Ishvara pranidhana is not about what your yoga can do for you, but about approaching your practice in the spirit of offering.
When I was an Ashtanga student in Mysore, I loved walking the several blocks to Pattabhi Jois's yoga shala (school) for 4:30 a.m. practice. In the quiet darkness before dawn, the side streets would be dotted with the neighborhood's sari-clad women kneeling upon the earth in front of their homes drawing rangoli, intricate sacred diagrams (also known as yantras) made by sifting rice flour between the fingers. Sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate, these offerings to Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune and prosperity, were always vibrant-and destined to be erased as soon as the streets filled with traffic. I was inspired by the women's dedication, creativity, and lack of attachment to their beautiful creations. As I became friends with some of the neighborhood women and they taught me a few simple rangoli, I learned that these offerings are not merely duty or decoration, but creative meditations that invoke a connection to the Divine on behalf of everyone. As one mother told me with a smile and an expansive wave of her hand, "These offerings remind me of the big picture, which helps me take care of the small things with love."
These morning offerings, like so many everyday rituals in India, embody the yoga practice of Ishvara pranidhana—surrendering (pranidhana) to a higher source (Ishvara). Ishvara pranidhana is a "big picture" yoga practice: It initiates a sacred shift of perspective that helps us to remember, align with, and receive the grace of being alive.
Yet to many modern Westerners the idea of surrender as a virtue may seem strange. Many of us have only experienced surrendering to a higher source as a last resort, when we've confronted seemingly insurmountable problems or in some other way hit the edge of our individual will and abilities. But in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali transforms "surrender" from this sort of last-resort, emergency response into an essential ongoing practice. Patanjali repeatedly highlights Ishvara pranidhana as one of the five niyamas, or inner practices, of the ashta-anga (eight-limbed) path (Chapter II, verse 32) and, along with discipline (tapas) and self-study (svadhyaya), as part of kriya yoga, the threefold yoga of action (II.1).
See also Intro to Kriya Yoga
For Patanjali, Ishvara pranidhana is a potent method for dissolving the endless agitations of the mind, and thus a means to the ultimate unified state of yoga: samadhi. Why? Because Ishvara pranidhana shifts our perspective from the obsession with "I"—with our narrow individual concerns and perspective—that causes so much of the mind's distraction and creates a sense of separation from our Source. Since Ishvara pranidhana focuses not on ego but on the sacred ground of being, it reunites us with our true Self. As Indian yoga master B. K. S. Iyengar states in his Light on the Yoga Sutras, "Through surrender the aspirant's ego is effaced, and...grace...pours down upon him like a torrential rain." Like the descent through layers of tension to rest in the release of Savasana (Corpse Pose), Ishvara pranidhana provides a pathway through the obstacles of our ego toward our divine nature—grace, peace, unconditional love, clarity, and freedom.
finding your connection with the universe
To practice Ishvara pranidhana, we must first start with our own intimate connection to the universe. In yoga, this is referred to as your Ishta-Devata. The yogic concept of Ishta-Devata recognizes that we each have our own, personal relationship with and taste of the Divine and that this serves as a powerful means of yoga (unification) for us. Traditionally, many sadhus (monks) in India have revered the god Shiva in his role as the archetypal yogi. Many other Indians revere Vishnu, especially in his incarnations as Rama or Krishna. Still others are drawn to female manifestations of divinity, like Lakshmi or Kali or Durga. But Sri T. Krishnamacharya, probably the most influential figure in the spread of yoga to the West, advocated that Western yoga practitioners use their own language, imagery, and names of the sacred to deepen their connection to Ishvara.
I have always been naturally drawn to Indian culture, but I'm sure I was also influenced by my Catholic grandmother's devotion to Mother Mary. When I was a child, I often found my grandma rapt in prayer, saying her rosary while lying on her bed under a picture of the blessed Mother. Your Ishta-Devata can also take a more abstract form; my father, an artist, describes light as his way of seeing the Divine in nature, in people's eyes, in art. In yoga, Ishvara is understood as being beyond one form yet expressed through all forms, and thus is often represented as the sacred syllable Om, as pure vibration. Your Ishta-Devata is the form that vibration takes within your own heart.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali refers to this inner presence of Ishvara as our foremost teacher (I.26). Through intimate listening to this voice within us, we begin to have a relationship with inner guidance in all aspects of our life. When I think of my most important teachers, including my parents, I see that they were there not just for the big lessons but also in a thousand small ways, constantly showing me when I was on target or beginning to wander off the path, opening my being to new vistas and reminding me when I was closing myself to life. My experience of my inner teacher is similar: As my attunement to this inner sense of direction grows, it increasingly guides my thoughts, speech, and actions.
