Ishvara Pranidhana: Opening to the Wonder Around Us
The last of the niyamas in yoga is ishvara pranidhana, which means surrender to the divine. If you follow a religious practice, you may find this a familiar concept. If you don’t, this concept may feel uncomfortable. However, without changing the essence of this niyama, ishvara pranidhana can be easily reframed as connecting with something bigger than ourselves and embracing a sense of spaciousness and possibility.
When we are going about our day-to-day activities, it can be hard to keep the bigger picture in mind. We spend our time trying to keep our circumstances under control and tend to get contracted around whatever is occupying our minds at that moment. For example, as a lawyer, when I am working on a stressful case, it is hard to remember that I am a human being with value and interests that expand beyond the practice of law. I also tend to become self-centred, finding it hard to remember that other people have their own issues and interests. It is nearly impossible to remember that there is a whole world, a whole universe, out there.
When we define ourselves by certain roles, we keep ourselves small, and it can be scary to suddenly open to something larger. For example, if one is overly identified with one's role as a mother, asking the question, “Who am I when I am not hustling kids from place-to-place?” can be enough to throw one into an existential crisis. Yogi and writer, Donna Farhi, states that the life of our larger self “is characterized by awe, mystery, and open-endedness. And while we may find living in awe, mystery, and open-endedness rather nice for an evening at the theatre, living our whole life this way can seem like a tall order.” However, opening up need not be tackled all at once. Farhi states that “opening ourselves to be this larger self doesn’t mean we have to burn down our house. It just means we need to open doors and windows and let in some light and air.” We may consciously engage in activities that allow us to wake up to the beauty and wonder all around us, such as connecting with nature, spending quiet time in contemplation, fully entering into play with our children or pets.
Our yoga practice can also create a safe space for connecting with a larger sense of ourselves. As we tune into our bodies, mind and spirit on the mat, practicing being in challenging poses and engaging in quiet contemplation, we become more knowledgeable, stronger and more skillful. As Farhi puts it, “In yoga practice, we consciously increase our threshold for living at this level of intensity without fracturing. This is the reason it is so important to stay continually with the practice. Through repeated practice, we become secure with insecurity, certain with uncertainty, comfortable with discomfort.”
As we become more willing to open to the wonder around us, we will experience more of it. In a discussion on mindfulness I was watching as part of a conference, the moderator, Melli O'Brien, said something that stuck with me: "There is no such thing as a mundane moment." Ishvara pranidhana reminds us that every moment is full of wonder. We just have to bring our attention to it. At this moment, my heart is beating, circulating blood around my body; my lungs are breathing; I am pushing buttons, which are turning my thoughts into words on a computer screen. My healthy, amazing kids are transforming the food in our fridge in something delicious (or, hopefully, at least edible) for dinner. The sun is shining on my backyard, waking up the grass that has been lying dormant under the snow. And all of this is just happening in my tiny little corner of the world. Countless other moments of wonder are also unfolding around the world and across the universe.
Take a moment now to open to the amazing things that are happening around you, even in this most "mundane" of moments.