What is it?
Although it is the most mystical of the yamas and niyamas, isvara pranidhani can be simply thought of as cultivation of a connection, through devotion, through the heart – not through the mind like svadhyaya – to Oneness/Realization/True Self/etc as represented by isvara.
Connecting to Oneness is vague at best, and nearly impossible at worst. By using the placeholder of isvara, one is much better able to cultivate a relationship or intimacy with the Divine.
Isvara is generally conceived of as a personal idea of god – Christ, Krishna, Mary, Buddha, etc. But can often be, for those rare beings, a guru.
By linking up, connecting to them – you cultivate it within you. Like when you become good friends with someone, you start to take on some of their habits, or personality traits, or vernacular. But this relationship is with THAT. Tat twam asi. So ham. That kind of THAT. And you can imagine what kind of habits and traits that would cultivate.
Don’t get caught up in finding a person, or a thing, or having one, or not. It will come. Mine is a particular small forest of trees in upstate New York. I was hung up for a very long time, because I didn’t have an isvara, and I wanted one. The ironic thing is that trees always were, since I was a kid, I just had never thought of trees as isvara. Until suddenly, one day I did. When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.
How to connect without an isvara?
So what to do if you’ve yet to realize your isvara? There are several practices orientated around service that help us cultivate the openness to find our isvara and be in that type of relationship by starting with those we already are in relationship with. It must be made clear that humans are human, and when we surrender to them, it is to develop this internal state – not to follow them. Even using a “guru” is tricky, and it is highly advised you feel you can make the distinction between a sat-guru and an upa-guru.
1) Service & Surrender
The story as I’ve heard it: Allen Ginsberg was told by his doctors that he had one month to live. He went directly home, and called his friends, and asked each one; “What can I do for you?”
Ram Dass has described the process he goes through before he does one-on-one work with people. He does his mantra until can say “How may I serve you?” and be addressing that to the depth of the other person, the light of them, the Namaste of them. He is NOT asking, “How in the melodrama can I serve you?” It’s not about lending a car, or rehashing the terribleness of an ex-lover. He’s really asking, “How may I serve you in the journey we’re on to the light?”
What journey are you on with another? That’s an excellent place to play with as well.
Try it out before your next asana class:
Close your eyes. Imagine the person closest to you. Say to them “How may I serve you?” – Notice all the tightness, panic, backpedaling, exit strategies, and worst case scenarios that arise. Pause, breathe. Then trust that this person wouldn’t ask anything of you that would be harmful. And ask them again. Open-ended, heartfelt, totally committed. It might feel a bit like going bungee jumping – a whole giant dangerous mess of space where anything could happen. Practice in that space.
2) Surrender & Serve
Hanuman has a ton of great stories that always seem to be a bit more relevant to our lives than some of the other gods. One of my favorites is the story about his powers. He was born with incredible strengths, but as a small monkey wasn’t quite in control of them. Some of his exploits angered powerful humans and gods alike. As a precaution, the king of the gods put a curse on Hanuman. He would forget all his strengths and powers until the time he was called upon to be of service to another. So he spent the rest of his teen and adult years as a normal monkey/man. Then he met Ram. Ram had a stolen kingdom, stolen wife, and arch nemesis. He needed a lot of help. Hanuman’s powers were reawakened, and he served and aided Ram in retrieving his kingdom and wife, and defeating his arch nemesis.
We are a bit like Hanuman – so many of our powers and strengths are latent until called into service by another.
We get so tight around developing our breath, our yoga practice, our concentration. But the power they give us pales in comparison with what those strengths could do in the service of others.
3) Surrender the need to be the one who knows, the one who figured it all out, the one with the correct answer.
“Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal, is a lovely metaphor about climbing the mountain of consciousness. First, the travelers have to deduce the existence of the mountain, and then they have to figure out how to get there. Finally, they start to climb the mountain, and the narrator says, “By our calculations, thinking of nothing else, by our desires, abandoning every other hope, by our efforts, renouncing all bodily comfort, we gained entry into this new world. Or so it seemed to us. But we learned later that if we were able to approach Mount Analogue, it was because the invisible doors of that invisible country had been opened to us by those who guard them… Those who see us even though we cannot see them opened the door for us, answering our puerile calculations, our unsteady desires, and our awkward efforts, with a generous welcome.” [“Pathways to God” Ram Dass p.172]
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that “OM” is the sound expressive of Isvara. Chanting OM is one way to tap into relationship with Isvara, and cultivate the qualities of the Divine. Repeating any mantra shifts our internal state – just think about some of the negative self-talk mantras you’ve played in your life and how they have created your worldview, and how your world has shifted when those mantras become positive self-talk. The resonance of OM works the same way.
When you chant, make sure you are chanting OM the fullest and most accurate way possible. It would be best to work with a teacher in person, but a few tips that I find most students could benefit from:
* Complete the chant with the “mmmm”
* Try chanting it normally once, quietly once, and the silently once
* Try chanting it only silently, with the breath, throughout class
* Begin the OM on the final lift of the diaphragm at the end of the exhale, and keep the diaphragm engaged
* Draw in as much prana as you expel during the chant
* Emphasize the vibration and resonance over a singing quality
5) Listen & Take things to heart
A teacher who wanted to show his students the transformational value of deep listening took them to a cremation ground. There, he picked out three skulls. Taking the first skull, he put a stick through the hole where the ear once was, and it came out through the other side of the skull. The teacher said, “This is a person who heard the Truth with one ear, but was too lazy to contemplate what he had heard. Instead, he let it go out the other ear.”
The teacher picked up the next skull and put a stick into the ear hole. The stick got stuck in the middle of the skull and moved upward. “This person,” the teacher said, “not only heard the Truth, but contemplated it.”
When the teacher put the stick into the third skull, it entered the ear, moved upward toward the brain, and then came down toward the heart. “This is the skull of a person who not only heard the Truth and contemplated it, but also let it permeate the heart. This person cultivated the type of deep listening that leads to realization.”
Svadhyaya – Self-study: study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself
Svadhyaya 3 ~ Forget the Self
When the Buddha gave his first sermon, he said that the things he realized would be difficult, even for the wise, to hear. He continued that this is because “people love, delight and revel in their place.”
Take suffering – we all have our own particular brand of suffering – when we feel put upon, slighted, ignored, unwanted/loved, taken for granted, taken advantage of, etc. – and at this point in many of our lives, we have gotten that suffering to be so sweet. I know this was true for me, and still is sometimes. It’s such a unique form of sweetness, that you don’t realize it for quite awhile.
We also have our flavor of delight - in being someone who loves/hates/enjoys/dislikes wine, coffee, beer, horoscopes, vampires, politics, yoga, gym yoga, green, curly hair, etc. We can get so solid in those, just reveling in that in us, in the structure that we’ve established of us. But there’s also the us behind that structure. That would still be there if that structure crumbled.
You can see where this is going – they all prevent us from being in touch with our svarupa – our true selves (Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam). So we study our place, our self, in order to let go and make room for the Self.
Or as Dogen says: To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.
Or as the Tao 48 says: In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
The next time you practice asana, let your intention be to practice in possibility – not the structure of reveling you have already established. Whenever “I always…” “My ___ can’t…” “This is the way it is” or “I’m the exception” show up notice that this is the structure of the self, and see if you can loosen it enough to identify with the Self behind it all.
Recommended listening: Ram Dass’s “Here We All Are” minutes 1:42:21-1:45:12.
