Isvara Pranidhana: Sticking With What We Truly Know

In my previous blogs, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, which is really a description of the experience of yoga.  If you've been following the series, you'll notice that I give examples of Sat-Chit-Ananda from the perspective of not just our yoga students, but various coaching clients of mine, as well.  This experience shows up not just when we're practicing ujjayi pranayama (victorious breathing) or following the vinyasa count exactly the way it's performed in Mysore.  In fact, Sat-Chit-Ananda is an everyday, common experience we all have.  It spontaneously occurs in moments that ring of profound truth; in moments that wake us up; and in moments that evoke resonance. But if everyone can experience Sat-Chit-Ananda, and it happens in everyday, normal experiences, then why do we practice yoga?  What's the point?  The point is that to continually discover Sat-Chit-Ananda in our lives, it requires both practice and the capacity to stay.  In one sense, the practice gives us the kinisthetic experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  We tune and attune to the instruments of our bodies in order to experience what it's like to be in accord with our inner most truth; to develop the knack for directing our attention without distraction; and to know what "the yum" feels like.  Not only do we cultivate the feeling sense in the body, but we also foster and learn to stay connected to the part of us that is courageous, wise, and clear, the part that Patanjali calls isvara.  In this blog, we will explore why this part is so important.

The Threshold

We all come to places in our lives where we just have to make an authentic, resonant choice over doing what we think we "should do" or what the so-called "right thing," is.  Joseph Campbell describes this choice in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949,  CA: New World Library) as "the threshold," which he described as the "passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown."  It's a place in which we have to become bigger than we know ourselves to be.

Devorah and I often have the privilege of sitting in the front seat of our students' lives as they're at their thresholds.  Sometimes it shows up in the form of of a physical injury.  I don't know what it is about us Ashtangis, but often it takes the experience of pain to wake us up and connect us to the fact that we have to change.  On one level, we can't keep practicing the way we've been practicing previously.  We have to clean up aspects of our asana practice, so we don't keep getting repetitive strain.  Maybe we need better alignment; maybe we need to back off certain postures; maybe we need to just stay more present when we're entering and exiting.  More often than not it's not just the asana we need to clean up.  We also have to face the fact that our lives need to change.  And change can be a pretty scary thing for most of us.

The Resistance to Change

We all get pretty locked up at the threshold of change.  We resist and resist because we're frightened of what we might find out about ourselves and whether we will find what we're truly looking for on the other side.   To make choices that lead us toward authenticity, toward awakening, toward aliveness, toward healing we often have to say, "no" to what we're habituated to.  And when we don't, our "world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and [our lives] feel meaningless." (Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. p.23)  In other words, when we can't muster the will or courage to make the leap, life feels stagnant and heavy, dull and grating.

I recently had a chat with a new friend who spent three years in a quagmire.  Once she and her partner had her first child, she discovered that he didn't really meet her.  As she said, "if he was just a jerk, leaving him would've been a cinch," but she loved many things about him.  And it was important to her not to leave him because "he is the father of our child."  So she tried all sorts of different ways of staying in the relationship.  And no matter what method she employed, she kept discovering and rediscovering throughout those three years that they just weren't a match.  She described those three years as "some of the hardest years of my life."  That's what it's like for most of us when we just can't move even though we need to...badly.

Samsara: Conditioned Existence

We're so conditioned to stay with things even though they don't suit us.  Choosing differently often can feel like a death.  We're programmed at such a very, very early age to choose things that don't necessarily resonate with us in order to receive the love we crave.  I am watching this first-hand since my wife, Melissa and I took a puppy into our lives.  I know that our little Disco would like to poop wherever she wants to in our house, but she's learning that the pleasure of affection and attention will be temporarily removed from her if and when she does so.  And, more importantly, she will get rewarded when she goes to the bathroom outside.

I know that we're psychologically different from dogs, but we're all trained in a very similar manner.  Most of us were rewarded when we did things that others wanted, and, likewise, were punished when we did things they didn't like.  That's how we were taught to survive in our homes, at school, and any other place we were exposed to as kids.  For all of us, our survival was predicated on a few things.

