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SSE Week 12: Ishvara-Pranidhana

Introduction to Ishvara-Pranidhana

This week, we complete our study on the niyamas with the fifth and final, ishvara pranidhana, humility and faith. In The Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman defines ishvara pranidhana as “Faith in something beyond our limited self”, a practice that is “essential to circumventing linear, logical thought.”

What’s so bad about logic, though, you may ask? Bachman posits that “Logic works well in the outer world of names and forms, but breaks down as our focus turns inward.” Ishvara Pranidhana aids the process of “circumventing linear, logical thought. Letting go of our past conditioning allows us to perceive the material world without the fetters that bind us to it.” It helps us “[bypass] these distractions through faith and surrender to something higher than ourselves, thereby eliminating egotism and cultivating humility.”

In Sanskrit, ishvara means, “belief in a universal source of knowledge […] that is not bound by anything, and an individual inner light of awareness (purusa) that resides in the body and is exposed to our perceptions, actions, thoughts, and emotions.” Roughly translated,  pranidhana signifies movement towards, and “humility in the presence of something higher.” So literally speaking, ishvara pranidhana can be interpreted as moving toward and embracing our own divine and universal inner knowing with full faith and humlilty.

From a practical perspective, I think of it as the intention behind the action, the reason we behave in the ways we behave, speak in the way we speak, and believe in the things we do. Relating back to the two previous niyamas we’ve studied, tapas and svadhyaya, an important pathway emerges:

Through self-study (svadhyaya), we can gain insight and divine inspiration to form our mantra or intention; faith and devotion to that mantra or intention (ishvara pranidhana) fills us with the grace and humility to make the positive changes needed to align ourselves fully with it (tapas); and each of the three practices serve to enhance and enrich our experience of the others, our world, and ourselves, throughout every layer of our beings (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, energetic, and beyond). This interplay is called Kriya Yoga, and we’ll dive deeper into it next week. 

This whole thing, in and of itself, is not a logical or linear process. It is fluid, cyclical, sometimes even erratic. But such is nature, and such is yoga. As Bachman says, “Yoga as samadhi [(enlightenment)] is the subtle state of mind in which we experience an external object as no different than ourselves [….] When we can fully surrender to a higher power, the unconditional devotion (bhakti) bypasses any other distracting thoughts and emotions (vrrti-s), rendering them quiet (nirodha) and leading to the state of samadi. Cultivating a heart-mind that sees the divine energy inside each person [(ishvara)] is the practical culmination of this.” 

Home Exercise: Ishvara-Pranidhana

Look back to your mantra from last week:

  • Can you find the intention behind it? Is it centered around making your personal life more comfortable in some way, or does it serve a greater good? Please try not to judge here — there’s nothing right or wrong, good or bad, righteous or indignant during this exercise.

  • Using the practice of  svadhyaya, can you find an aligned ishvara supporting your mantra? Do you feel any tapas kindling within you?

  • What are some actionable steps you can take to bring your yoga practice, and even your everyday life, closer to that greater purpose (ishvara pranidhana)? 

“When we understand that each person is a constantly changing outer shell encasing an unchanging, pure inner light of awareness, then we can show love for the divine in all sentient beings”

– The Path of the Yoga Sutras

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Bring Ishvara-Pranidhana into Practice

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Practice: All Levels Yoga

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