Recommended meditation practice: Neti Neti (not this, not this)
Svadhyaya – Self-study: study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself
Intellect influences the mind, and like any other sense and muscle, it can be not only trained, but cultivated. Modern neurology reveals that “mental training and enriched life increase brain weight and size. It increases the number of branches among neurons. ‘The brain is a muscle that grows with exercise’ is not just a metaphor.” (43 The Brain That Changes Itself)
It is also the only practice that comes with its own warning: beware of “armchair yoga”. It’s not meant to be a practice that is just you and a spiritual text up in the mountains. The preceding yamas and niyamas have given us an entire master craftsman’s toolbox of yoga actions to work on. Svadhyaya is tying in the wisdom element. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Wisdom without action has no legs, action without wisdom has no head.”
Iyengar has built an entire yoga-asana system that is in many respects a jnana one. Through deep knowing of the body, insights and realization arise. It is not my personal practice, but cannot be doubted. For further study on this, please refer to any of his texts or your nearest Iyengar Yoga Center (the nearest one to me that I enjoy going to is Yogasana in Brooklyn).
There is a particular way of moving, speaking perhaps, sitting, dancing even, that we do when we are at home alone by ourselves. And it becomes quite clear what those are whenever we have moments where we’re caught by someone in the midst of it. There’s a complete unguarded, natural expression to our being in those moments. Rodney Yee speaks of pranayama as work towards catching the breath home alone by itself. Svadhyaya could be said to be work towards catching the Self alone by itSelf.
“My goal isn’t to take away your confusion. Confusion is a fertile field in which everything is possible. If you think you know, you’ve just calcified again.” Ram Dass
The next time you feel yourself confused, make it a jnana practice. Allow yourself to be confused, without trying to solve it, or push it away. Relax as much as you can, and just be confused. At a certain moment, the rational mind may short circuit, and a glimpse of the Self home alone may be possible.
The final two niyamas: Svadhyaya and Isvara pranidhanadva can be the most challenging, both to work with and discuss, as they are the most internal and therefore less in the range of words and more in the range of experience. The first evidence of which is finding it necessary to break Svadhyaya into three separate posts. We’ll see what happens when we get to Isvara! The second evidence to follow:)
Svadhyaya – Self-study: study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself
Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence
With prior yamas and niyamas, we’ve been working with a lot of our patterned thoughts, words, actions, ways of seeing and being in the world. Working towards cultivating those in a direction that create the most beneficial relationship with the world and all beings. Svadhyaya is the stepping off point, a shift from that kind of work, or perhaps more aptly, a broadening. Instead of focusing on our likes/dislikes, cravings, attachments, habits, reactivity exclusively, we are now looking beyond/beside/within it.
Recently Davidji gave a dharma talk related to the new Jivamukti t-shirts. On the front are the words “I AM”. He asked us, what is on the back? For him, it’s “David”, for me “Jen”, for you “Your name here”. The previous yamas and niyamas can be seen as practices cultivating the “Jen” side, svadhyaya asks us to investigate “I AM”. And since we’ve spent the majority of our lives getting to know the back side of the t-shirt so well, a lot of svadhyaya is evening the scales with the “I AM” side.
As Rodney Yee said, “Suspend the knowing, the karmic history – the patterned ideas of you. To make space for you.”
In asana practice, we start off focusing and spending so much time on physical body alignment. After a while, we get comfortable, we feel safe in the strange poses, and we begin to investigate our mental habits, our fidgets, our reactions and emotions. When we begin to feel comfortable and safe within this level of exploration, we study our breath and the energy exchanges of the subtle body. After that, we go one level deeper still – and that’s the level of svadhyaya. It’s like we’re at the eye doctor, and they flip between two perspectives and ask “Is 1 or 2 clearer?” you respond, and again they flip, “Is A or B clearer?”, again “Is A or 2 clearer?”. Except we’re our own eye doctor, and keep evolving through clearer and more evolved perspectives. We’re working towards seeing ourselves at a level that is all “I AM”, and “Jen-ness” is quiet. The amazing part of this is that when I can really be with “I AM”, then my “Jen-ness” becomes more and more brilliant.
