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The Fifth Niyama: Isvara Pranidhana (Devotion to God)

To refresh from last month, the five niyamas (codes of conduct/regulations) of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Saucha (purity or cleanliness)
  2. Santosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (austerity)
  4. Swadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Isvara Pranidhana (devotion to God). 

 Last month, we looked at the fourth niyama – swadhyaya (self-study).  This month, let’s explore the fifth niyama – isvara pranidhana in more detail.

 This month’s focus: Isvara Pranidhana

 Isvara pranidhana relates to the practice of devotion to God.  Patanjali’s reference to the divine in the Yoga Sutras is not restrictive to a particular conventional God but rather a universal divine force.  According to Patanjali, liberation can be achieved without devotion to God however this is seen as a subtle and dangerous path, which results in ambition and pride.  Liberation through devotion to God is the safest and happiest pathway which leads to attitudes of humility and service.  We can look at isvara pranidhana not necessarily as a specific God of a particular faith tradition, but rather a surrendering to a higher power or source.  Today, many struggle with this concept as in our modern society, the concept of God or the divine is often lost; and rather there is a greater focus on human capabilities and wisdom.  Patanjali stresses the importance of an ongoing practice of ishvara pranidhana as a means to obtaining the ultimate unified state of yoga: Samadhi.  Devotion to God or ‘surrendering’ helps us shift from the individual and obsession with ‘I’ to a more balanced focus on the sacredness of all things and ultimately reunites us with our true Self.

 I was recently in Bali and as always, I am in absolute admiration of the complete surrender the Balinese people have to God.  Each morning, all shop fronts, market stalls and homes are ritualistically offered up in surrender to God.  Offerings to God are an integral part of daily life with the use of natural materials (such as banana leaf, rice,  a flower) which are placed throughout the home and door steps.  This is a gentle reminder to all that there is a higher power at work, despite human efforts.  Similarly, when I was in India, I was in absolute awe of the beautiful and elaborate offerings made to Lakshmi (the goddess of good fortune and prosperity) that women made each morning by drawing sacred and intricate diagrams (rangoli) on the earth in front of their homes.  These offerings once again remind the individual, the families and the public, that we surrender to something higher than ourselves.  These physical offerings remind us to shift our perspective from our narrow and individual concerns, and instead invite us to surrender to that which we cannot control.  Through surrender, we are able to peel the layers of the ego, and calm the mind’s distractions; reuniting us with the source (God, divine, universe, higher power) which leads ultimately to individual freedom.

 At the beginning of each yoga class, I invite you to offer up the yoga class for something (a need such as wisdom, strength or even offer up for a person who is struggling or a relationship that needs healing).  This remind us that the yoga practice is a ultimately a selfless one.  Yes, we may roll out our mat with the intention of feeling good and getting a ‘work out’ but ultimately, an ongoing practice of yoga shifts the mind and heart from the needs of ‘I’ to the needs of others.

How do you practice ‘surrender’ in your daily life?
What do you use as a daily reminder to surrender to a higher source?

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Ishvara pranidhana is not about what your yoga can do for you, but about approaching your practice in the spirit of offering.”  -Shiva Rea

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Yoga: A Spiritual Practice – Part II

There are many different schools of yoga, and the schools have a different emphasis on certain disciplines, practices, devotions or theories. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are essentially statements of facts that are seen to have existential authenticity on the philosophy of yoga and are the common source and authority for all schools of yoga.  Little is known about Patanjali as well as the date of his writings (scholars estimate anywhere between the fourth century BCE and fifth century CE) and it is agreed among historians that Patanjali systematised the concepts and practices of yoga that were present in those early times.  The term sutras literally means “stitches” in the sense that these ideas on yoga philosophy are stitched together to create the fabric of knowledge.  The format of the Yoga Sutras, like much of Indian knowledge, was verbally passed down from teacher to student as a chant in order to etch the concepts into the student’s memory for life.  The Sutras are now in written format and have become the universal authoritative text on yoga philosophy.

The term yoga is the English ancestor of the term “yoke” and it basically means “union.” Hence, yoga is a method of spiritual union whereby one may unite their transitory self with the divine, which for many is referred to as, God.  The Hindu concept of God would be the infinite Brahman, a spiritual substance that is one with nature and the cosmos.  In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali uses the term Isvara (literally interpreted ‘Lord’) in reference to the divine, or God. Isvara is not a conventional or specific deity or God, but rather Patanjali speaks more to a universal, attributeless Brahman, an impersonal, unknowable, infinite force that is omnipotent and transcends all.  To achieve union with Isvara, the divine, which underlies this apparent, ephemeral universe, according to Patanjali, one must reach a state of perfect yoga, or union.

 He who is rooted in oneness
realizes that I am
in every being, wherever
he goes, he remains in me.

When he sees all beings as equal
in suffering or in joy
because they are like himself,
that man has grown perfect in yoga.
(BG 6.29-32)