The word “yoga” can be used in two ways: as a noun, or as a verb. In the first instance, yoga refers to our natural state of being in which we no longer identify ourselves with the body and mind, but know ourselves to be the infinite, communal life force that is present within all beings, and all aspects of the universe. It is synonymous with the state of Enlightenment, Samadhi, or God Realization. In it’s second use as a verb, the word yoga refers to those practices that will help us to reach this enlightened state of being. Through the goodness and grace of his heart, Sri Patanjali, the wise sage and yoga master, compiled for us the Yoga Sutras in which he expounds on not only the state of Yoga, but the powerful yoga practices that we can use to reach that state within this lifetime!
In Yoga Sutra 1.23, Patanjali gives us a sure-fire way to reach the state of yoga. It is a practice called ishvara pranidhana. Ishvara is a Sanskrit word that can be translated to mean supreme, or personal, God. Pranidhana means to dedicate, devote, or surrender. The practice of Ishvara Pranidhana therefore means that if we are able to completely surrender our individual ego identities to God (our own higher self) we will attain the identity of God. If we can dedicate our lives to serving the God that dwells within all other beings, human and non-human alike, we will move beyond all feelings of separateness. If we can say without reservation, “I give You myself: my body, my mind and my heart, to do with as You best see fit,” then we will be freed from the stress, anxiety, self-doubt and negative karma that arises from our reliance upon our egos to determine which actions we take in our lives.
Ishvara pranidhana will help to cure the afflictions of the mind that cause pain and suffering, as it is designed to redirect our energy away from our selfish desires and personal dramas, and towards the ultimate pursuit of Oneness. So important and powerful is this practice, that Patanjali gives instructions for it on four separate occasions in the Yoga Sutras. And while it is the simplest and most direct method to attain yoga, it is not necessarily an easy practice, or even an attractive option to some.
In our modern, western culture, where feelings of separateness and disconnection prevail, often times we pride ourselves on being strong and domineering over others. We are used to our egos calling the shots, and giving us the belief that we are somehow in control of the universe. Because of this, the idea of surrendering is taken to mean something negative, as it implies a sort of weakness, or defeat. An army, for example, might surrender to opposing forces, rendering the opposition the victor. In yoga, however, it is quite the opposite. Victory is attained as we willingly surrender our limited idea of who we are (i.e. our name, our jobs, our problems etc.) and create the space needed to feel our true nature of Self, which is one of limitless and boundless joy. It is like trading in a grain of sand and receiving the whole universe in return. And though it requires great self discipline, trust, and faith to practice ishvara pranidhana, ultimately it will take far more effort to cling to the smallness of the ego then it will to surrender the the higher self.
Within a yoga class, there are many ways to practice ishvara pranidhana, and cultivate our ability and willingness to surrender. By continuously offering up our efforts and rewards to something more than just personal gain, we are able to keep ishvara (our own personal form of God) in the forefront of our minds. By putting aside our judgments and criticisms, and following the instructions given to us in class, we learn to more easily take cue from something other than the ego. With each forward bending posture, we bow down to God in some form that has meaning to us, and with each back-bending posture, we offer up our hearts, so that we may carry out the will of the universe with every thought, word and action we take.
From this day forward, let us not waste away the moments of our lives consumed with smallness, jealousy, lust, greed and false notions of superiority. Contemplate daily the Supreme attributes of ishvara as you meditate and offer yourself completely as a vehicle for Divine Will. Peace comes when we relinquish the idea that we are the “doer” and allow the infinite to guide us on our way. Let go, and Let God.