Rodney Yee also says, “If you can’t relax, you can’t hear more than one voice at a time.” Whether in our own minds, or in the room we’re standing in, we know from personal experience that the loudest voice we hear is not always the one we want to listen to. So when we practice asana, pranayama and meditation, we’re moving towards a kind of relaxation where the eager, well-meaning, but loud and insistent Jen voices quiet down, so I can hear the voice of “I AM”.
Recommended practices for this work: restorative asana, pranayama, and nadam meditation
A week and a half ago I returned from co-leading my first international yoga retreat in Tulum, Mexico with Anna Greenberg. It was an amazing week for all of us, that will reverberate out in our lives for sometime to come. Fresh fruit, walking meditation, birdsong and waves to wake us and meditate to, sutra study, twice-daily asana, and 12 new friends.
As a memento of that week is a quote from Rilke that I read one class. Not only is it worthy of being shared further, but to be contemplated again and again. I’ve always enjoyed the part of Alain de Botton‘s Atheism 2.0 TED Talk where he speaks about the value of repetition. Among many other enlightening points he makes.
“I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke
Tapas is the third niyama, as well as the first of the kriya yoga practices listed at the beginning of chapter two of the Yoga Sutras. It’s technical translation is “fire”, but for yoga practice it is generally understood in terms of the properties of fire; namely fiery discipline and cleansing.
Kaya indriya siddhir asuddhiksayat tapasah II.43
Self-discipline burns away all impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity
While this is the most accepted translation and understanding of tapas. I find it doesn’t quite work for me.
We have the best of intentions with discipline, as we often think of it as:
What generally winds up happening is:
We become parental disciplinarians to our fledging selves.
We conflate discipline as a verb with discipline as a noun.
I prefer to work with the idea of commitment. Commitment to your chosen practice, to working hard, to whatever you are choosing to put your entire presence and energy into. The practice then becomes something you are in relationship with, as opposed to something that you are beholden to.
Ram Dass calls it “a deeper commitment to being free.” And says that if you make it deep enough, you won’t have to recommit in the moment when it is most needed. That kind of commitment requires the desire to let go of old habits, and the faith in your method to get you there.
In asana practice, we inadvertently begin building this kind of tapas from our very first yoga class. We are encouraged, again and again, to return to the breath. When we feel unbalanced, when we feel tired, unfocused, or confused – at first at the teacher’s instruction and then increasingly on our own, we return to the feel, the movement, the connection to our breath. And every time we do so, we notice how it balances, renews, focuses and clears us. We learn that the commitment to returning to the breath allows us to let go of old habits and experience gives us faith in the method.
I would add another component to Ram Dass’s, and that is “no matter what”. Or, as Dogen puts it; “Practice the way as though saving your head from fire.”
Recently, a student and friend asked me how to stay up longer in inversions. I answered with alignment points and other teacherly advice. It wasn’t until later reflection that I looked to my own personal experience. And the answer was “no matter what”. I was working on headstand. I was strong enough to hold it for awhile, but kept faltering around 25/30 breaths, and coming down. I decided one day that I would stay in headstand for a count of 40 breaths, or fall out trying. I would not come down voluntarily, no matter how much I faltered, no matter how scary it seemed, no matter what. And I stayed the full 40, and even went to 50. From that day onwards, I have been able to have a long headstand practice.
Now, it’s not that everyone must have a five minute headstand. It’s the shift from believing in your ability to fall, to believing in your ability to stay.
It’s important, to make sure that your “no matter what” is not born out of punishment, stubbornness, austerity, or thinking that this new state will be permanent, or that it will make your life better, or you perfect. That is why saucha and santosa, and all the yamas came first. You must be grounded in nonharming, truth, contentment, and impermanence before making this kind of commitment.
