Ishvara pranidhana is not about what your yoga can do for you, but about approaching your practice in the spirit of offering.
By Shiva Rea
When I was an Ashtanga student in Mysore, I loved walking to Pattabhi Jois’s yoga shala (school) for 4:30 a.m. practice. In the quiet darkness before dawn, the side streets would be dotted with the neighborhood’s sari-clad women kneeling upon the earth in front of their homes drawing rangoli, intricate sacred diagrams (also called yantras) made by sifting rice flour between the fingers. Simple or elaborate, these offerings were always vibrant – and destined to be erased as the streets filled with traffic. I was inspired by the women’s dedication, creativity, and lack of attachment to their beautiful creations. As one mother told me with a smile and an expansive wave of her hand, “These offerings remind me of the big picture, which helps me take care of the small things with love.”
Ishvara pranidhana—surrendering (pranidhana) to a higher source (Ishvara) is a “big picture” yoga practice: It initiates a sacred shift of perspective that helps us to remember, align with, and receive the grace of being alive.
Many modern Westerners have only experienced surrendering to a higher source as a last resort, when we’ve confronted seemingly insurmountable problems. But in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali transforms “surrender” from this emergency response into an essential ongoing practice.
For Patanjali, Ishvara pranidhana is a potent method for dissolving the endless agitations of the mind, and thus a means to the ultimate unified state of yoga. Ishvara pranidhana shifts our perspective from the obsession with “I”—that causes so much of the mind’s distraction and creates a sense of separation from our Source. Since Ishvara pranidhana focuses on the sacred ground of being, it reunites us with our true Self. Ishvara pranidhana provides a pathway through the obstacles of our ego toward our divine nature—grace, peace, unconditional love, clarity, and freedom.
The Face of God
To practice Ishvara pranidhana, we must first start with our own intimate connection to the universe. In yoga, this is your Ishta-Devata. The yogic concept of Ishta-Devata recognizes that we each have our own, personal relationship with the Divine and that this serves as a powerful means of yoga (unification). Traditionally, many sadhus (monks) in India have revered the god Shiva in his role as the archetypal yogi. But Sri T. Krishnamacharya, probably the most influential figure in the spread of yoga to the West, advocated that Western yoga practitioners use their own language, imagery, and names of the sacred to deepen their connection to Ishvara.
I have always been naturally drawn to Indian culture, but I’m sure I was also influenced by my Catholic grandmother’s devotion to Mother Mary. Your Ishta-Devata can also take a more abstract form; my father, an artist, describes light as his way of seeing the Divine in nature, in people’s eyes, in art. In yoga, Ishvara is understood as being beyond one form yet expressed through all forms, and thus is often represented as the sacred syllable Om, as pure vibration. Your Ishta-Devata is the form that vibration takes within your own heart.
My experience of my inner teacher is that as my attunement to this inner sense of direction grows, it increasingly guides my thoughts, speech, and actions.
The Spirit of Offering
If Ishvara is the inner compass, pranidhana is remembering to stay connected to that essence not just occasionally but throughout the day. Ishvara pranidhana is also translated as “offering the fruits of one’s actions to the Divine.” As we consider how to make Ishvara pranidhana a living part of our yoga, it’s useful to look to India, where the act of offering pervades the culture. Throughout India, images of the Divine are everywhere, and people of all ages are continuously making offerings of fruit, incense, and gestures, from Anjali Mudra (hands together at the heart) to full-body prostrations. All these practices cultivate an underlying connection with the Source; “Me, me, me” starts to move into the background, and spiritual life moves more front and center.
The Way to Begin
For Americans, who seldom grow up with such a constant ritual life, establishing Ishvara pranidhana may require some extra attention and internal listening. Like breathing more deeply, Ishvara pranidhana shouldn’t feel strange or uncomfortable. There is no inner state, emotion, or obstacle that is beyond the positive influence of Ishvara pranidhana. Remember, whether you are a natural bhakti (devotional) yogi or a complete skeptic, whether you are undertaking a simple act or a challenging task, whether your state of mind is joyous or confused, the whole mandala of life is the realm of Ishvara pranidhana.
Because the scope of Ishvara pranidhana is so vast, Western yoga practitioners often welcome a few practical guidelines to help them get started. The yoga mat or meditation cushion is a wonderful “safe space,” on which you can test drive Ishvara pranidhana. As with any action in the world, the way you begin your practice can make a huge difference in how your yoga flows. Inner listening, setting your intention, chanting, and visualization are all formal ways of initiating Ishvara pranidhana. In my own practice, I am becoming more and more able to recognize tension as a signal; holding and gripping are signs that my connection with Ishvara pranidhana is lessening. As I offer my tension back to the Source, emptying and surrendering again, I very often experience a boost of strength or a deepening of my breath and flexibility. Even more importantly, I experience a shift from my small, crowded inner world to a big picture of being alive. Then, as with the Mysore women’s rice-flour offerings, the grace from the process remains even when the pose has dissolved.
Because Ishvara pranidhana connects every action to its sacred source, Krishnamacharya is said to have described it as the most important yoga practice for the Kali Yuga we live in, an “Iron Age” in which all humanity has fallen away from grace. Ishvara pranidhana could be called “heartfulness” practice; it awakens our constant devotion to the Source of life and keeps our hearts open to the Divine in every moment, no matter what arises.
Shiva Rea lives in Malibu, California. She can be reached at www.yogadventures.com.
This article can be found online at http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/776_1.cfm
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