I took a little break last week to visit family so I wasn't able to do my weekly sloka. So this week we're doing two! The work has 29 slokas in all and I've made my goal to finish my translation before the year ends. And now, without further ado......
Bhavat prasādāt pavanena sākam vilīyate Vishnupade mano me ||
O contemplation of silent sound! All salutations to you! I know you as the practice of the foundation of truth; together with purifying breath, my mind dissolves into Vishnu’s feet from your holy grace
They [the skilled adepts] speak about the held-in-a-net, the flying up, and the root locks from the foundation of the throat, belly, and anus; when these three locks are consolidated, where is the bondage to time’s cruel noose?
Śloka 4 is about as straightforward as can be. It starts in the vocative case, which, as you might expect, is used when calling out to or upon someone or something. It is usually accompanied with an “O!” or an “Oh!” Think “Romeo, O Romeo!,” or “O rose! Thou art sick…” It has an old-fashioned feel but it is still used in modern English. Think “Yo Adrian! It’s me, Rocky,” or “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido, O denial O denial O denial!!! etc.”
This śloka presents what you could call the fundamental equation of Yoga: mind control + body control = bliss/enlightenment. The contemplation of anahata is not just any means of meditation, but the very best. And then also the most important part of the physical practice is the breath. This is a notion very familiar to Ashtanga practitioners. Or at least it should be.
And finally, where does the mind go in that final state of dissolution? The feet. Just more confirmation of what was touched on in the commentary on the first śloka. But then again the feet into which our Minds dissolve are not just any feet, but Vishnu’s feet. A quick Sanatana Dharma (i.e., Hinduism) refresher: towards the top of the very vast pantheon of deities and among various other trinties, there is one trinity that is most important: Brahma-Vishnu-Śiva. They represent the beginning, middle, and end of existence, respectively. Brahma creates, Vishnu sustains, Śiva destroys. There’s a reason why Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman) doesn’t really have his own cult the way Vishnu and Śiva do, but to be perfectly honest I’ve forgotten what it is. Many Hindus sects are either Vishnaivite or Śaivite. Adi Śhankara was a Śaivite and so he is demonstrating some intellectual openness by devoting so many ślokas to Vishnu. Even in writing a treatise about Yoga he is demonstrating his range, if you will, because Adi Śankara is best known as a proponent of Vedanta (Advaita Vedanta to be specific), which is a different field of philosophical inquiry altogether.
Translating Śloka 5 presents something of a dilemma. Experienced Ashtanga practitioners are familiar with the three bandhas described: jālandhara, uddiyana, and mula bandha. Sometimes these and other similar terms are used so frequently that people don’t bother to translate them. There’s a sort of efficiency in doing that. Besides, some of the literal translations are either very vague (e.g. Kevala Kumbhaka, which will be discussed at length in upcoming ślokas) or don’t seem to have much to do with what they represent. But it’s still good to know the literal meanings of these terms.
To execute jālandhara bandha one tucks his or her chin down towards the sternum, usually from a seated position with a nice, elongated spine. It isn’t done too often during āsana practice. Uddiyana bandha is done by drawing the belly in and up. I always say it’s like when you’re at the beach or pool and you see somebody attractive and whose you want to impress. In and up goes the belly! This can be confusing for students who come from sports or exercise fitness backgrounds. They are told to “engage the core” and tend merely to flex their abs and keep everything rigid. Mūlabandha involves toning and lifting the pelvic floor. It’s subtle, tricky to explain, and probably shouldn’t be demonstrated and certainly not adjusted. Even with full consent and deepest trust between student and teacher. And, of course, it is probably most essential to success in āsana, pranayama, and sitting meditation practices
Very strictly speaking, the bandhas only happen during pranayama exercises. Sort of how champagne is only champagne if it’s from the Champagne region in Burgundy. Otherwise its sparkling wine, or cava, or prosecco. Not to say those can’t be as delicious and in some cases better than champagne but that’s just how it is. So to satisfy the sticklers, you can say you’re in jālandhara, or uddiyana, or mula bandha position when you engage those muscles or locks, but unless they’re accompanying a retention of the breath with the lungs full or empty, you aren’t doing the bandhas per se.
We could go on and on about bandhas (there are whole books devoted to them) but let’s stop here with an interesting cross-cultural observation. In the Western iconography and mythology Death is usually depicted carrying a massive scythe. The Grim Reaper eventually mows down all who live. But in India, he collects the living with a noose, or rather a lasso. But, as Blue Oyster Cult sang, if your bandha practice is correct you needn’t fear the reaper. Or the lasso-er. Best to end on a pleasant thought. Stay tuned next week as we introduce the great she-serpent Kundalini and learn what we can expect when she wakes up….