The fifth and final niyama, ishvara pranidhana, is the queen mother of all the restraints and observances that serve as the roots of yoga. In fact, The Yoga Sutras translator Sri Swami Satchidananda says that if you can master this one, there’s no need to read any more of the Sutras because you’ll already have attained samadhi, the state of oneness which is the final limb of yoga. He defines ishvara pranidhana like this: “By total surrender to God, samadhi is attained.” If this sounds foreign, or the reference to God makes you nervous, read on: You don’t have to be religious to “get” ishvara pranidhana, you just have to be willing to look outside of yourself.
Luckily, this is something most of us know on a gut level we need to do to be happy and at peace with ourselves. In fact, everyone from yogis to neuroscientists agree that stepping outside of ourselves is the key to happiness.
Surrendering ourselves to something bigger than us – whether we call it God, nature, or the universe – is at the heart of ishvara pranidhana. We spend so much of the day in our own heads, listening to the endless chatter of our thoughts, and flitting from one worry the next. This pattern is so ingrained in us, but it’s almost always in an effort to control our circumstances and gauge how we’re doing. But relinquishing this control (or, as some would say, our false sense of control) to something bigger than ourselves is the goal.
My lovely teacher and YogaGlo’s own Elena Brower talks about how she felt the power of ishvara pranidhana from an early age, in the context of religion, but wasn’t able to verbalize exactly what it was until she began practicing yoga. “Ishvara Pranidhana has played a role in my life since I was very small,” she tells me. “My parents would take me to Synagogue sometimes (we were Reform Jewish) and I distinctly remember feeling very connected to something much bigger than me while sitting in the sanctuary. The scale of the room, the sun in the tall windows, the voices chanting and praying in unison: I remember being deeply moved early on. Call it connection, call it prayer, God, Divinity… I could feel it, even though I hadn’t a name that really resonated with me at that time.”
There are, wonderfully, many ways to experience ishvara pranidhana on a daily basis. Some feel it, as Elena did, in a breathtaking surrounding, whether it’s a place of worship, walking along the beach, or looking up at a sky full of stars. But there are other ways, too. Many yogis believe that being of service to others is one of the best things – or perhaps the single best thing – we can do, since, after all, god is in all of us. As Satchidananda says, dedicate yourself to benefit humanity, and you’ve dedicated yourself to god.
Satchidananda also underlines that, just as all the yamas and niyamas are different doors to the same place, there are lots of ways to practice ishvara pranidhana. “Tastes differ,” he says. “That is why the scriptures give different paths.”
Seeing beauty and divinity in the small, quotidian things is another way to get there. Taking the time to experience the beauty and comfort of a hot cup of tea, the delight in your kid’s smile, or even the warmth of the soapy bubbles while doing the dishes, are the simplest ways – they can also be the most profound, because they are everywhere. Practicing asana and meditation are other, more deliberate ways, but equally important. Finding the connection between ourselves and other is what’s important, and at the heart of ishvara pranidhana.
“Each morning and night, I spend just a few minutes experiencing and seeing this connection, in myself and in those around me,” says Elena. “Usually I’ll use a meditation or kriya… Kriyas bring us into a meditative state, which is our connection to that devotion, that state of surrender.”
The point is, it doesn’t really matter how you do it – the opportunities are infinite. As always, it’s a practice: So if you only experience it for five seconds one day, don’t be discouraged. Just try to get in touch with it when you can, and you might be surprised at how it builds.
“We practice creating that feeling of quiet even when we’re not practicing,” says Elena. “We can commit to seeing beauty in unexpected ways. We can serve others by giving our resources, time or listening. We can be confidently attentive to our kids, our parents, our friends or our colleagues. All of these small actions of noticing, listening and acknowledging connect us to that state of surrender, recognition, and devotion.”
How do you experience ishvara pranidhana? Doing yoga? Communing with nature? Or in your ordinary activities throughout the day?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.