Ishvarapranidhana: The Art of Self-Surrender

Photo by Erriko Boccia via Unsplash

Photo by Erriko Boccia via Unsplash

“Try something different – surrender.” —Rumi

How do you feel when you are told to surrender, let go or soften into the present moment? I don’t know about you, but for me those words only work when I am feeling relaxed and peaceful. During times of stress, especially when I am caught off guard, surrendering does not happen automatically. It is a behavior that I have to practice.

According to Patanjali, the author of The Yoga Sutras, there are three actions or (kriyas) that constitute yoga: self-effort (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya) and self-surrender (ishvarapranidhana). He believed that these kriyas were the key to easing struggles, living fearlessly, and finding fulfillment in life.

Ishvarapranidhana can be translated in the following way:

Ishvara: a personal choice (in relation to the mystery of life)

Pranidhana: surrender, devotion

Patanjali was a non-dogmatic theist and a genius. He knew that if he wanted to teach the masses about the true meaning of yoga then the general term “Ishvara” would be more digestible. My guess is that he intuited that if you give people the choice of who they can worship they will be more open to listen to what you have to say.

Your personal choice

Over the past few years I have discovered new insights and strategies for embodying the kriya of ishvarapranidhana. The part that resonates with me the most is this concept of “personal choice.” The idea is that by following your heart, and making choices from this place, you are practicing self-surrender. This is much different than feeling like you have to surrender to a force that is distinct and different than yourself, like for example: Jesus, the Buddha, the Divine Feminine, Krishna or Allah.

There will always be suffering

What about surrendering to a state of being, in which all experiences arise, unfold and pass away? Could ishvarapranidhana also mean having reverence for the present moment?

When I think of this question I am reminded of a quote from the Bible: “for the place in which you stand is holy ground.” Is this ground in which we are currently standing holy and perfect in every way? Many of us may answer no. Daily stresses and emotional problems that come up are real and often debilitating—nothing feels “holy” about them. It is no wonder then, that both Patanjali and the Buddha taught that the universal human condition is suffering.

Modern neuroscience now agrees with these spiritual teachers. There is something about our human brains that cause us to suffer. Feeling disappointed with others or yourself, regretting not doing “enough”, the fear of getting older, feeling like you have “no time”––notice your tendency to judge and hang on to negative emotions like these.

The software of the mind has a “looping mechanism” and if nothing is done to attenuate and counteract negative emotions they will loop on relentlessly. This is called “negative neuroplasticity” and is what holds us back from happiness. This built in neurobiological system can either be helpful or harmful depending how you use it. So how can you hack the negative loops and re-wire with positive ones?

Say YES to life

There are new insights and strategies that can lead to positive loops. Adopting a daily practice of saying yes to the present moment is an excellent way to surrender and create a positive loop. “Always say 'yes' to the present moment... Surrender to what is. Say 'yes' to life - and see how life starts suddenly to start working for you rather than against you.” This Eckhart Tolle quote reminds us of what is possible when we say yes to life. Think of it as a form of “self regulation”, or a “devotion in motion.”

Saying yes to life is a way of training the circuitries of your brain. It is also a practice that encourages you to act more from the heart and less from your head. It is not easy to ask the ego to step aside. Letting life inform and guide you is a practice, and the bad news is life might have a different plan for you than what you want. I read once that we are born with one third of our traits and the other two thirds we need to cultivate. What kind of traits have you cultivated? By saying yes to the present moment you start to train yourself to become more resilient when unpredictable stressful moments arise.

Stay open and curious

A startling insight I have developed practicing ishvarapranidhana is the realization that I really don’t understand anything. My ego thinks it does, but that is where I get into trouble. Understanding that I don’t really understand myself, others or the world has become an interesting entry point into self-surrender. My ego shrieks at the idea of deferring power outside of itself, but for some reason (call it grace maybe?) when I stay open and curious, let my ego go and trust in a higher power, magic really does happen.

The power of mindfulness

In order to say yes to life, and allow a higher intelligence to direct us, we need to be “in-tune” to every moment in our lives. If your natural tendency is to rush through your day, you will likely miss meaningful messages that are being transmitted to you at any given moment. How many unconscious mental and physical routines do you have each day? Are tasks like driving home from work, checking the mail, doing the dishes or having your morning coffee things you do mindfully or do you do them on autopilot? If we are not paying attention we can easily become identified with our stories, cravings and phobias and become blind to the extraordinary moments of being alive. Hence, don’t take any task big or small for granted. They are all opportunities to practice living mindfully.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Below are the Buddha’s teachings of mindfulness. You can practice one or all of them, it makes no difference. What matters is your intention.

1. Pause and become aware of your body. Notice your breath. What is your body’s relationship to the environment in this moment? Where is your body in relation to space and time? Sometimes we are so lost in our thoughts we don’t pay attention to where we are. Note how everything is constantly changing. We become mindful to such a degree that we become detached. It is then that we discover we are more than just our bodies.

2. Pause and become aware of sensations. What information are your senses bringing in? Are they pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? These inquiries can lead to powerful self-mastery skills especially with addictions. Just having a devotion to this pause itself can prevent us from behaviors that don’t serve us.

3. Pause and become aware of the thought patterns that are in our consciousness. What are the characteristic thoughts? The memories? The images? Note how you can be dragged here and there by them. The pause itself can be a way to observe thoughts without getting involved, and overtime you can learn to disidentify with them.

4. Pause and become aware of the totality of the previous three. What are the overarching ideas and concepts that shape your daily experiences? The ideologies and structures of your own reality? Eventually you will get better at analyzing them and their constituents.

Meditate on this

Meditation has helped me tremendously with getting in-tune, detaching and disidentifying from all of the labels and fears I like to believe are real. It helps me focus and and get centered on the astonishing reality of my existence right now. When I am not ruminating over my worries I notice I have so much more brain power that can be channeled into my actual reality.

I am not a purist. I value various wisdom traditions available to us on this planet. Patanjali was a yogi and the Buddha (no shocker here) was a “buddhist”. Both had similar views, but different ways of teaching. We can learn from these great masters if we stay open and willing to surrender.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches that “yoga is skill in action”. This always reminds me that life is dynamic and it is how we bring our consciousness to life that makes all the difference in our experience.

A Yoga Unplugged collaboration - written by Jennifer Reuter, edited by Sarah Burchard