In the 8 limbs of yoga, the niyamas represent a set of 5 self-discipline practices to help us lead an ethical life. The last of these 5 niyamas is ishvara pranidhana: devotion or surrender. This practice can refer to either surrendering to a higher power, or to our higher self. It appears last in the 5 niyamas, as it is considered the most challenging to achieve. This introduction to ishvara pranidhana will help you explore how to practice devotion and surrender in yoga and everyday life.
What is Ishvara Pranidhana?
Simply put, ishvara pranidhana connects us to something bigger than ourselves. Whether it be a higher power or higher self, divine or universal energy, collective consciousness, or nature, this principle asks us to surrender and devote ourselves to something greater.
Ishvara pranidhana requires us to move beyond our egos and discover the eternal nature of our true self as opposed to the changeable nature of our mind and body. As we direct energy away from selfish desires and offer our actions to the divine and humanity, we begin to acknowledge the universal connection of all things. We see the divine in all beings, which helps us lose feelings of separateness and move towards oneness.
In addition to being one of the 5 niyamas, ishvara pranidhana is part of the Indian sage Patanjali’s threefold practice of kriya yoga along with the other niyamas, tapas (self-discipline) and svadhyaya (self-study). Kriya yoga is the yoga of purification and action. Patanjali believed that by purifying the body, mind, and spirit through these three niyamas, obstacles would be removed and the yogi could experience clear perception.
Learning to Surrender
Learning to surrender can be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. Letting go can make us feel vulnerable because we are used to controlling things, and can feel exposed when we shed our ego. In some cases, surrendering is difficult simply because it requires us to do nothing when we are used to always doing something.
No matter the challenges, the act of surrendering can free us from our conditioned patterns, habits, and limitations. Like any part of yoga, ishvara pranidhana takes practice to overcome the difficulties. To help you in learning this art, here are several ways to honor the principle of surrender:
- Follow instructions. On a basic level, following the directions of a yoga teacher, a mentor, or a guide can be examples of surrender. Rather than letting our ego decide what we should do, following directions requires us to put our own thoughts and judgments aside to surrender to another’s wisdom.
- Surrender to your body’s needs. While we may desire the physical benefits of an intense yoga workout, ishvara pranidhana teaches us to move beyond selfish desires. To serve a higher purpose, we must realize at times that our body needs nourishment and rest. Surrendering to what your body needs, whether it be a restorative yoga class, a long walk, or more sleep allows you to stay connected to the bigger picture of yoga.
- Surrender to a posture. We can practice the art of surrender in any pose. By spending a few extra breaths in the posture, releasing control, and accepting whatever comes up physically and emotionally, we experience surrender.
- Devote/offer your practice. By embracing the idea of ishvara pranidhana, we can begin to see our daily yoga practice not just as something that benefits ourselves, but as a way to stay healthy and vibrant so we may contribute to the world at large. Try devoting your practice to the greater good by standing in mountain pose and practicing anjali mudra (the gesture of offering) at the start of your practice. In this way, you surrender your own expectations and desires for your practice.
- Practice sun salutations. While we may be used to thinking of sun salutations as simply a warm-up, this sequence has a deeper meaning that embodies the ideas within ishvara pranidhana. Sun salutations are a devotional offering to the sun, and they allow us to surrender our individual place in the world to connect to a bigger picture. As The Art of Living explains, sun salutations allow us to practice gratitude for what we receive from nature, feel connected to and a part of nature, and recognize the connection of all people as we share the same sun.
- Practice savasana. Savasana, or corpse pose, can often become an afterthought in a yoga practice as we rush to get back to our neverending to-do lists. Instead of cutting this pose short or skipping it altogether, commit to increasing your time here. This pose is all about letting go, and is great practice for surrendering fully into a state of presence. This posture allows you to become more aware of your true essence as you release the patterns, emotions, and ideas that clutter your mind.
- Try bhakti yoga. Known as the yoga of devotion, bhakti yoga includes devotional practices such as selfless service, mantra meditation, chanting, and prayer. Bhakti yoga aims to help the practitioner reach a state of bliss through a devotional surrender to the divine.
- Volunteer in your community. Volunteering in your community is a great way to surrender your ego and devote yourself to the idea of humanity as a whole. In service, you stay connected to the concept of oneness.
- Practice letting go. While not always the easiest task, when we practice letting go of expectations and control, we can achieve ishvara pranidhana. When we complete a project at work, we can let go of any expectations of praise or reward. Even with something as simple as our morning commute, we can notice when we lose patience with traffic and redirect ourselves to acknowledging that we have no control.
The true beauty in practicing the art of surrender with ishvara pranidhana is that we are better able to experience life as it comes. We are more open to our true nature, to those around us, to new experiences, and to possibilities. Looking for more ways to bring yoga’s lessons to your practice? Try these 12 ways to practice ahimsa (nonviolence) and how to practice satya (honesty, truth) on and off the mat.