Theme of the Month: Isvara Pranidhana

This month at Breathe we will be focusing on Isvara pranidhana, the final niyama.

Although it’s often described as the ‘easiest’ path to peace and oneness-realization, I must admit I’ve had some reservations about composing a post about Isvara pranidhana. I would suspect that it’s for the same reasons that during my 200-hour teacher training when asked to define each of the 8-limbs I never came up with more than the translation, devotion to God. Isvara pranidhana is the last step of our journey of observances to practice. Taking on writing about surrender to the Absolute, the One, has always felt too big and I’ve never felt capable of putting spirit into words. Additionally, I know that for some, myself included, at times, the word God can be triggering. Higher power, or as my teacher Seane states ‘the god of your own understanding’ are more universal. However this raises the issue for atheists who practice yoga… what are we truly devoting our focus and energy toward?

These are the reasons I’ve often steered clear of writing about this topic, and I believe the reason many yoga teachers avoid the subject altogether. Depending on the style of yoga you practice and the culture of the studio environment Isvara pranidhana is most likely a rare focal point. And yet, for Patanjali this is a critical observance on the path to freedom, union, and enlightened living.

Ishvara is a Sanskrit word that can be translated to mean ‘Supreme being,’ ‘God,’ ‘Ultimate Reality,’ or ‘True Self.’ Pranidhana means to dedicate, devote, or surrender. In essence the practice of Isvara Pranidhana means to cultivate a deep and trusting relationship with the universe, and make each action an offering to something bigger than yourself. The practice of Ishvara Pranidhana therefore entails any effort to surrender our individual ego identity. In releasing our ego we will attain the identity of our own highest self. It’s addition by subtraction, we lose the self to gain the Self.

Additionally, Isvara Pranidhana means to devote our lives to service. If we can dedicate our lives to serving the highest power that dwells within all other beings, human and non-human alike, we will move beyond all feelings of separateness. 

It’s said that this niyama essentially requires no effort or pain on our part – we simply let go, devote everything to a higher power and completely devote our actions to whatever we consider that higher power to be, and yet for most of us our attachment to ego does require diligence to overcome.

Practicing surrender to ultimate reality or universal consciousness frees us from the stress, anxiety, self-doubt and negative karma that arises from our reliance upon our egos to determine which actions we take in our lives.

We invite you to join us in bringing more awareness to the practice of surrender this month (and beyond). Here are a few ways to get started:

— Rest when you need to in your yoga practice. Surrendering in asana practice is not weak, it is perhaps the strongest thing we can do.

— Surrender to the pose you are practicing. At times we learn from our asana practice to find comfort within discomfort, and lean into the edge of uncertainty to truly discover what letting go feels like.

— Put aside any judgments and criticisms, and follow the instructions given in class. This teaches us to more readily take cue from something other than the ego.

— Let go of what you can’t control and don’t sacrifice your bliss for things outside of yourself. Surrender to what is and the beautiful messiness of it all.

— Practice non-attachment. Surrender selfish desires that manifest and let go of the fruits of your actions.

— Use this mantra: “Om.” Softly chant the sound of the universe—Om, giving over, or surrendering, our fears, anxieties, and doubts makes life easier and more bearable. 

While we may offer the fruits of our practice to another, or bow to a force or being that is seemingly greater than ourselves, our yoga practice teaches us that we actually contain the divine source of life within us. It is our baseline, our natural state that we often forget. Ishvara Pranidhana reminds us: That which we seek is already present within us.