One way to make sure this is happening in your asana practice is the breath. Or as David Swenson advises: Effort where necessary, Release when possible. Skillful effort in asana is being able to breathe freely every moment along the way.
Another way to work with tapas in asana practice is to be aware of you distraction techniques. All the little finger, clothing, and gaze fidgets. All the mental ejections from paths of boredom, struggle, self-doubt, dissatisfaction, not good enough, anger, greed, frustration, jealousy, and other “dark” places we don’t like to spend time with. I actually will inadvertently start humming something random when my mind touches someplace I don’t like to go. Asana intentionally puts us in a position to touch on those places, and it’s up to us to commit – whether beginner or advanced student – to paying attention to where the breath, body and mind go at those times. To let go of the distraction, to not fix the dark place, but to just be there and breathe. And breathe. And breathe.
In some ways, tapas is practicing a keen awareness of the intention/motivation behind our actions.
In a lot of ways, tapas is the practice of moving theory and what sounds really great when the teacher says it during a dharma talk and you decide yeah, I’ll add that to my philosophy on life, to actually making it a part of your life. You become an “agent of yoga” as Davidji says. You commit to something that serves you, not that you serve. And eventually it becomes something that allows you to serve others.
ED Brown: What is the most important thing?
Shinyra Suzuki: To find out what’s the most important thing.
Just as the intense heat of fire has the ability to cleanse what it placed within it, yoga practice that is undertaken with the spirit of tapas (see above) is considered to have the same effect on the yogi.
What, exactly, are we being cleansed of? Didn’t we already go over saucha – cleanliness? Well, yes, but as happens with the sutras, this round of cleansing is a little bit deeper. Saucha was working with cleansing us of the obstacles to yoga mentioned at the end of book two. Tapas is cleansing us of the root of even those obstacles – the kleshas. There are five kleshas, and they are believed to be at the root of our suffering (in the Buddhist context) or difficulties in life/yoga/etc. They are believed to be the impurities we’re all born with and carry with us through life, even the wise. They are: not seeing things clearly as they are (avidya), misidentifying our sole identity as that of the ego or “I”- maker (asmita), desire for things that make us happy (raga), aversion to things that make us unhappy (dvesa), and a fear of death (abhinivesa).
Delving into those is a much longer discussion, and ideally done in person with a teacher or satsang. At first glance, it’s easy to connect with at least a couple of the kleshas and see how they are at work in our lives, and create a certain amount of suffering.
When working with the kleshas and the idea of purification, it’s important to keep in mind our goal. It doesn’t mean that we become “pure” or perfect in anyway. To work towards that goal is to muddy the waters even further. It doesn’t mean you’re trying to become something, it means you’re trying to do something. You’re trying to cultivate a certain way of doing something. As a basic premise, and a pretty solid mantra to come back to during the day, tapas as a purifying practice can be thought of as:
Acting to bring more consciousness into the world, and not less.
Contentment. More than any other yama, niyama, and perhaps any other yoga practice, Santosa is what a majority of people turned to yoga for, believe the purpose of yoga to be, or both. Backed by the misleading equation: end result of class = end result of yoga (a glorious perpetual savasana) and false advertising yoga buzzwords like ‘bliss’ and ‘nirvana’, it’s easy to understand why one of the most common things people new to yoga tell me is “Wow, yoga is hard!” Any yogi worth her/his salt will tell you yoga is hard, always been hard, always will be. It’s not for the faint of heart, it’s not the easy path. All of those amazing beautiful stress-free epxeriences are the perks, not the purpose, of yoga.
That being said, I love the rare blissful savasana experience, where not only do ten minutes pass timelessly, bodilessly and worry-free, but I feel that it was ten minutes baking in a shifted perspective that I can’t help but emanate to others as I leave the yoga room. The trouble with that being taken for the goal of yoga is that you wind up with a lot of people like:
I’ve met them, you’ve met them – more often than not in a yoga studio and more often than not they don’t even realize they’re forcing it. Because they do a lot of yoga – a lot – and yoga makes you peaceful, happy, serene and stress-free. Yoga makes you smile all the time, to all people. Right? I’m not just being sarcastic. I was right there with them/you. For years. The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined in part as a response to this.
