There are ten values to living yoga in our daily life – the 5 yamas and the 5 niyamas. Some of these, like non-violence and truth, are easy to agree upon. We know that a lie will agitate the mind. Inflicting violence on someone will reverberate in our bodies and will likely be followed by a torturing regret. So, while not always straight forward to follow, it’s easy to get on board the theory.
The niyama that I have had a little more resistance to is ishvara pranidhana. This is often translated as 'surrendering to god'. This word, god, brings up resistance in many of us whether we were raised with a concept of god or not. It is a word that names some thing that is, by many interpretations, unnamable, yet w know that these differences are not always easily allowed. Even within the recorded history of yoga, this niyama has been interpreted in various ways. But, there is no denying that the appearance of this term orientates some forms of yoga as theistic traditions, although much common practice and discourse nowadays abstain from this notion.
The instruction to surrender is not always taken easily either. Remaining a little skeptical of this suggestion is normal. But when we break this down as in 'surrender what' and 'to what', we can probably all come up with something that we would gladly lay down. Even if we remain reluctant to do so, ishvara pranidhana is worth examining.
This is what I have read about ishvara pranidhana. Ishvara is recognized as being both part of us and something other than us. The surrendering one must do here is not a concept of cognition but a notion of the heart. Perhaps we do not need a heady debate as to what ishvara means because the heart is more allusive than that.
At risk of mucking up this interpretation altogether, I’m going to tell you how I am learning to value ishvara pranidhana. One way that I am beginning to understand this niyama is to consider living in the realm of the heart. This means cultivating a sort of ‘awe’ and passing day-to-day with some amount of inspiration. It is faith in something other than our own minds, other than our own bodies, and other than just the things that can be rationalized, conceptualized, or proven to be true. Faith requires a letting go of the need to control or thinking that we are in total control and recognizing this can provide some amount of relief. There is really no choice in the matter anyway. We don’t control everything so best to act this way. At times, practicing ishvara pranadhana means allowing for namelessness or recognizing that there are unchartable places. This is living without trying to know and ‘pin-down’, but rather walking with a gentle curiosity and an acceptance of mystery.
Ishvara pranidhana can come in handy when change is desired (or even when it is not but it is happening anyway). Once we recognize that something must be done differently, it is not always helpful to start thinking exactly how it must be done differently. Uncharted territories take time to reveal themselves. During this in between time, a kind of humble surrendering to mystery must happen. Ishvara pranidhana is not imagination or creativity but it is a fertile ground for these things to materialize.
But, mystery can be hard to take.
“Mystery,” Flannery O’Connor says, “is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.”
I don’t read mystery books anymore, but when I did, I would devour the thing, stay up late and not want to put it down until I was finished because there was excitement and intrigue knowing there would be a delightful twist at the end. Nowadays, I read non-fiction. I attempt to pack my mind full of information, knowledge, connections and at the same time have been steering far away from things that aren’t ‘real’. Give me reason, answers, and something that I can use to clean my kitchen floor. This is a problem. I crave answers, form, neat containers for things. Sure, our ability to be discerning is an essential skill. But, not everything can or should have a form and be compartmentalized so that we no longer can wonder.
I have also been likening ishvara pranidhana to poetry, a kind of writing that is less tamed. It is the kind of writing that leaves us without answers but with big, wide open unanswerable questions to even (perhaps especially) the most important enquiries in life.
Lucille Clifton said that, “Poetry began when somebody walked off a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said “Ahhh! That was the first poem. The urge toward ‘ahhh!’ is very human, it’s in everybody.”
Perhaps this awe is ishvara pranidhana too. Without this, life becomes pretty dull, suffocating and small. A sense of awe is a catalyst to both creativity and growth. It is the antidote to rigidity, perfectionism, and certainty. It is the formless compass to nowhere in particular that is pointing us away from our most agonizing thoughts, our deepest loneliness, and our sense of self-more-importance. And what a relief it is when we can allow an enigma to be an enigma and remain amicable to the mysterious unknown.
Photo by Anna Egan