In the Ashtanga tradition we begin each practice by reciting two versus taken partly from a longer poem known as the Yoga Taravalli:
Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde Sandarsita
Svatma Sukhava Bodhe
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
The Ashtanga Yoga research Institute interprets the Sanskrit meaning in this way:
I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus,
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads, white,
To Patanjali, I salute.
Melanie Cooper at Shanti Yoga Shala has a very granular and interesting, line by line breakdown of its meaning. But the short version is, the opening mantra begins and ends with expressions of gratitude for our many teachers in all the forms they take and for the practice itself.
The first verse outlines what the practice can do for us: Awaken happiness by revealing the true Self and pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara. Samsara in this context refers to the cycle of aimless drifting; that is, repeating the same patterns of thought and behavior that lead to suffering.
The second verse is a bit more abstract, symbolizing Pantanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras) in the form of Ananata, endless, infinite, eternal wisdom.
Beyond its inherent meaning, beginning our group practice by chanting in this way has two latent effects: 1) It opens up the throat chakra. We find our voice (literally) and in doing so we let down our defenses and lay down our ego. 2) It begins to engage our pulmonary system and activates our breath cycle. Moreover, chanting in Sanskrit in general has been shown to increase the size of the brain associated with cognitive function, according to Scientific American. So… added bonus.
Joey Miles has a wonderful tutorial on the opening mantra new students can use to learn the chant that I highly recommend.