We begin our Iyengar Yoga classes with the Patañjali Chant, paying our respects to a lineage of teachers and a tradition that spans thousands of years. My teacher has quoted Prashant Iyengar’s statement about the chant, that it is not a prayer, because we are not asking for anything. We are acknowledging a source of the teachings that are being passed on. One of my students, Daniel Hugger, shares reflections on this topic, drawing from his background as a scholar on religion:
When I heard Prashant Iyengar's argument on why the Patañjali Chant was not a prayer (that it does not ask for anything), my thoughts immediately turned to St. Thomas.
St. Thomas was a 13th century Italian Dominican friar, priest, and theologian. He is honored in the Catholic tradition as a Doctor of the Church, a title denoting both sanctity and great accomplishment in learning. Among the Doctors he is especially important and bears the title Angelic Doctor. In other Christian traditions St. Thomas is often, although not always, also viewed as an authority but less so than in the Catholic tradition.
St. Thomas's greatest written work was the Summa Theologica. It is a very large but unfinished work which he hoped would serve as a guide for students of theology. It draws not only from Christian scriptures and tradition but from ancient pagan philosophers of the west and Jewish and Islamic philosophers as well.
It is composed in a scholastic style common to his time arranged by topics, questions, potential answers to questions, St. Thomas's answers, and then arguments against the potential answers St. Thomas rejects. Here is St. Thomas on the topic of prayer:
To break it down St. Thomas sees prayer as having four necessary conditions:
1) It must be addressed to God directly or indirectly through angels and holy persons both living and dead. (ST II.II.83.4)
2) It must be an act of practical reason (i.e. having an end in view with cause and effect). (ST II.II.83.1)
3) It must ask for something, as Prashant Iyengar also argues. (ST II.II.83.5)
4) What is asked for must be sincerely desired (ST II.II.83.16)
I think Prashant Iyengar's argument is the clearest reason that the Patañjali Chant should not be considered a prayer. I also think the Patañjali Chant as an exercise in skeptical reason (geared towards apprehending or remembering the legacy of Patañjali) rather than practical reason (having an end in view with cause and effect).
Dan Hugger is a student of Iyengar Yoga through his teacher, Jennifer Beaumont, since January 2017. He works as librarian and research associate at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He studied history at Hillsdale College and earned a State of Michigan teaching certificate at Calvin College, where he completed a thesis on the role of the imagination in the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola. For his work in history at Calvin he was nominated for a Lilly Fellowship. He has taught history, English, and economics at public schools in the Grand Rapids area and has lectured on Lord Acton.
Patañjali statue at the Abode of Iyengar Yoga, In San Francisco, California