This week we explore the concept of Īśvarapraṇidhāna, one of the ‘internal ethics’ of Patanjali.

The Niyamas- internal ethics

The niyamas are a set of 5 virtuous habits that we try to embody. They are as follows:

  1. Śauca: purity, clearness of mind, speech and body
  2. Santoṣa: contentment, patience, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self, being in the moment
  3. Tapas: fire, glow, persistence, perseverance, discipline, containment of one’s energy
  4. Svādhyāya: study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speeches and actions, self-discipline
  5. Īśvarapraṇidhāna: contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality), surrender, service to That which is greater than ourselves, devotion

The Path of Devotion: Īśvarapraṇidhāna

A translation from Yoga International magazine:

īśvarapraṇidhāna = īśvara + praṇidhāna

  • īśvara guiding and protecting force; the omniscient, primordial being; the teacher of all previous teachers; the soul free from all afflictions, karmas, and fruits of karmas
  • praṇidhāna complete surrender; complete recognition; embracing tightly; keeping at the center of life

Together, īśvarapraṇidhāna refers to having complete faith in the guiding and protecting power of the Absolute Reality.

This topic, today, takes us really to the heart of the history of yoga practice. With its roots in classical Hinduism, and back beyond that, yoga is a form or practice that aims to yoke or unite the practitioner with That which is Greater than the Self. The focus of our movement, breath and meditation has a fixed point- the Ishvara- the personal, or Supreme ‘God’.

The word ‘God’ has been filthed with decades of hungover religious associations, so if the word is already switching you off, don’t! Let’s replace it with a neutralised, cleaner phrase like Ground of Being, or Source Energy. Insert as applicable & workable for you! (For more thought on God language in yoga, click on…)

In essence, yoga is a body-mind-spirit system for achieving self-awareness; we speak of immersing in and eclipsing the immediacy of the body-mind to allow the soul to come forth and share in the experience of life as well.

There is nothing more pure in the world than knowledge of the true Self. In time, this will come to the devoted practitioner of yoga.” Bhagavad Gita 4:38

The shining essence or soul, that we are creating the conditions of emergence for, presupposes a Source lying behind what we see and experience. Without delving too deeply into any theology, yoga presupposes a Light that illuminates from beyond: the Ishvara- the Ground of Being. That Ground of Being is a mirror of earthly ‘ground’. It is a deep and richly nutritious soil that upholds us, feeds us, grows us and, of course, receives us when our time is done. Yoga helps us touch that Reality and develop an unshakeable faith in the magic that flows through all life-forms.

How easy for this to sound like cerebral nonsense! Or new-age straplines about the ‘Divine’. All things are just concepts, until we earth them & feel them in our lives. And as I write this, I have felt this truth so deeply and wonderfully and painfully. A week ago today my beloved cat, Hari, died; a dear friend and companion of 11 years. For 4 days I was dazed, weeping, moving about the house like a ghost and mourning his presence. But…

…I was with him when he died and I witnessed the strange shift to lifelessness that the sheath of his body made. A subtle/ dramatic departure of Hari from that catty body. In that instant of passing, the dear black and white body was no longer my cat. It was just a body. Such a profound moment to witness. I know, without doubt, that some deep magic of life is at work here. We can call up all the language, concepts, terminologies that we want- but the bottom line is that something exited that cat and moved on. A presence shifted into beyondness. A beyond that was pure space and energy. Beyond definition.

And that thing that animates us- that beats our hearts, breathes us and sparkles through us- that, for me, is God. That is the Ishvara for me. And it is that thing, that living magic, that I fold and unfold and meditate on my yoga mat for: I use my body as the ritual, as the sacrament, as the sacred tool to witness to that. My mat becomes a soft altar on which I humble myself in my not-knowing! For That is the All. That great glowing beneath-ness that rises up through us. What more can we do but witness to it? To the sheer magic of Life? Of being here now, writing, thinking, sharing and breathing? What else is there, my friends?

The Last Weekend

In the final weekend of my yoga training- in fact, in the last 15 minutes of that last weekend of my yoga training- I got it. One of my teachers said to our group: “You all have shakti (power) in bucketfuls! True power and drive and energy!” And then she paused, and looked at us one by one, adding- “But where is the bhakti?” (Bhakti means devotion). As I heard her words, many pennies dropped! A realisation that I had spent the year powering through, pushing through, overcoming, leaping, sweating…but where, in all of that, was the heart? Where was the soft, gentle, quiet devotion of it all. And I laughed and cried then: and I learned from that day forth. Don’t bother showing up on your yoga mat unless you are bringing your heart with you!

Find your focus in your yoga: perhaps it’s your Higher Self. Perhaps it’s to be a better person. Perhaps it’s to unearth a few shadows. Or perhaps it’s to fall head over heels in love with the sheer Magic of Life. Whatever it is, honour it. Pin your heart to it and offer yourself, through your practices, to it. Let the sheer volume of All That Is take the centre stage in your life. Build your campfire around it and let its Infinite Light warm your days and nights. Trust it. Move in it as a fish moves in water. Ishvara is the element in which we are immersed if only we have the eyes to see it.

This is not religion. This is being alive, in a body, and witnessing to being alive. Yoga is designed to catapault us into the ‘beyond awareness’ state; it facilitates that state of flow where nothing matters anymore in the instant other than Being-ness. 

See how words fail?! And in the face of Great Mystery, what else can do but bow our heads in deep wonder and humility?

Living in the Presence of Source

All I do know, from my experiences, is that the Path of Devotion means stepping one foot in front of the other, on the path, in trust that all things shall be well. There is always suffering, dukka, but hidden inside that hideous pain is something utterly beautiful and mesmerising. It is there, in that tight black place, that my heart breaks open and something new, and innocent, is revealed. And I trust it with every fibre of my being. I surrender.

All blessings to you on the path. x