In my case: "Always look your best, even if you don't feel it;" "don't be so negative;" and "never let them know how you really feel."  As a result of these subtle messages, I developed a pretty affable personality, but for many years, I was frightened of confrontation.  Still to this day, I struggle with expressing anger, except to the few who I trust will stick with me, even when my anger starts to look ugly.

In order to fit in to our family settings and to survive all of the socialization we get as kids, whether it's at home, in the classroom, or on the football field, we had to make choices that took us out of accord with ourselves, with who we authentically were.  We had to do this.  That's just part of growing up.  If Melissa and I just let Disco take a crap on our rug, like she did today--ugh--and just say, "Hey, she's just expressing her 'authentic, doggy nature,'" we're setting her up for a rough adulthood.  By conditioning her to live in our home in such a way that she can live in harmony with us, we all get to thrive.

Samsara Halahala

But there's no doubt that many of the experiences that socialized us also scarred parts of us.  That conditioning is what we're requesting to overcome when we chant:

vande gurunam charanaravinde sandarsita svatmasukhava bodhe nihsreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai

We're essentially calling on the guidance of our guru to eliminates the delusion of our conditioning.  Delusion includes all of the ways we numb out to the suffering that results when we don't follow our Sat-Chit-Ananda.  For many of us, the experiences that conditioned us also left us lacking in confidence, either about how beautiful we were, how smart we were, and many of us grew up wondering, deep down, whether there was something fundamentally flawed about us.  So we remained stuck in what everyone else wanted for us.  We never found our own unique way in the world.

In fact, even when we survive our childhood, even when we "make it" relative to the standards of most human beings in the world, we still sometimes make choices that don't feel very life affirming.  We still make choices that keep us in a sort of unconscious fog.  We choose the yuck.  On a deeply emotional level, on the level of the pre-rational brain, we're still looking for some sort of affirmation that we're okay; that we're wanted; or that we're lovable.  In many ways, we're still surviving our childhoods even though we've totally outgrown them.

Isvara Pranidhana: Staying With the Seer, the Knower, and the Guru Within

It takes a lot of guts to make some life-affirming choices because we've all been programmed to believe that if we do, we might end up "without a home, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone." (Dylan, Bob, "Like a Rolling Stone". Highway 61 Revisited.  Columbia. 1965)  To make choices that go against our conditioning can be downright frightening because it often feels like we have to cast ourselves off of a cliff with no clear sense that there will be anything below to catch us.  And no matter how intensely we practice asana, somehow the physical practice doesn't always take us all the way there.  This is where isvara pranidhana is needed.  Isvara pranidhana is typically translated as surrender to God or faith in God, but as we explore further, we'll discover that it is something altogether different.

In the West, we have all sorts of funny reactions to both the words, "surrender" and "God."  Either we wholeheartedly give our life to our savior; we're just over the superstition of the whole thing; we're not sure what to believe; or we have inklings of some relationship to a higher power, but that relationship doesn't fit the models we grew up with.

But pranidhana isn't exactly faith or surrender.  Surrender is what we do when we realize we're not going to win the war. We pull out the white flag, both literally and figuratively, and enter the battle field with our hands in the air.  "We give up. Don't shoot!" Maybe we give up to a higher power, which is beautiful, but it's not pranidhana.  Faith is belief without proof.  When we have faith we don't need it.  We just believe.  But pranidhana is a "continual placing of ourselves into." Pra means continuously, ni is into.  And dha is place. So it's much more active than faith or surrender.  It is the act of totally staying with the part of us that is isvara.

And isvara isn't God, the way we know God.  Isvara is not the biblical God.  It is not the judger, the punisher, the ruler, or the guy with the white beard.  Patanjali describes the three qualities of Isvara like this:

  1. the seer that is unaffected by the suffering we face (1:24).
  2. the knower (1:25)
  3. the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness (1:26)

Isvara can either be perceived as a force outside of ourselves or something that is within.  My preference--since it is easier for me to access-is to see isvara as the one within me.  It's the part of me that is not afraid to suffer, the one who knows, and the one who, as the teacher of teachers, is always learning and growing in order to become wiser.  Accessing this part of ourselves can be extremely useful in moments when we're scared shitless; when we're confused; when we're depressed; and when we're so angry that all we see is red.

