Ishvara Pranidhana is the last of the Niyamas, or moral “observances” of yoga (read more about Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga here). It translates sort of like, devotion to God, which is a little tricky for some folks (I’m a Buddhist, so I feel free to go ahead and take some liberties here, which I’ll talk about shortly). It might also be one of the least popular observances to talk about in your sort of contemporary yoga class setting, at least in my experience. I guess it’s easier to talk about feel-good santosha (“be happy with where you are today!”) and “work it, girl” tapas (“one more navasana, guys!”) than it is about, um, devoting your practice to the divine.
For myself, though, and many others, a yoga class devoid of spirituality is not really yoga. At our yoga studio (YogaFish), the teachers believe there is something more to the practice than just the physical element. This is why we do pranayama in our classes, offer free meditation, and offer chanting as part of the practice (even if it’s just the “Om”). Here’s how I summed it up for would-be visitors:
There are lots of great yoga studio options in the area. What YogaFish offers is an atmosphere of acceptance with an emphasis on the mind/body/spirit connection. Sure, if you want to come to class and just stretch and sweat, you can do that. We believe that what keeps people coming back, though, is the way that they start to notice their lives changing. In addition to the physical benefits (strength, flexibility, overall feeling of better health), there’s an increased awareness. More mindfulness, more appreciation, more self-insight. YogaFish instructors understand that experience- that’s how we teach. Our classes are designed to help our students achieve those insights.
As teachers and studio owners, we can create the space for students but ultimately, it’s up to the practitioner to decide how to handle their time on the mat. Ishvara Pranidhana is your opportunity to devote your practice to a higher power. In my classes, I offer time at the beginning of class to create a sankalpa– an intention, dedication, or resolution that can be a touchstone throughout the practice. I also suggest students bring their hands to heart’s center (anjali mudra) and chant Om with this intention in mind, so that any time their hands return to this mudra during class, they can be guided back to the higher intention.
Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, in his essay “Is Yoga A Religion?” says:
“At the heart of all forms of Yoga is the assumption that you have not yet tapped into your full potential as a human being. In particular, Yoga seeks to put you in touch with your spiritual core- your innermost nature- that which or who you truly are….you are free to allow your personal experience and realization to shape your understanding.”
In other words, you are free to interpret Ishvara Pranidhana however you like (in fact, you’re free to ignore it altogether)! Some students may choose to create a sankalpa that focuses on cultivating a particular positive attitude in their practice, or they may dedicate the practice to someone they know who needs that positive energy. To me, these are all different expressions of devotion, and I think a valid way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. Not everyone agrees. According to Sharon Gannon and David Life and their school of Jivamukti Yoga, specifically devoting your practice to the divine is really a necessity:
“The yoga practices amplify and direct the pranic flow. If we do not consciously aim that flow upward, it will flow to whatever tendencies might be passing through the mind… The psychotherapeutic power of the yoga practices lies in their ability to bring unconscious feelings to the surface. This can be overwhelming, unless the practice is steadfastly dedicated to God. When that unleashed energy is directed toward God-realization rather than toward expressing unconscious selfish emotions, it becomes liberating rather than binding.” –Jivamukti Yoga
There have been times over the past two years where I came to my yoga mat and sort of felt like, What’s the point? Why bother? It felt like a job, or a chore. Sometimes it just felt like exercise.
Although I understood (and paid lip service to) the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, it wasn’t really clicking for me. As a teacher, I knew I needed to maintain my self-practice in order to stay fresh and able to offer insight into my students’ practices, but I wasn’t able to make that direct connection. I was working from ego on my mat, that is, thinking about myself and my own practice and its ups and downs.
Interestingly, as I was feeling disillusioned with my asana practice, my meditation practice was growing, and I felt a disconnect between what was happening on my yoga mat and what was happening on my meditation cushion.My meditation practice includes time at the beginning and end of each session to dedicate the practice to the service of all sentient beings. I was in meditation one day when it occurred to me in one of those awesome lightning-bolt-of-intuition-moments that I was wasting the opportunity I had every day on my yoga mat. I could dedicate each whole asana practice in the same way!
Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, lends itself handily to a meditative experience. Students are asked to follow the tristana method by focusing on the breath (Ujjayi), drishti (a specific gaze/focal point in each pose), and the asana (which includes the bandhas). If you’ve ever tried to do all of these things at once for a whole 90 minute practice, then you know how hard it is to stay focused.
But with my understanding of asana practice as service- my Ishvara Pranidhana– I was able to use each of these three points of meditative awareness as an opportunity to serve. Every time I drifted away, I said to myself, “Hey now, engage your bandhas for the good of all sentient beings.” If this sounds a little nuts to you, I understand- at one point, it may have to me too. But I don’t need to understand how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as this- by bringing meditative awareness to my own practice, I’m learning more that I can share with my students. When I have a hard time doing something in my practice, or when my awareness drifts, or when I start wishing I had worn different shorts, I can use it as an opportunity to be compassionate toward others who experience the same thing. It’s not about me and my practice any more- it’s about something bigger than that.
Finally- for those days when even getting to the mat feels like a chore- I’ve been inspired by a Buddhist text that says the following:
Used well, this body is our raft to freedom. Used badly, this body anchors us to samsara (the ocean of suffering in which we all live).