If Ishvara is the inner compass, pranidhana is remembering to stay connected to that essence not just occasionally but throughout the day. Ishvara pranidhana is also translated as "offering the fruits of one's actions to the Divine." As we consider how to make Ishvara pranidhana a living part of our yoga, it's useful to look to India, where the act of offering pervades the culture. I found living there, even with all its challenges, really helped me understand how Ishvara pranidhana can be integrated into daily life.
Throughout India, images of the Divine are everywhere, and people of all ages are continuously making offerings of fruit, incense, and gestures, from Anjali Mudra (hands together at the heart) to full-body prostrations. At the local fruit stall, the merchant offers the money of his first sale at the altar on his cart; your rickshaw driver touches the feet of an image of Krishna before zooming off; a neighborhood mother places the first spoonful of the meal before her kitchen shrine. As Ashtanga Vinyasa master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois enters the yoga room, his forehead always shows the markings of his tilak, the sign that he has made his morning puja (offering). All these practices cultivate an underlying connection with the Source; "Me, me, me" starts to move into the background, and spiritual life moves more front and center.
Beginning to practice Ishvara Pranidhana
For Americans, who seldom grow up with such a constant ritual life, establishing Ishvara pranidhana may require some extra attention and internal listening, much like the process of learning to take long, slow, and constant breaths in asana. Like breathing more deeply, Ishvara pranidhana shouldn't feel strange or uncomfortable. The practice isn't really foreign to anyone, although it may feel a bit unfamiliar to Westerners. Anybody, regardless of spiritual orientation, can practice Ishvara pranidhana, and any action can be enhanced by this practice. There is no inner state, emotion, or obstacle that is beyond the positive influence of Ishvara pranidhana. Remember, whether you are a natural bhakti (devotional) yogi or a complete skeptic, whether you are undertaking a simple act like cooking a meal or a challenging task like a difficult conversation, whether your state of mind is joyous or confused, the whole mandala of life is the realm of Ishvara pranidhana.
See also The Path of Devotion: Bhakti Yoga
Because the scope of Ishvara pranidhana is so vast, Western yoga practitioners often welcome a few practical guidelines to help them get started. Here are some arenas in which I've found Ishvara pranidhana to be especially useful: at the beginning of any action, as a way of shifting your perspective when faced with difficulty, and as a method for experiencing fully the simple acts of life. The yoga mat or meditation cushion is a wonderful "safe space," a "closed course," on which you can test drive Ishvara pranidhana. As with any action in the world, the way you begin your practice can make a huge difference in how your yoga flows. Inner listening, setting your intention, chanting, and visualization are all formal ways of initiating Ishvara pranidhana. I often begin my practice stretched out on my belly in full prostration, visualizing the lotus feet of the Goddess, my Ishta-Devata, in front of me. I breathe and empty the residue of the day and find that I am soon filled with an intuitive sense of direction, inspiration, and clarity that I experience as an inner compass, a teacher whose presence deepens throughout the practice. Surya namaskar (Sun Salutation) can also be a method of Ishvara pranidhana; in its origins, it was a moving prayer in which every breath offered the yogi's energy back to the sun.
As you practice asana, you can start treating challenging yoga poses as microcosms of life's difficulties, and thus great opportunities to practice the art of offering. In my own practice, I am becoming more and more able to recognize tension as a signal; holding and gripping are signs that my connection with Ishvara pranidhana is lessening. As I offer my tension back to the Source, emptying and surrendering again, I very often experience a boost of strength or a deepening of my breath and flexibility. Even more importantly, I experience a shift from my small, crowded inner world to a big picture of being alive. Then, as with the Mysore women's rice-flour offerings, the grace from the process remains even when the pose has dissolved.
Because Ishvara pranidhana connects every action to its sacred source, Krishnamacharya is said to have described it as the most important yoga practice for the Kali Yuga we live in, an "Iron Age" in which all humanity has fallen away from grace. Just as the Buddhist commitment to bringing awareness to every action is called mindfulness practice, Ishvara pranidhana could be called "heartfulness" practice; it awakens our constant devotion to the Source of life and keeps our hearts open to the Divine in every moment, no matter what arises.