I recently got a call from an acupuncture client who said that within an hour or so after leaving the appointment that she started to feel tightness in her chest and breathless.  My first instinct was to press my internal "panic button" along with the button that say, "You're no good at what you do.  See you're a failure.  People pay you to feel better, and you make them worse. Just give up.  It's not worth the fuss, anyway.  You're a fraud.  Just think what people will be saying about you."

In spite of the fact that I have been practicing yoga for almost 20 years, I still have these self-loathing and belittling voices in my head.  But I've also cultivated isvara pranidhana.  When the shit hits the fan, not only do I consult the self-critical voices, but I've also learned to consult the part of me that is isvara and to stick more with that wisdom than the crap that my self-sabotaging voices would have me believe.  And when I contacted this part of myself, it asked:

"What's the truth here?"

"The truth is that my patient experienced a reaction from my treatment."

"Does that make you a failure?"

"No, I did and continue to treat my patients the best way that I know how.  And I make mistakes.  So, I guess I get to admit being a human here, a human that makes mistakes."

"Yeah, you get to be human.  And you get to have compassion for yourself.  Now, what can you do to support your client?"

"Well, I can call her.  I can see if I can help her with her pain.  And I can learn from this experience."

So for me isvara pranidhana is a bit like having a dialogue with myself.  I am accessing the wiser part of me that dispels the lies of the self-sabotaging voices; offers compassion and the gift of humility; allows me to see what can be done to rectify the situation; and most importantly, sees the opportunity for learn and grow.

It is a lens through which we see the world, an access point for moving forward, for making choices that are informed by the depth of who we are rather than those smaller, superficial parts of us that are holding on for dear life.  We're all in samsara, or conditioned existence.  We all have things we must overcome in order to meet the direct experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda. For me, personally, Isvara pranidhana, is really the gift of seeing that the things we suffer with are really opportunities for our evolution.

My brother-in-law, Boyd, just came back from a hospital visit to a friend who only a few days ago fell backwards from the bed of a truck onto his spine.  In a split second he went from being an agile, capable man to being a quadriplegic.  His response to the accident was, "It's just another of life's hurdle."  One might read that as either machismo or naiveté, but it also just might isvara pranidhana.  Somehow it shows up in those moments we need it the most.  And in those hours, weeks, months, and years when we're stuck on the threshold, Isvara pranidhana can be our greatest ally.  We need allies on the journey toward Sat-Chit-Ananda, whether we're paralyzed in our body or paralyzed by life.



It can help immensely to tap into the three faces of Isvara within ourselves: the seer, the knower, and the teacher.  Whether they actually exists or not is really of no significance, but it's a powerful lens or perspective to step into when we're stuck or we're freaked out by change.

  1. Take a moment to slow down.  In fact, don't just read through this exercise if you don't have time to really give it the thought it deserves.
  2. Notice if there are areas of your life where you're on the threshold.  Is there a fulfilling move you've been too afraid to make because you fear a loss of love, affection, or care from another or others?  Are you sticking with something even though you know it doesn't fit you, but it's the so-called "right thing to do"?  Take a few moment to either write, contemplate, or meditate on where, exactly you're held back and what it's like being there.
  3. Describe, think about, or meditate on what the self-critical voices are saying about the situation.  Notice if you can hear the voices of your parents,  teachers, or mentors.
  4. Tap into the part of you that is the seer.  It's the part of you that is permanent, pure, unchanging, non-material, and everlasting.  It's the part of us that knows that you can withstand all suffering and so is not afraid of it.  What's the perspective of the seer in you?
  5. Tap into the part of you that is the knower.  This is the part of us that just knows the truth.  When all the drama of life is dropped away, when all of the fear and doubt are dropped, what's true about this situation? What's eternally true?
  6. Now pay attention to the part of you that is the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness.  As the teacher of teachers, you recognize that all of the experiences of life are opportunities for growth and evolution.  What's the bigger lesson you're learning in this situation?  What's the big lesson you still have to learn?
  7. Finally apply pranidhana to isvara.  In other words, you're job is to stay with the wisdom and knowing of that part of yourself rather than letting the self-sabotaging voices take over.  Make a practice of reminding yourself of what you know deep inside.  Consider that the practice of isvara pranidhana is not one you'll ever master, but it's a powerful practice that will take you very far on your journey, much farther and much more interesting than the journey your self-sabotaging voices will lead you down.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the fourth installment of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!