Updated: Oct 3, 2019
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught tristhāna (three places of attention: breathing, gazing (dṛṣṭi) & posture) as the foundation of Ashtānga Yoga practice. Through study of the following śānti mantra used in Ashtānga Yoga prāṇāyāma practice, we can see that the teaching of tristhāna has its basis in the Vedas. Guruji always affirmed that in order to understand yoga properly it is important to study the ancient texts in addition to doing our practice.
This mantra “śan no mitra …” – replete with yogic wisdom – assists us in understanding & developing our practice. This mantra directs us into & beyond the subtleties of Ashtānga Yoga’s foundational tristhāna (breathing, gazing (dṛṣṭi) & posture).
The first two lines say, “śan no mitra śam varuṇaḥ, śan no bhavatu aryamā.” Śam means peace; it is the essence of śānti. Mitra means exhale, varuṇaḥ inhale, aryamā the eyes, and lastly bhavatu is the invocation, “may it be so.”
So according to this mantra, we first invoke the expression of śam (serenity) into our breath and eyes. This creates a shift in our system – of which our mind is just a part. As we step on to our mat, sit down to meditate or anything we want to bring clarity to, this is the first step that ensures what follows will carry the joyful healing energy of śam – in other words, from this first step things unfold free of angst.
The third line says, “śan na indro bṛhaspatiḥ.”
This line calls us to bring śam into our posture. Indra, king of gods, lives in our shoulders; he bears the thunderbolt of intensely penetrating strength. This is invoked as our posture straightens – like a king, our head held high. The mind & body now sthira sukha (stable & comfortable), and full of clarity (śam, peace), we are now fit for receiving the vision of Bṛhaspati, guru to the gods. So while sitting straight, breath even, eyes clear, this mantra enjoins us to culminate our focus in our third eye (ājñā cakra). This is the second step as our yoga practice unfolds with our Ashtānga Yoga tristhāna (breathing, gazing (dṛṣṭi) & posture).
The fourth line brings an amazing new dimension into view, “śan no viṣṇuḥ uru-kramaḥ.”
This is so beautiful! Viṣṇu means all pervasive, the omnipresent one. So we are to spread śam everywhere. But, how do we embody omnipresence? How do we spread śam (harmony) throughout the entire universe? Uru Krama, means long strides, and refers to Viṣṇu’s famous three steps:
Disguised as a dwarf, Viṣṇu stretched out his legs and in one step and covered the entire earth, then with a second step he spanned the entire heavens. At this point, there was no place left for another step. So, Mahābali, Viṣṇu’s devotee, realized that the dwarf was Viṣṇu in disguise. Mahābali offered his own head for Viṣṇu’s third step.
In this way, the mantra instructs us to extend this śam by conceptualizing these three steps: our own self (or head), our environment (i.e. this earth), and the entire infinite heavens. In this way, we can gradually expand the scope of our awareness, and sense of self. The larger and more all-inclusive our consciousness becomes, the more joyous & loveable we become; a smaller sense of self and selfishness brings suffering. It is simple cause & effect. These three strides breakdown our limitation to connect us with the fabric of creation.
In the next three lines, the mantra says that the life-energy, what we feel and call prāṇa, is regarded as the visible form of brahman (consciousness, God, creative life source). This mantra reveals to us a larger context in which to understand our experience and relationship with the infinite life source (brahman).
namo brahmaṇe – salutations to God
namaste vāyo – salutations to you, oh prāṇa
tvam eve pratyakṣam brahma asi – you alone are the visible form of God
In the next three lines, is expressed an aspiration to abide in this infinite tactile awareness.
tvam eva pratyakṣam brahma vadiṣyāmi – prāṇa alone is the perceivable form of brahman
ṛtam vadiṣyāmi – I will speak of brahman
satyam vadiṣyāmi – I will express truth
These lines reveal our commitment to speaking only when grounded in that inner sustaining energy. Both ṛta and satya mean truth. There is a difference though: Ṛta is absolute truth while satya is our expression of the absolute. So literally, the two lines simply say, “I will speak the truth.” But, how can the absolute transcendental truth be spoken of? It is not possible because the intellect creates boundaries through the formation of thoughts. Therefore, the true meaning of the mantra is “I will – while speaking – remain conscious of the absolute truth and allow it to permeate my every thought & word.” Remaining attentive to our tactile sense of prāṇa, we express skill in action; this is yoga – ever attuned to the inner life intelligence while engaged in the world.
This mantra leads us far beyond tristhāna (breathing, gazing (dṛṣṭi) & posture). It reminds us to stay attuned to our environment & to infinity both of which sustain our existence. The mantra tells us to view prāṇa as the experience of brahman; and that we should aspire to live saturated in this awareness.
Guruji liked to tell us, “Don’t waste your life. Practice yoga and try to know God.” He gave us a wonderful clue how to approach this, “First it’s possible to see God inside, then after possible seeing God outside.” This mantra says connect with the energy we know as prāṇa and know that it is none other than brahman weaving together our thoughts and words.
The final four lines – with the final message – request this energy to protect us. This consciousness is the ultimate refuge, the supreme source of protection. Perhaps, it is our awareness of, our faith in or reliance on this brahman energy that protects us.
tan mām avatu – may that protect me
tad vaktāram avatu – may that prāṇa protect the teacher
avatu mām – protect me
avatu vaktāram – protect the teacher
When we ask for protection, we must simultaneously surrender to that which we seek to protect us. In other words, we must allow ourselves to be protected. We must abandon certain limiting desires, concepts, behaviors, etc. and let the protector (brahman, prāṇa) operate in our life. So our small limited ego based intelligence, must learn to attune itself to that deep inner silent intelligence. The call for protection is a sweet devotional statement; it is the perfect closure because in it we acknowledge that the only true path of salvation, liberation, self-realization, etc. lies in living life in this divinely inspired way: conscious of life with our every breath, our every thought, our every word, our every action, our every inaction. Patañjali calls this īśvarapraṇidhāna, and our Ashtānga Yoga opening prayer refers to it with the word “vande.”
from Sanskrit & Chanting Vol. 1, page 11
There are two versions of this mantra - one composed in the future tense, vadiṣyāmi, I will speak - and the other in the past tense, avādiṣam, I did speak:
ॐ śaṁ no mitra śaṁ varuṇaḥ |
śaṁ no bhavatvaryamā |
śaṁ na indro bṛhaspatiḥ |
śaṁ no viṣṇururukramaḥ |
namo brahmaṇe | namas te vāyo |
tvameva pratyakṣaṁ brahmāsi |
tvameva pratyakṣaṁ brahma vadiṣyāmi |
ṛtaṁ vadiṣyāmi | satyaṁ vadiṣyāmi |
tan māmavatu | tad vaktāramavatu |
avatu mām | avatu vaktāram ‖
tvāmeva pratyakṣaṁ brahmāvādiṣam |
ṛtamavādiṣam | satyamavādiṣam |
tan māmāvīt | tad vaktāramāvīt |
āvīn mām | āvīd vaktāram ‖
ॐ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ ‖
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