‘Sahana Vavatu’ shanti mantra, assisted dropbacks — and trust

Assisted backbends

Since learning “Sahana Vavatu” — one of the “shanti,” or peace, mantras — during this year’s Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor Xinalani retreat, I’ve found it can provide a space of solace that I can return to at any time. Because I find it powerful, beautiful and deeply reassuring, I’ve used it as a talisman, going over it in my mind in situations in which I am struggling with uncertainty, doubt or anxiety. There are times I recite it quietly to myself simply because I want to connect with its meaning and its meditative qualities. And I like to chant it as I’m nearing the end of my hour-long drive to the yoga shala in the dark of the early morning.

There’s also something else about this chant. For me, “Sahaha Vavatu” forms the perfect soundtrack to a Mysore room’s sacred student-teacher bonding ritual of assisted backbends.

Behind the chant

Here is one exploration of the chant:

In many schools, the Sahana Vavatu is recited before the asana practice. These schools include the Sivananda and the Satyananda schools, as well as most of the traditional ashrams such as the Kaivalya Dhama of Lonavla and the Shantiniketan of Rishikesh.

ॐ सहना ववतु। सहनौ भुनक्तु
सह वीर्यं करवावहै
तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु
मा विद्विषावहै॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः॥

Om sahana vavatu sahano bhunaktu
Saha viryam karavavahai
Tejasvi navaditamastu
Ma vidvishavahai
Om shantih shantih shantih.

Om. May He protect us both (teacher and student). May He cause us both to enjoy the bliss of liberation. May we both exert to find out the true meaning of the Scriptures. May our studies be fruitful. May we never quarrel with each other. Om peace, peace, peace.

This invocation is found in several Upanishads among which the Taittiriya Upanishad. It is probably the most famous after the Gayatri. As a shanti mantra, it advocates peace between student and teacher, encouraging both of them to study and to practice yoga, without mentioning any particular god or any particular book.

Like ashtanga’s opening and closing mantras, every translation reads a little differently. I am drawn to this translation’s juiciness — the idea of studying vigorously and working together with great energy:

Om may he protect us both together, may he nourish us both together
May we work conjointly with great energy,
May our study be vigorous and effective,
May we not mutually dispute
Om let there be peace in me
Let there be peace in my environment
Let there be peace in the forces that act on me
Om peace peace peace.

I like the straight-forwardness of this recitation of the chant by Lakshmish Bhat, recorded at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore (it’s the second chant in). And I might as well admit here that given how much time I’ve spent in yoga workshops of various stripes, it’s surprising to me that I was never taught this chant before this year. It’s not exactly hard to find; here is Ravi Shankar’s take.

Finally, here is commentary on the mantra by author and scholar A.G. Mohan, a student of Krishnamacharya.

Assisted dropbacks

There are many invigorating and reassuring aspects of practicing in a Mysore room, from the undulation of the room’s collective breathing to the consistency of joining a group of people in showing up to the same space day after day to practice.

One of my favorite aspects of a Mysore practice — versus a home practice or the led ashtanga environment that was my first exposure to ashtanga — is the time for assisted dropbacks before you begin your finishing poses.

It’s hard for me to believe now, but I didn’t officially switch from a mostly home-based practice to mostly practicing in a Mysore setting until about six months ago, when I committed to making the drive from Lansing to Ann Arbor at least three days a week. These days, it’s become just another part of my day to make the two-hour-round-trip-drive before heading in to work a few weekdays a week and to make the drive on weekends too, but it was a big deal for me to make the lifestyle changes I needed to make to get up at that early hour even three days a week.

For me, having the opportunity to work on assisted dropbacks was an integral part of settling into a Mysore groove. I still remember the transition of my teacher having me learn to walk my hands toward my feet in urdvha dhanurasana to one day walking my hands in far enough that my hands could be gently placed around my ankles. To step back from the process, it seems like the most unnatural thing to be doing at the crack of the dawn (or really at any time of day). Staying present in the moment, however, it feels like the most natural thing to do after reaching the pose you’ve been stopped at. What I love about assisted backbends is not just that they provide a gorgeous example of how a teacher can coax a student to going farther than she ever thought possible — it’s that I get to start my day out with a ritual built on absolute trust in another human being and absolute surrender to being in the moment. It’s harder to walk through the world questioning the intentions of people around you when you started the day out in the radiance of someone who, without a doubt, has your best interest at heart, and it’s harder to go through your day resisting things you can’t control when you have already let go so deeply.