It’s only when we start to work with Santosa as a practice, and not a goal, that it becomes possible to actually be content.
“You don’t practice to get enlightened. You practice because you already are.” Dogen
Contentment comes from the word content – to contain. The source of santosa is realizing that we already contain all we need to be happy.
We’ve all had those moments, when we look around at the people we’re with, the sunset, the drink, the wide open space, close knit forest, or deep ocean and think “There’s no where else I’d rather be in this moment. Nothing is missing.” Santosa is the art of making those “Nothing missing” moments intentional, rather than the happy collaboration of fate they normally are.
The caveat is we are striving all the time for contentment and happiness. It’s pretty much an American way of life. We just generally seek it in forms that won’t actually bring us contentment. That’s because we base it on our experiences in the past of contentment, and all the external sources that were around us. We keep trying to gather people around, or move to live by the ocean, or buy more of that drink. Mentally and physically we are going forward, backwards, and more often than not, in circles trying to “get” our way to contentment.
Santosa, however, is sourced within – not with out. Those external components struck something inside us that allowed us to be in touch with our “nothing missing” experience. That experience is always within us, we just have to train ourselves to pay attention to it on our own, without the external stimulus.
We have to follow Dogen’s advice; “Don’t go forward, don’t go backward, don’t stay in the middle.” As a practice now, or at the start of your next yoga class, close your eyes. Say to yourself “Nothing is missing. My life contains, in this moment, all I need to be content and happy.” When the “After I get the new job.” or “When I have a bigger apartment” or “Once my bank account is…” etc. show up, acknowledge them, but let them go, and return to the “mantra” above. Continue to do so until you feel that subtle shift within – one to contentment. To believing the mantra, not just saying it. It’s a shift in perspective.
Besides, as Rodney Yee says “Beyond the brick wall, is another brick wall.”
Craving and Contentment
The warning sign for this work is getting caught up in negotiating your cravings. Generally, craving for something is one of the biggest challenges to contentment. You can be walking along in your “Nothing Missing” state of mind, and suddenly smell that extra cup of coffee wafting by, see the best pair of yoga pants ever, read about the newest version of your technology, or whatever your “thing” is – and you’re caught in wanting it. And the majority of our good feelings that come from satisfying these cravings is that for one moment – nothing is missing – our craving has been satisfied. It’s a huge factor in habits and cravings.
Our inclination, based on the tools of psychology and philosophy handed down to us via actual people or our culture – is to delve into the craving. Where did it come from? Why would it make me happy? Is there enough in my bank account for it? What do I need to do to get enough? What will he/she say when he/she knows I bought it? And we wrestle with it from lots of angles until we either go for it or not. While some insights can arise from this practice, it’s not the long-term answer.
The yogi switches perspective and focuses on the craving, and not the object of craving. You turn the full gaze of your awareness to the craving, how it makes the physical body feel – tightness, breathing, temperature, etc. You notice the emotional responses. You stay with the depth of the craving, until it passes. The drama of the object itself is not invested in.
To work with this in yoga class try out the intention, every time you’re in a pose:
Don’t chase after the next pose, ponder the last, or cling around this one.
Breathe into what’s left.
I used to think content was the worst thing to be – to no longer dream, or try or reach. I confused cultivating a certain kind of inner state with what I would be doing with my external life. As if to be content all the time meant to be “finished” with acting. Actually, what winds up happening is that the content inner state infuses all outward actions, and you are better able to dream, try and reach.
I realized it’s a process of becoming more and more fully present. To fully know who you are, in each moment, is content. To see others, and not try to change them, is content. Those are far-reaching goals, and Santosa brings us closer and closer