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Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrendering to the Divine

The last of the yamas and niyamas, ishvara pranidhana, translates to surrender to the divine. This one often creates resistance in modern yogis. Many of us don’t follow a particular religion or have a sense of a divine presence. However, all of us, at some time or another, have had an experience of connecting with something that transcends our individual identity. We may have experienced it when walking in the woods, staring at the stars in the night sky, engaging in a particular activity that takes our full concentration, being in a group of people engaged in a common activity or purpose. These are all beautiful examples of ishvara pranidhana.

Another issue that people often have is that they think of "surrender" as acquiescing to the way things are. However, what this niyama is asking us to surrender is our attachment to have things a certain way. Often, without even realizing it, we are fighting with life, trying to wrestle it into the shape we want it to take rather than accepting reality as it is. Does accepting things as they are mean that we don’t work toward change? Absolutely not. It just means that rather than putting our energy into being sad and angry and wishing things were otherwise, we can put it towards gaining perspective, seeing the reality before us and acting skillfully given that reality. To paraphrase the serenity prayer, we can work to accept what we cannot change, work to change what we can and, through the practice of ishvara pranidhana, we can gain the wisdom to know the difference.

Reflecting on ishvara pranidhana has been a powerful practice for me in the last few days. Without realizing it, I was waging a war with reality and insisting that things had to turn out a certain way. I had been recommended for a teaching opportunity that I really, really wanted. I was under the impression that it was a done deal and all I had to do was to contact someone to finalize the details. I have tried repeatedly to contact this person. I emailed and left voicemails, to no avail. I woke up every morning and ran to my computer to see if I had received an email from her and then felt bitterly disappointed when I hadn’t. I had decided that this course had to happen, and I was suffering from an aching sense of discontent.

As I was thinking about the idea of surrender with this niyama, I realized I was doing the opposite. I had dug in my heels, convincing myself that I couldn’t be happy until this situations had resolved itself to my satisfaction. Not a great position to be in as there are so many variables outside of my control. I can’t make someone get back to me. I can’t make her decide that the course I would like to teach is important. I have put in the work I can at the moment. It is now time to surrender. This doesn’t mean that I won’t take further steps in the future to pursue this opportunity, but, for now, I need to surrender to the uncertainty and let it be.

Once I realized what was going on, I consciously chose to engage an activity that would help me gain some perspective and connect with life on a grander scale. I went for a walk through the woods. I admired the budding leaves, breathed the fresh air and listened to birds and the wind in the trees. Of course, my mind would wander off and begin fussing. That is what it does. Every time that happened, I would stop and listen to the birds. Then I would walk; then I would fuss; then I would stop and listen to the birds. It was a simple but lovely practice. I could feel my body unwinding and my mind opening back up to take in the world rather than contracting around this one obsession.

If you wish to engage in ishvara pranidhana in the next while, I encourage you to choose to engage in something will evoke a sense of letting go of your ego and open you to something bigger. If you practice yoga, I encourage you to appreciate how yoga connects you to something bigger than yourself. When you are in a live class, you are bringing your presence and energy to the class. Regardless of whether your practice is with others or alone, you are joining in with the millions of people who practice yoga around the world, and you are engaging in a practice that has been around for approximately 5,000 years. There is no question that through practicing yoga, you are part of a bigger whole.

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