This is the final part of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
Several years ago I met a joyful Sufi woman who had been practicing a heart meditation morning, noon, and night for 40 years. Familiar with this powerful practice, I assumed she must have had some very beautiful experiences. So I asked her about it… But she hadn’t. While most people she knew had felt their hearts open, had visions, or had heard the voice of love, she supposed that—for her—the Divine had a different plan. But it mattered not one bit: She needed no proof. She was utterly devoted to love.
I was so moved and humbled by her devotion. To practice every morning and then throughout the day to meditate on—and for—the Divine for 40 years without any sign of being heard, or of being on the right path, and yet to remain steadfast in the practice… Faith that strong, that dedicated—I could not have imagined having.
“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life.” – Eckhart Tolle
As devoted of yogis as we may be, we often carry with us an expectation of something in return for our dedication. We want results. We want peace and joy and love. We want to be better human beings. We want to be healed. We want the boons. How many of us can say we would keep returning to the cushion or mat if we hadn’t felt our bodies opening and our hearts responding?
Yet it is this unshakable faith and devotion that ishvara pranidhana, the final of our five Niyamas, wants us to cultivate. It can be translated as “devoting oneself entirely to the Divine,” and Patanjali mentions it more than any other Yama or Niyama. The gentle voice in the Yoga Sutras that began with ahimsa, saying—Let go of who you think you are, and become who you truly are—has now become a roar.
Why? Because we if want to experience our divine nature, we have to surrender our ego nature. We have to surrender from the “I” and return to love. Without ishvara pranidhana, there is no samadhi.
So what is this “I” we are giving up? It can seem scary, and lead us declare war on our ego… But there is no need for a battle. The ego is nothing more than a collection of false beliefs we have about who we are. So when we surrender from our ego, we aren’t giving up our personalities, our expressions in the world. We still love hip-hop music and lattes, and we still have our quirky sense of humor. Rather we are surrendering from the beliefs that we aren’t worthy, that we aren’t lovable, that we aren’t enough…
When we surrender, we instead bring the energy of yes to the present moment.
And through this act of surrender, we give up all the ways in which those false beliefs are expressing themselves in the world through our thoughts, emotions, and actions. We surrender the “you’re right/you’re wrong, I’m wrong/I’m right” behaviors that have driven our experience of life, and instead we see that everything is one, and therefore everything is perfect. How can it not be? Ishvara includes within it the understanding that the “Divine” is within everyone. And if the Divine is perfect and we are all divine, then how can anything be wrong?
Intellectually we can grasp this, but it is more challenging to live in surrender. The good news is that just by coming to yoga we have already started shedding our skins. And if we continue on this path, devoting ourselves to love rather than the “I”, then samadhi is inevitable.
So how do we practice ishvara pranidhana? We start saying “yes.” All the worrying, the striving, the thoughts of how we must do this, and must achieve that, the judging, and the complaining—that’s our mind saying no to what is. When we surrender, we instead bring the energy of yes to the present moment. That person who jumps ahead of us in line and makes us mad? In the words of spiritual teacher Brent Haskell, we say: “Yes, thank you—for you reminded me that I still think we are separate.” The presidential candidate we are vehemently against? We say: “Yes, another fine example of how I’m devoted to what I think matters, instead of allowing what is.”
As Eckhart Tolle says, surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life.”
It is not weakness to yield. We will still vote. Rather we let our heart determine our choices instead of our minds. Indeed, when we start to practice ishvara pranidhana we ask in every moment, as advaita zen master Mooji teaches: “Divine, replace me with you.”
When we surrender we see through the eyes of love. We start to accept life in its crazy, beautiful entirety, and in doing so we free ourselves up to do what makes our heart sing. We begin to let the divine spark inside us express itself. Life becomes an adventure.
But we have to trust the outcome. When we are fully surrendering, we have no expectations. We are not looking for peace. We are peace. We are not looking to be made perfect. We are perfect. We practice yoga for our love of yoga, not because we want to be better people or think yoga is necessary. We live in the present, and we become like my Sufi friend—wholly open to what is, and devoted to love for love’s sake. This, says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, is the purest path to samadhi of all.
3 Ways to Put Ishvara Pranidhana Into Practice
1. Start Saying “Yes”
Every time you are triggered, see it as a sign to where your devotion lies. If you’re upset because your rent is hiked, that’s great! That means you’re not trusting what is, and your devotion is to money right now. If you’re offended because a colleague tells you you look terrible today, great! That means your devotion is to your body. In every moment we have a choice to say “yes” to the perfection in everything.
2. Take a Small Leap of Faith
“To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is, you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived,” says Richard Bach in Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. That is faith—the inner knowing. Sometimes we can take the large leap, but other times we need small steps. So start small: What does the Divine spark in you want to do today, in this moment? Take the train? Go by bus? Go left or go right? Begin to trust whatever happens along the way.
3. On the Mat
To embody ishvara pranidhana on our mat we must come to our practice with a heart of devotion. So we start with an offering. Perhaps we light incense or a candle. We focus on whatever form the Divine takes for us, and intend ourselves to surrender our will, to let ourselves be moved. We hand ourselves over.
With this energy we can approach every asana as a chance to explore where our resistance lies. Where are we clenching in Kapotasana? Is it resistance that blocks our headstand or Chakrasana? And through our practice we begin to understand that we are safe to surrender. When we move into a backbend being guided by the Divine, rather than from a sense of “I must…” we will find we are guided just to the point we need—no more.
And what better asana for allowing what is, than Savasana? Too often in class we rush through with a five-minute Savasana, so why not set aside time for a home practice that includes a 15-minute Savasana?
Finally, in meditation, we do as Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax Roshi suggests: “We cross our legs and hope to die.” We hand over the ego and sit with unshakable faith in our anjali mudra, our mudra of devotion, and we surrender to love.
See all of the Yamas and Niyamas in this 10-part series here.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, Awakening Together minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie.