Yoga Sutra

Yoga Philosophy 101: The Power of Devotion Can Transform Your Yoga Practice and Life

Lasater explains the meaning of ishvara pranidhana to her and its enduring relevance. Join us for her six-week interactive online course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

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buddha, spirituality

Yoga Journal co-founder Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, and her daughter, Lizzie Lasater, have partnered with YJ to bring you a six-week interactive online course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, one of yoga’s primary texts. Through study of this fundamental text, the Lasaters, with more than 50 years of combined teaching experience, will support you in deepening your practice and broadening your understanding of yoga. Sign up now for a transformative journey to learn, practice, and live the sutra.

We often see statues of the Buddha and Ganesha in yoga studios, and if you’ve studied yoga philosophy, you know that yoga is linked with Eastern religions, but the practice itself is spiritual, not religious.

One of the most profound spiritual elements of yoga is Patanjali’s final niyama, or observance, in the Yoga Sutra: the practice of ishvara pranidhana, or “devotion to God.” But Lizzie Lasater, an international yoga and meditation teacher, insists that even if you don’t connect with the concept of “God,” learning to surrender to something larger than yourself can transform your practice and life. Here, Lasater explains the meaning of ishvara pranidhana to her and its enduring relevance.

Yoga Journal: What does Patanjali have to say about God or a higher power?
Lizzie Lasater:
In verse 2.1 in the Sutra, Patanjali writes, “tapas svadhyaya ishvara prahnidanani kriya yogah.” This is his definition of kriya yoga. Tapas is this burning desire—it’s this kind of returning, returning, returning. It’s the thing that motivates you to kick up 200 times before you get into a Handstand. It’s that burning intention. Svadhyaya is self-study. That’s what we’re doing when we get on the mat or meditation cushion, and when we practice any of the eight limbs of yoga. We’re internalizing our focus and learning from what arises. We don’t do Downward-Facing Dog Pose just to do Down Dog—it has no inherent magical power, and you could get the same physical benefits from a lot of other things. Yoga, to me, has to be more than that. It has this self-study component: I’m going to do Down Dog, and then watch my breath and mind to see what happens. That’s what makes yoga so fascinating to me.

YJ: Where does ishvara pranidhana fit in?
Ishvara pranidhana is the third piece. Ishvara is translated as “the lord,” and pranidhana is “devotion.” In our secular context today, I don’t think it’s important at all that the word “lord” be used. You can insert any word in there that you want—”universe,” “goddess,” “divine energy,” “nature.” To me, what’s important about ishvara pranidhana is giving up, surrendering to something that is bigger than ourselves.

YJ: What’s the value of surrender, or devotion, in a yoga practice?
I like the image of surrendering even more than that of devotion. Any time I even say “ishvara pranidhana,” I bow my head and turn my palms up. It’s like during a Sun Salutation when you inhale and lift your over head, and then you exhale and bow forward. It’s the bowing forward that’s the ishvara pranidhana. It’s incredibly valuable for a practitioner to say, “I don’t know. I surrender to the idea that there’s something beyond me.” That component of devotion—surrender—is important as a kind of “check and balance” to the idea of self-study. If you’re only internalizing, you run the risk of becoming too egocentric. So ishvara pranidhana is a wonderful counterpoint to that; it says, “I’m fascinated by the study of the self, but I’m also surrendering to that which is outside of the self.”

This carries over into day-to-day life. My mom always says that our favorite illusion is the illusion of control. We like to think that we’re heroine or the author of our own story, that we’re in charge—but really, we’re not. And that’s what ishvara pranidhana is.

YJ: Why do you think we see the Buddha in so many yoga studios?
I think it’s attractive iconography. Buddha statues are aesthetically pleasing, but also it’s a spiritual iconography that’s not off-putting for most Westerners. There’s a peaceful quality. I think people put it in yoga studios because yoga is close to Buddhism—they’re neighbors.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.