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When I was about 15 years old my mother read a Deepak Chopra book and told me that love was all about surrender, or something like that. Red flags went up, alarm bells went off. I dismissed this theory entirely and quickly, with only a bit of thought that went something like this: If you surrender to someone, how can you tell whether they are surrendering to you? And if they don’t, won’t you be in a dangerous place where they can take advantage of you while you’re wide open? No thanks, no surrender.
Surrender felt threatening. I was scared, and still am sometimes, of the lack of control that comes when we truly release our resistance to the flow of life. But this lack of control is present whether we accept it or not. Surrender is in opposition to control. It is not, however, at odds with taking action and having agency in our lives. We can, and should, take actions and make decisions that allow us to feel prepared and safe to surrender. Then, we must surrender.
Practice Surrender with Ishvara Pranidhana
Ishvara pranidhana is the last component of kriya yoga (the others being svadhyaya, or self-study, and tapas, or effort). It can be translated as surrender to the divine, but also understood as surrender to the highest quality you contain and wish to embody. For many of us, this is love.
Love is the feeling that allows us to feel all the others. Beyond a quality, love is a verb, it is a daring act. The good news is that the more we surrender, the more love we emit and accept. Then, the more difficult it becomes to stay stagnant and the easier it is to have an internally active life.
There are three main categories of love: love for self, love for others, and love for the connection we share. I don’t buy that we have to completely love ourselves before we can love others. No form of love has requirements or preconditions, and we don’t need to prioritize one over another. There is no one right way to choose love and practice Ishvara pranidhana. If one category seems less present in your life then start with that one and practice focusing in on it. Here are some suggestions on practicing each type. Feel free to skip around depending on which love bucket needs more nurturing in your life.
4 Ways to Practice Ishvara Pranidhana Through Self-Love
- Spend time by yourself. This can look like a lot of different things. No matter what, try to do it without an electronic device. It is distracting, it is not you, and it is not love. I recommend taking a walk. Notice the pace of your steps. Notice the pace of your thoughts. Notice your breath. If you feel more connected to yourself when you are still, sit down. You can lie down too, but if you are anything like me this will lead to a nap (which is admittedly lovely but is not the purpose of this exercise!).
- Talk or write to yourself. Write what is on your mind without censorship. Or, use this prompt: Jot down or say aloud what you enjoyed doing as a child. Don’t filter yourself. Nothing is silly. Pick one activity. Remember where you used to do this. Picture it so you can describe it to yourself or write the details of it down. What did this activity stir in you? This is what you must revisit.
- Be gentle with yourself. Counteract INGE (I’m not good enough), by replacing it with words and acts that remind yourself that you deserve love.
- Practice gratitude directed toward yourself. Most internal activism practices can be taken one step further with gratitude. If you meditate, you can also be grateful that your body can sit in a meditative posture. If you write to clear your mind, you can also be grateful that you had enough of an education to learn to write. And so on.
4 Ways to Practice Ishvara Pranidhana Through Love for Others
- Practice gratitude directed toward others. I heard somewhere that feeling gratitude without expressing it is like buying someone a present but then never giving it to them. Tell a loved one what you appreciate about them because who doesn’t like presents?
- Send loving kindness to others. When we send lovingkindness to anyone—people we already love, people who are acquaintances, people we don’t know personally, or people we dislike—we make more room in our hearts. I still prefer to send loving kindness to my mother, husband, or pets than the guy who almost rear ended me in traffic but, with practice, I can open up my heart to all of them.
- Express your love. There are many displays of love, a simple favorite being to say, “I love you.” To friends, to family, to your significant other. Say it when you mean it. It will not grow stronger by keeping it secret. It is felt more when it is heard.
- Be vulnerable & set boundaries. I used to think those two things were impossible to have at the same time. Boundaries can keep people out if they are like walls. But they can be like doors. A door can be locked if you want to ensure a certain person doesn’t enter with their emotional baggage, abuse, or bad juju. A door has a peephole if someone comes unexpectedly and you want to check who is there before opening. A door can be opened if you feel safe. A door can welcome someone in if you want more of them. Boundaries give you the freedom to love fully and openly.
How to Practice Ishvara Pranidhana Through Love for the Connection We Share
The rampant pain we see in the news and in our daily lives can make us numb to it. It doesn’t happen by itself. We dehumanize the pain, we separate the pain from the people, because we do not (thankfully) want to see people suffer. Through this process we sometimes get desensitized to the point where we stop seeing people at all, stop relating to them. To cultivate Ishvara pranidhana through our connection to others, we need to step back into our sensitivity not to the point where we take on others’ difficult experiences but short of that where we can see them. When we see people and what they go through, we can meet them with a baseline of love.
About Our Expert
Laura Riley is a writer, yoga teacher, and social justice attorney based in Los Angeles. This article is adapted from her manuscript Internal Activism.