What is Ishvara Pranidhana?
What is Ishvara Pranidhana?
This post is the tenth in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. If you’ve been tuned to our blog over the past few months, you’ve learned about each of the ten concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.
Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The yamas include Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. If you’re just starting this series now, you can find more information on each of the yamas in their respective posts.
We’re now into the niyamas, and you can find an introduction to the niyamas as a whole in the post on Saucha. The second niyama is Santosha, the third is Tapas, and the fourth is Svadhyaya. This post moves onto the fifth and final niyama, Ishvara Pranidhana, which is broken up into two concepts: Ishvara means “the True Self,” “God,” “Brahma,” or “Supreme Being.” Pranidhana means “dedication,” “devotion,” or “surrender.” Together, they encompass surrender to a being, concept, or deity larger than yourself.
I thought yoga wasn’t about religion
The beautiful thing about yoga is that you can take from it what you need, and that includes in the sense of spirituality. There are many ways to approach the more spiritual aspects of yogic philosophy; you don’t necessarily need to accept specific religious concepts of deity. Instead, you can consider “deity” however you think about something larger than yourself, and that can be based in any religion or any notion of spirituality. Whether it is Jesus, Allah, Brahma, Mother Nature, or the Divine Universe, there is no wrong answer here.
With this idea of “surrender” in mind, it may be worth examining your own ideas of divinity: does it make you uncomfortable or does the idea of deity feel reassuring? Our ideas of religion are shaped by early experiences and many people run from organized religion at the first chance, which can have a long-lasting effect on your relationship with the divine. Revisiting your own ideas and preconceptions of the divine can allow you to create a relationship based on your most private needs; your spirituality never has to be shared with anyone else.
What about the “surrender” part?
Now that we’ve touched on the Ishvara, or “divinity,” aspect of this niyama, let’s explore the Pranidhana aspect. “Surrender” can have negative connotations – surrendering in battle means losing. But in this instance, surrender is akin to letting go, akin to Aparigraha. Surrendering to the divine means letting go of attempting to control the things you cannot control and cultivating a deep and abiding belief that everything will work itself out. Surrendering meaning letting go of worry, because worry and anxiety are not helpful to you; it means doing your best and letting the outcomes of your actions be as they will be.
Surrender is also about directing your energy away from yourself and towards humanity, oneness, and the divine. Most of the yoga practices in the West are extremely focused on the self – they are all about how I feel, my relationship with myself, and my body. Ishvara Pranidhana asks you to turn that lens outwards and see the big picture so the small things can be done with loving kindness for others.
Surrender means “giving up what we think should be happening for what is actually happening.” — McCall Erickson
Yoga translates as “union”; philosophically, yoga is meant to show us the path to Samadhi, or enlightenment, a state of oneness (union) with the divine universe. Ishvara Pranidhana is a very important step in that journey. When you are attached to everyday drama, it is impossible to connect with something greater than yourself. Only when you let go of everyday worries, concerns, attachments, and aversions can you start to find a sense of peace and unity.
Part of finding this union is identifying the aspects of yourself that are divine; you are not separate from the natural world and all the things that carry a divine spark.
Ishvara Pranidhana in your yoga practice
Integrating Ishvara Pranidhana into your yoga practice can be done to varying degrees depending on how you view this niyama. You can simply devote the energy of your practice to someone who could use it. This dedication is done by setting that intention at the start and sending that person or group your energy and thoughts throughout. You can also imagine your practice as an offering to the universe or to the divine.
Turning your yoga practice from yourself to the service of all others can also shed a different light on the physical practice of asana. If your practice is dedicated to raising loving energy for someone else, do they benefit if you push past your edge and risk injury? Or do they benefit more from you giving yourself the love and attention you need, whether that means working hard or easing up and taking an extra-long savasana?
Ishvara Pranidhana is one of the most challenging of the yamas and niyamas, but you are not expected to master it in a day. Take your time to explore your own notions of the divine and what kind of relationship with the universe makes you feel comfortable before you dive into surrendering to that relationship. As always, if you have questions, feel free to ask your teachers before or after class.