Īśvara Praṇidhānā

by Conor Byrnes |
December, 2023

samādhisiddhir īśvarapraṇidhānāt
Through ishvara-pranidhana, devotion to God, there is realization of samadhi.
PYS 2.45

What would your life look like if every happening, every person who passed and situation that emerged, was welcomed as the intelligence of Life? What if you could ride the waves of existence, without being thrown perpetually off balance? Samādhi is this perfect absorption and trust into life that is explicitly noted as the goal of yoga in central textual sources. Of all the methods that the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali presents, none is quite as concise as this attitudinal method of Īśvarapraṇidhāna. Samādhisiddhir īśvarapraṇidhānā, “By total surrender to God, samādhi is attained” (PYS II.45).

Why did the great Jungle Sage state that this single step was so essential and effective?  Īśvarapraṇidhāna means surrender of the individual self to God. Praṇidhāna means devotion, worship, surrender, attention to, deepening in. This Surrender to the Supreme is considered a direct means of recognizing oneness with divinity. When some connection with a divine ideal is formed, and all experience is offered up into That, then absorption into Fullness is realized as total freedom and illumination.

How does a practitioner of yoga go about living in a surrendered way? First to surrender to someone or something, we need to have an idea of who or what we are surrendering to. We have some inkling for what our Iṣṭa-devatā (cherished divinity) is and move towards it. We connect with some felt sense of a force that is more essential and lasting than our self-image. It’s like discovering the permanence of the sky beyond the changing clouds; though clouds emerge and fade, they are always contained by something vaster. We find that invariable force and decide to put our trust in it. Maybe you call it God, maybe you call it energy, awareness, life, or natural intelligence. Maybe you can see it embodied in Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Durga, a tree, or even your cat. Feel what you genuinely connect with and deepen this connection to your divine ideal.

Once the Divine is discovered, we surrender to it. Surrender is a tricky word for us raised in societies obsessed with control. Here, surrender is not giving up one’s strength. But instead, it is recognizing a steadier source of strength and submitting to it. The great Sufi mystic Rumi wrote, “No strength but Yours”. Surrender requires trust in a mysterious magnetic pull. It is like the experience of falling in love. Though we might not know what force is drawing our hearts or why, we still unquestionably yearn to follow it. This is the practice of placing the mind into the Heart, returning personal intelligence to universal understanding. Surrender in this way deepens our connection to what we feel as the center of our being and we begin to follow whatever arises, internally and externally. When we cannot consciously know why good or evil has arrived, we can trust that all is a necessary manifestation of the Divine. Instead of resisting circumstances, we unlock the power to flow with them. This is the continual meditative process of centering through surrendering. The placing of the mind into the Heart is a direct means of contacting Space that is there for us to meet the intensity of life.

Having yoked ourselves to our divine ideal, we begin to dissolve the illusions of the separate self. It is like mixing a drop of red dye into the clear blue sea. The vastness of the sea swallows up instantly any hue rendered by the dye. Whatever arises into our psyche, and our psyche itself, we make it an offering into our vision of the Limitless. Both beautiful feelings and sorrows make excellent fertilizer for this growing connection to the supreme. As it is said in the Narada Bhakti Sutra 65, “Consecrating all actions to the Lord means giving to Him negative feelings such as lust, anger, and pride”. We reveal experience as sacred by making it an offering. Over time we recognize that most thoughts, especially those used to emphasize this dye of identity, are creating blockages between us and the sea of supreme bliss. It is in this way that when we center in the divine light, it pours in, dissolving stubborn fears and self-imposed limitations.

When the attachment to thoughts has been burnt away and the solid sense of separateness thawed, we begin to see accurately again. It is like finally taking off a pair of glasses that weren’t made for us. When we decide to remove them clarity immediately enters. In this illuminated state there is no longer any doubt that all is the perfect emission of the Divine, that all is divine. We can recognize that everything that arrives internally and externally is a manifestation of God; and we offer it back to that Source. And in grasping this, we recognize that so too is this person a part of that All. As it is said in the Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā IV.11, “Through letting go of mental constructs with ekagrata (one-pointedness), one gradually [adopts] the standpoint of Divinity”. This is the awakening of the wave when it realizes that it always was the ocean, the ecstatic recognition that the truth of what we are is limitless and eternal. Integrating into divinity we realize release into our svarupa as pure and primordial energy-awareness: stainless, unborn, undying, untainted by any kind of identification or experience.

Teaching Tips

  1. Read the poem Buoyancy by Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks), which is a beautiful rendition of the journey to surrender.
  2. Theme a class or a series of classes around the steps of Īśvarapraṇidhāna
    a) Choosing a Divine Ideal
    i. Ask students to envision their idea of the Divine, have them sit in meditation and visualize themselves in the loving presence of their Iṣṭa-devatā (cherished divinity).
    ii. Offer various mantras to be chanted as a direct means of connecting to different images and energies of the Divine.
    b) Surrendering to the Divine.
    i. Teach the meditation of placing the mind into the Heart. Encourage students to drop their sense of self from the head down into the center of the body. Suggest that, whenever a disturbing thought arises to make it an offering into the limitless Heart.
    ii. Ask students to repeat a mantra with each breath during the asana practice that helps them recall their connection to the Divine.
    c) Dissolving Illusions of the Mind
    i. Discuss the practice of vikalpa-kṣaya (dissolving mental constructs) as described in Verse 18 of the pratyabhijñāhṛdayam (Heart of Recognition; translated by Christopher Wallis); this is the practice of recognizing all thoughts as imperfect explanations of our experience and letting go of our attachment to them. We see the mind is addicted to its stories and resolve to go beyond them. This can be as simple as treating all thoughts as meaningless as the sound of the wind, or as deep as challenging mental labels at the core of our identity e.g. “I am a man”, “I am old”, “I am a yogi”, etc.
    d) Become Immersed in the Reality of Divine alone
    i. Encourage students to rest in the space behind and between thoughts. Have times in the practice where you direct back to that space. Find moments to pause where you suggest to stay with the raw experience, without trying to explain or understand through thoughts. With this reminder we can become more intimate with each moment being a pure expression of Awareness that transcends any mental label.
    e) Taking on the standpoint of divinity
    i. Practicing the perspective that Life alone is operating and nothing else. When you open your eyes, think it is Life seeing. When you chant, think it is Life chanting. When you practice an asana, think it is Life practicing. Continue to offer this shift in perspective that guides the student to the fact that he or she is a direct emanation of the Divine. In this way overtime, we break down our habitual mode of believing our self to be a separate and independent entity.