, we ask that our work together be energetic and resonant.
(I make jokes in classes I lead. If the class laughs it gives me energy, and I channel that energy back through my voice into the instructions for the next sequence, and so on. We are resonating through the class all the way).
Through our work together, we will gain a better understanding of ourselves and what we study together. But it’s not enough for us to understand it for our own personal selves. Our knowledge must shine. And not just shine as a reflective mirror or a polished surface. Our knowledge should have a light of it’s own, that will bring light to everyone else who approaches us. This glow, this radiance is what others recognize from our face and our presence. No words need to be spoken in the presence of a master, because her presence itself is proof. Words are just accessories.
So our aim in our studies together isn’t just a knowledge we hide inside. Our aim is to gain something that illuminates everything that comes in our contact. It will light up our family, our work and our communities. We pray for such radiance.
Good learning needs friction. Good learning needs failure. Good learning needs questions to be asked and answers to be given. Good learning requires that we engage each other actively. And when there is friction, there will be sparks.
If we choose to be polite and not ask each other questions, or raise doubts, then we will not learn. Neither will the listener be able to understand fully, and nor will the speaker be given a chance to explain their perspective clearly. If we don’t engage, we will both lose. But if we do engage, we run a risk of antagonizing each other.
We give each other the right to engage each other. We pray that there be no disputes or differences between us. This doesn’t mean that there are no questions in the class. It means that we will ask and answer all questions together, and when we are done, we will have no differences left. We pray for this and give ourselves the right to engage.
Then we say Shanti thrice. Even the simplest sentence has a subject, object and a verb. You, me, and what we have between us. When we say peace thrice, we are asking that there be peace at all three levels.
And when we recite the opening prayer, we are prepared to give our all and get our all from the time we spend together.
I do hope this helps clarify why we open with this verse. Next time, closing verse.
Namaste, or rather,
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti