The Yamas and Niyamas are Yoga’s ethical precepts as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are practices that govern our outward behavior and the Niyamas are internal observances. The fifth Niyama is Isvara Pranidhana. Isvara is a name for God, the Divine, the Numinous. Pranidhana, in this context, is usually translated as “surrender”. Thus, Isvara Pranidhana means “surrender to the Divine”.
Wrestling with God.
Surrender is a tricky word. In the West, we’ve attached many negative connotations to this idea of surrender. The word surrender is defined as “cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” In sacred Western literature, Jacob, one of the founders of the Western monotheistic religions, was said to have “wrestled with God”. The prophet Jeremiah lamented, “You have duped me, oh Lord, and I have allowed myself to be duped.” Is it any wonder we have difficulty surrendering?
Before we can cultivate an attitude of, and eventually perform actions that lead to, surrender, we must first establish what it is we are surrendering and who it is we are surrendering to. First of all, the Yoga Sutras (nor any of these other sacred texts, for that matter) are not suggesting we surrender our will to a deity that exists outside of ourselves. If only it were that simple! Rather, these texts ask that we look within ourselves. What is it that we are devoting ourselves to? What have we made into our Ishta Devata (our personal deity)? What “hill are we willing to die on”, so to speak, and when we really think about it, is it worthy of our devotion?
What shall we live for?
Isvara pranidhana requires a shift in perception from “me” to “Thee”. It directs our thoughts away from our ego-centered identity and invites us to identify with something greater than our small, personal self. We suffer when we believe we must “go it alone and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” This creates and sustains disconnection from others. It turns our limited self into a god. Inevitably, when we mistake our identity as one with the Numinous for our brief, fleeting human existence, we will never be able to live up to our own expectations! When we identify with the smallness of our personal self rather than the magnitude of our true Self, we are unable to access all the power and potential within us.
Thus, our small self must wrestle with our Cosmic Self. Our ego develops as a way to interact with the world. It gives us a sense of order and place. Our ego is like an instrument. The instrument does not create the music. The music simply exists. However, the music cannot exist without a player. The player is like the true Self. This does not mean that the instrument is unimportant. No, indeed! Music would be merely a theoretical concept in the physical world without an instrument to play it.
Surrender is when the ego realizes its mistaken identity and its inherent connection to something greater than itself. “You have duped me, oh true Self! And I have allowed myself to be duped!” Rather than submitting to the authority of an enemy, we find ourselves truly liberated by a Friend.
Practicing Isvara Pranidhana….
There are many ways we can practice Isvara Pranidhana on and off our yoga mats and meditation cushions. Here are a few ideas to help you get started!
- Set an intention for your yoga practice. Consciously devote your practice to something bigger than your individual self. For example, instead of “May I have a good day” try “May I bless the lives of all I meet today.” In doing so, you create a good day for yourself… one full of meaning and purpose!
- Listen to your yoga teacher and do as they say. So often we get wrapped up in how we think we should practice a yoga pose, that we don’t actually listen to the instructions given. Not only can this be potentially injurious, but we also miss out on the benefit of trying something new or different!
- Listen to your body. Accept your body as it is on any given day. If a pose is too difficult, modify the pose. It sounds simple, but it is not necessarily easy. The ego may try to convince you to do something that is not really in your best interest. On the other hand, resist the urge to shy away from a challenge. You never know what you are capable of until you try!
- Consider your life. 2020 has offered us many opportunities to put Isvara Pranidhana into practice in the real world! COVID-19 is a perfect example. When we do things like wear our masks, socially distance, or stay home when we are ill, we are disengaging from our individual ego in pursuit of a higher goal: the health and well-being of all!
- Speaking of illness…. One of the greatest teachers we will ever encounter is our own suffering. When we surrender, we are not surrendering to the suffering itself, but to the reality that in this moment we are experiencing suffering. That may or may not be true tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. All we know in this moment is that we are in pain. We can take steps to alleviate and possibly remedy the pain, but the suffering must be reckoned with on a more intimate level. Regardless of our experience, suffering teaches us that we can be in pain without turning our pain into a god. Surrender frees us. When we foster an attitude of radical acceptance of reality and choose to identify with something greater than our small selves, we discover we can be in pain and still live a loving, joy-filled life.