What does it mean to approach life from a heart-centered place? That answer differs for each of us, but for me, starting out the day with assisted dropbacks helps prime me for greater receptivity.

Grabbing your what?

If you’ve never seen this very ashtanga practice, Kino MacGregor shows it in her video on chakra bandhasana, the formal name for grabbing your ankles:

In my experience, deep backbending with an experienced teacher means the difference between a safe, strong and effortless backbend versus one that comes from a place of overcompensation or recruiting flexibility from another part of the body. I have a pretty mobile low back, so had it not been for Angela Jamison teaching me how to stand strong in my legs, I would probably have eventually been flexible enough to grab my ankles even if I didn’t have the safest technique — and then I’d be unnecessarily taking the brunt of it in my low back. (Learning how to stand strong in my legs — I could do a whole post on just what that says about my relationship with myself in this world.)

More on trust

A few months ago, Kaz posted an awesomely candid post titled “Trust” on her Realizing Mysore blog. She talked about how, halfway through her month assisting Sharath in Mysore, she struggled with assisting students in grabbing their ankles during assisted dropbacks:

A couple of days later, I am still dodging students with flexible backs. And I decide to get up the courage to speak to Sharath, hoping for guidance, moral support–if you practice with this man, you probably know where this is going…

“Hi Sharath, um…so…I’m kind of afraid to take people to their ankles.”

He looks at me and says matter-a-factly, “I know.” He knows!

“Ahhhh…” I wait for some advice, encouragement, anything, but there is only awkward silence before he walks off to back bend someone himself.

Hokay… So much for feedback from the boss. In my optimism, I think he’s leaving it to me to figure out on my own. It’s not the first time. Last, year I struggled with a new posture. There was no feedback. No assistance, not even with back bending. At some point, I felt very alone as I muddled through the emotions that came up from it. By the end, however, the “personal time” was good for me. I learned a lot from it.

In practice, Sharath knows when to help and when to back off. I believe it’s one of his superpowers of perception. I’m going to read his acknowledgement paired with lack of input in this particular instance as a sign that he trusts me to figure it out myself.

I know it isn’t about strength. I’m dropping back guys much bigger than my petite Asian self. I understand the technique, more or less. I’m familiar with the ankle routine in my own practice. But I lack confidence. There is fear there…

Sharath’s right to leave me on my own. My fear is my responsibility. I know that I can’t continue to be afraid. I’m only halfway through the month of assisting and will not be able to avoid dropping back someone bendy enough for ankles. At some point I will be caught edging away from open backs, though Sharath probably sees my slipperiness already, probably smells the fear across the room. Most importantly, I just want to get on with it, I want to be totally present as I assist, and this fearfulness is getting in the way.

I look at my own practice. I ask myself, how am I at going to my own ankles? I can manage with more ease with Sharath helping me, but it is difficult when I am being assisted by someone else other than him, always stiffer somehow, a little less sure. I realize that I wasn’t always “successful” (for the lack of a better word) with assistants. It didn’t add up.

Maybe it’s easier with Sharath because I trust him so much. But what cause do I have to mistrust the assistants? Something in me stiffens when they are before me as I come up from backbend. Perhaps, it isn’t them at all, but rather something in me. Do I trust myself in this process? Or am I relying on Sharath’s magic touch to make what I still thought impossible possible? Did my mind create the conditions that made the fear difficult with others?

How can I expect others to trust me, if I myself had a hard time trusting? How can I ask someone to surrender to me, if I can’t manage surrendering myself?

Eventually, there is a breakthrough:

Then, one morning, I’m standing in front of a female practitioner who comes up from urdhva dhanurasana. She says something and all I catch is “ankles.” Here we go.

