The last of the Yamas and Niyamas (yoga’s 10 ethical precepts) is Ishvara Pranidhana, which has been translated as everything from “surrender to God” to “offering the fruits of one’s actions to the Divine” to “unshakeable faith in the guiding and protecting power of God.” As one who struggles with both ‘letting go’ and ‘God’, this teaching can feel quite unattainable.
In The Yamas & Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, Deborah Adele suggests that “Ishavara Pranidhana presupposes that there is a divine force at work in our lives, which cares deeply for us.” Wow. That’s a lot to swallow. First, though I’m pretty clear that God is not an old man in the sky with a long beard, I’m not quite clear on what God – or the Divine – is. And second, at this moment in time, when the world as we know it feels in peril, I’m not at all clear that It/He/She/They care about me or the world at all.
The great thing about yoga – or any spiritual practice, for that matter – is that it’s a practice. We don’t have to consistently experience connection to the Divine in order to practice this principle and benefit from it. In fact, it’s not when life is going well and things make sense that we need this practice. It’s when the Divine feels absent and the fate of the world feels in jeopardy that we can really benefit from it.
Adele describes the practice of Ishavara Pranidhana as a dance. (Now, this image I can understand!) We’re asked to partner in the dance of life as neither leader nor follower – courageous and vulnerable, contributor and listener. We must be bold enough to show up to each moment as best we can, ready for whatever is asked of us, and yet unattached to how our actions unfold. Brave and humble. If we can manage to hold this paradox we just may find ourselves experiencing some Grace – needed where we are, our own essential needs met, with a sense of purpose to our days, and with the resources to do what has to be done.
In other words, acting “as if” there were a divine force at work in our lives, which cares deeply about us can actually lead to us having an experience of just that. It’s the practice that sometimes leads to the knowing.
So, if, like me, you don’t feel particularly ‘touched by God’ at the moment, fear not. You might consider that now is the very best time to take on a practice of Ishvara Pranidhana. How? Here are some ideas:
- Put on a piece of music and allow your body to be moved by the music. Can you find your way to the place where you’re neither relying on an old familiar pattern nor forcing something to happen?
- Try automatic writing. Start with a phrase, such as “I’m aware of…” or “I feel…” and just keep writing. Don’t stop to correct or reconstruct. Keep the pen moving.
- Get lost in a physical activity that requires your attention. Gardening. Cooking. Spring cleaning. Wash the car. Wash the dog. Let the needs of the task determine how it unfolds.
- Volunteer to help a friend out with a project. Sometimes it can be easier to let go of control when we’re not as attached to the outcome.
- Talk to God/Goddess/Life/Universe as if She/He/It/They were listening. It doesn’t matter what you say. Just talk. Aloud. Silently.
And remember, it’s a practice. Perfection is not the goal. Trust that whatever your experience is, is perfect. And keep practicing.