I sit here shuffling bits of paper on which I’ve written notes about this, the fifth and final niyama. These notes are all words of wisdom written by people who – I presume – know more about this topic than I do. On one hand, this niyama could be the easiest one to both write about and to practise. On the other hand, it’s the most difficult and complicated: hence my paper-shuffling.
To take the path of least resistance, ishvara pranidhana can be very loosely translated as “gratitude”: gratitude for all the good in our lives, and for life itself.
As with many ideas that originated in the East, this idea has found its way into the language of the “New Age”, where it is commonly known as having an “attitude of gratitude”. And it’s pretty easy, really. All you have to do is remember to be grateful. It’s the first thing I do every morning; before I get out of bed I go through all the things that I’m grateful for. I talk in my head “I’m thankful for my parents”, “I’m grateful for my freedom”, “I’m grateful for my food and my bed and…..”
So that’s the easy part of ishvara pranidhana. The hard bit is that there are more different interpretations of this niyama than for any of the other niyamas or yamas.
The most common interpretation is “Surrender to a Higher Power”.
Now, for a start, it’s not very popular these days to talk about surrendering to God. Surrendering is seen as a weakness and God has so many interpretations that I don’t feel at all qualified to talk about it…so I will just have to write what I now understand ishvara pranidhana to be.
“Yoga“ means “union with some (undefined) Higher Power” for the purpose of attaining bliss – which I presume everybody would like to experience – unending harmony, joy and peace. Patanjali has very kindly given us a blueprint for attaining that state: the Eight Limbs of yoga: five yamas, five niyamas, Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breathing practices), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (relaxation), Dhyana (concentration) and Samadhi (deep meditation, bliss, and the perfection of the previous seven “limbs”).
So… the whole purpose, not only of the first seven limbs of yoga, but also of the five yamas and five niyamas is to help us get to number 8: bliss.
MY understanding of ishvara pranidhana is that we do what we need to do, to feel really comfortable with ourselves. This may sound trite, but it’s not. Ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (control of the senses) and aparigraha (non greed) are the five yamas. Saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline) and swadhyaya (self-study) are the first four niyamas. All of these yamas and niyamas are principles to which we can aspire.
So part of my understanding of ishvara pranidhana is as a dedication to those high principles which have been shown, over thousands of years, to lead to ultimate happiness.
We do not have to believe in a God or even a “Higher Power” to aspire to live by those principles. All it needs is a “sense that can go beyond the present state of evolution”. 1
Christianity is 2,000 years old. In that time it has splintered into many different groupings. Yoga is about 5,000 years old. It, too, has splintered into many different groupings, with different philosophies, different understandings and interpretations of the ancient texts. My understanding is that yoga was not originally theistic and that somewhere along the line some groupings or some people came to believe in a Creator God.
A religious translation of ishvara pranidhana means something like “committing what one does to a Lord”, a Higher Power. 2 In more secular terms, it can mean acceptance and gratitude. It can mean “surrendering” (as many scholars have said), but even that has many interpretations, for example, surrendering one’s hold onto a certain point of view in order to give credence to a differing point of view. It could mean surrendering one’s perceived need for leather shoes in order to be kinder to animals (ahimsa). It could mean surrendering the desire for a new and bigger house or car or TV to match those of the neighbours (aparigraha). All these things – things that relate directly to our self-focused, often petty, existence – relate to the ego.
The ego – or at least the surrendering of it – is one of the mainstays of yoga.
The Bhagavad Gita talks a LOT about “letting go of the fruits of our actions” in order bring happiness. How often do we worry about “What will people think of me if I do this?” “What if I’m not good enough?” So our minds are not fully on the task at hand – we’re always worrying about “fruits”, the results of our actions. So surrendering, or transcending the ego is challenging and requires us to trust our deepest Self.
So … another part of my understanding of ishvara pranidhana is an acknowledgement that we DO have a “Higher Self”. How many times have we driven somewhere, and once there, we ask ourselves “How did I get here? My mind was totally elsewhere!” That was the Higher Self taking care of us. Surrendering to this Higher Self, trusting its wisdom, is ishvara pranidhana.
Whether or not Patanjali himself intended for us to surrender to some Creator God I think doesn’t matter.
I think we are free to believe what we like about that ‘something more’ – whether that’s a God, the Earth, a Higher Power or our higher selves. Recognition of something beyond our limited ego allows us to begin the process of dissociating from the external world in order to connect to our internal world. For within this internal world we strip away our self-focus – our egoic self – and turn our thoughts to those things beyond ourselves.
In this way, ishvara pranidhana becomes a means of perfecting that practice of inner focus and concentration. This, we are assured repeatedly, leads us to ultimate joy, peace and freedom.
- Georg Feuerstein, The Lost Teachings of Yoga, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.
- Swami Vimalratna, Yoga with Attitude, Practical Wellbeing, Sydney, Australia.