Something definitely shifts. I’m calm. And things go smoothly as we both do our part. I trust myself. And what’s more, I trust her. I reckon she trusts me too. With the breath–both of us breathing together–she extends the spine and arches back. It’s so fast and at the same time so beautifully slow. For me, it is an amazing moment of synchronicity and surrender between two people that don’t know each other.

I reach for one wrist and then the other. There is no forcing, only a little guidance. And there in that place of trust, I find a sweet balance between being able to support her and also stepping out of the way, allowing her to reach.

I realize then that with this ankle grabbing business, I’m not supposed to do all the work. I’m support crew. People generally don’t go there unless they can and the real task is not up to me really but in the heart of the practitioner finding space to go the extra distance. And for those making that first leap into this strange territory, Sharath’s usually there, guiding them towards their feet.

By the end, I ceased running from ankle grabbing. But I didn’t chase it either. If I was called, I would do, trusting in the process of practice, trusting in the abilities of the student, and trusting in myself. With more confidence, it all worked out fine–thank goodness!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m helping people to their ankles or not, whether we’re grabbing ankles or even dropping back on our own. What matters is that the practice cultivates the courage to go beyond, to see past the fears and the limitations of our own mind, and that it refines our ability to trust, trust in others as much as trust in ourselves.

Holding space

I’ve actually started this post a few times in my head since returning from the retreat, but it never seemed the right time to actually get these thoughts out. It’s interesting that I’m inspired to finally write this during a week my teacher is gone from the shala. She is on a silent meditation retreat several states away, and while I knew I’d miss her this week, I was surprised at how much I’ve still felt her presence in the Mysore room, and in my own practice, this past week.

Angela has told our group of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor apprentices that our job is to hold space. It’s not to adjust, though of course we provide a lot of adjustments. Our fundamental job in a Mysore space is to hold that space for students and their practices. We breathe with each student individually, and we breathe with the room collectively. To hold space, we need to be present, receptive, grounded, and heart-centered.

The balance that Kaz talks about in her blog post on trust — the balance of supporting a student while also leaving enough room to step out of the way so the student can reach — seems fundamental to holding space.

Your job is to hold space. It was such a simple and yet revolutionary idea the first time I heard it, and I think I’ve been able to feel the magnitude of this powerful concept so intensely this week precisely because Angela’s been gone. She has held space so consistently, so honestly, and so firmly, for her students who arrive every day at the Phoenix Center on Main Street in Ann Arbor’s vibrant downtown that even when she’s gone, her influence is palpable. It’s palpable in the way her students approach practice, and it’s palpable in the way her apprentices approach students. When the shala’s amazing senior apprentice, Rachel, comes by for assisted dropbacks while Angela is away, I feel the same envelope of support from her — and I hope she feels the same trust I have in her. I have this belief that when space is held as consistently and transparently as it is held in this shala, trust — the kind that’s earned and deserved — can become contagious.

So for me, an extension of the “Sahana Vavatu” mantra is that once the bond of the teacher-student relationship has been established, the lessons can expand and continue even if the teacher and the student aren’t in the same physical space. In consistently heading to the Mysore room to step on my mat, I have been consistently stepping into a space of self-discovery that has been held for me. I am realizing that as I live my life, I can actively choose to expand that space of learning and insight beyond the Mysore room. That space can, if I set my intentions with clarity, be expanded exponentially — to include just about my entire universe.

About the photos at the top of the post: I had thoughts about this theme of trust even before I went to the Xinalani retreat in Mexico, which is why I asked Angela if she’d be willing to take some photos with me to illustrate assisted backbends. She kindly said yes, and we held a short and sweet photo shoot in the yoga retreat’s distinctive Jungle Studio (so short and sweet that, without the benefit of a practice first, I definitely wasn’t going into any ankle-grabbing!). Thanks to the handy camera work of my friends Tim and Jade, I’ll always have the photos at the top of this post as visual mementos of this aspect of the sacred student-teacher relationship that means so much to me.

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