We come to the end of our exploration of the second limb of yoga, the Niyamas, with the fifth one, Isvara Pranidhana or Surrender/Devotion to a Higher Power.
Isvara Pranidhana translates from Sanskrit as Isvara, Supreme Being. The sutra then means bowing to or acknowledging a Supreme Being. This could mean God or Brahman or True Self or any higher power. Using the word God(s) can be problematic for some yogis. In studying this niyama, however, as in all spiritual aspects of yoga, we should keep in mind that yoga does not force God or religion. In fact, Desikachar, one of the founding fathers of modern yoga, in Heart of Yoga explains, “Yoga is not a religion and should not affiliate with any religions”.
In the ancient text, Upanishads, the word Isvara is translated as a “state of collective consciousness” which can mean that there is not a specific Godlike figure to worship, rather ‘God’ represents this collective or consciousness, and therefor represents all of humanity.
For me, there has never been a conflict between my yoga practice and my religion. I find that the contemplation, awareness, and peace that yoga brings me only enhances my religious beliefs.
Many of us started our yoga practice with the sole focus on fitness – I started solely to improve flexibility after my (now 20-year-old) son was born. As we evolve in our practice (hence our exploration of the 8 limbs), we discover the joys of a more meditative, perhaps spiritual, practice.
As we approach our practice in our own way, practicing this surrender to a higher power can help us connect with ourselves and the world around us on a deeper level. Recognizing that there is something bigger than ourselves begins to develop and deepen our practice and our overall wellbeing. (If i ever doubt existence of something bigger than myself I just have to gaze at a sunrise like the one above at the beach recently....)
For more on this topic refer to the following article in Yoga Journal.
When we think of practicing this niyama in our daily life we can think about opening up to what is. Instead of a passive approach (what will happen will happen), we can think about approaching life’s challenges and unexpected twists with a more open attitude, one of wonder and perhaps acceptance, experiencing life as it evolves. We limit our lives by being habitual, rigid, and set in our ways. I am guilty of this. Rigidity and commitment to a relentless schedule lead to a small and limited life. Surrendering is difficult because we lose control and transcend ego. When we do surrender to a higher power (God/fill in the blank), what we cannot control, trusting our “intuition and the courage to express ourselves for who we are” we ultimately find freedom.
As we enter new or difficult situations, we can approach them with surrender. This does not mean we do not do our best or prepare adequately but knowing that we have done our best work to “get there”, we can then let go and surrender to the outcome rather than perseverate or anticipate outcomes.
“And the day came when the risk to remain in a tight bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” - Anais Nin
When we are practicing, especially a pose that is challenging, we can invoke Isvara Pranidhana or surrender. Try relaxing into the pose, directing the breath to the spots that are uncomfortable. Deepen the breath and try to let go. When we surrender to the discomfort, the power of a pose, we can really start to feel ourselves grow and expand in our practice. This is not about pain, we should never feel pain, but subtle discomfort that we can breathe and settle into, finding accepting and ultimately growth. As this happens, and our mind surrenders, our body shows us just how strong we can be.
What better pose to practice surrender with than pigeon pose? For me it is a glorious pose, and one that I often find challenging and uncomfortable. While in pigeon, try surrendering to the discomfort, use a block or blanket under your buttock or hips of the bent leg, direct your breath to the discomfort and let go. If you feel pain, back out a bit and readjust. Discomfort is expected, pain is not.
As I have said in previous blogs, since we practice yoga for its transformative powers; with a sustained practice we feel better physically and mentally and become more subtly in tune with ourselves. Since we store emotions in our hips (think about drawing your knees to fetal position when stressed), when we do powerful hip release postures we may release tension, stress, and pent-up emotions. Some yogis have experienced this profoundly while others notice they “just feel better” after practicing this pose.
This powerful pose can be challenging but it has so many benefits. For me it has helped tremendously with my lower back and sciatic nerve issues by opening my hips and stretching the piriformis, glutes, and psoas muscles.
There is some debate among practitioners about the benefits of this posture (other than the physical ones noted above). Some claim it helps with digestive issues and others feel that it provides an emotional release. Rather than debate it, I know that many of “just feel better” after pigeon. Here is a reminder on how to get there safely. Remember, reclined pigeon (on your back) is always an option.
1. Starting in tabletop or down dog. Extend the right leg back behind you and then bring the right knee to the right wrist. The shin can be perpendicular to the front edge of your mat or in towards the groin, start slow!
2. Root down through your front leg and balance your weight evenly between your right and left hips. Avoid having one hip higher than the other, or one hip in front of the other (putting a block or blanket/pillow under the hip of the bent leg can help).
3. Adjust the back leg so it is long and extended on the mat.
4. You can stay up on your hands or come down to sleeping pigeon reaching forward and out of the waist, bringing your chest towards the knee and shin, coming down to the forearms or forehead, resting on blocks or pillow is a good modification.
Meditation on Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender to a Higher Power
Whether it be God, Mohammed, Brahma, Chebbenithan or Your Cosmic Self, surrendering to what we cannot control is an important part of living our best life. C
“Surrender happens spontaneously with the knowledge that you are not in control of anything – not even your thoughts or feelings. When you realize that you are not in control of your life, but life is governed by some supreme law, then surrender happens.” – Gurudev Sri Ravi Shankar
“We think surrender is a sign of weakness when in fact it is a sign of strength. Surrender comes with knowledge, with realization and with gratefulness.” – Gurudev Sri Ravi Shankar
Nurturing with Food – Banana Bread
I just spent a week with my friend, Dorothy, in UT. We did tons of outdoor activities (more on that to follow). One day after downhill skiing and a late lunch, we stopped into a coffee shop and decided to split a piece of banana bread. I don’t know if it was the exercise, the mountain air, or the power of being with a good friend, I have been thinking about that delicious banana bread since I got back. I always have bananas in the freezer so I can make my recipe, which I did today. I have to say it is really good! Do not overcook it, you want it to be moist. I have found on the rare occasion that I undercook it a bit, popping it by the slice in the toaster gives it crispy edges and it is delicious. Hope it hits the spot for you as well!
See you on the mat