Isvara Pranidhani


Isvara pranidhana


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 thalakehouset 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?

heart handsSo 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

qqi2oo5j3qa6uupn.D.0.jay-hanuman-khatrijiHanuman 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.

Journey-Together-300x168“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]

4) OM

Meditating-Aum-Woman8Patanjali’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 story

Listen_to_Your_Heart_by_cho_okaA 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 2 ~ The Jnani


Svadhyaya – Self-study:  study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself

Svadhyaya 2 ~ The Jnani
Jnana Yoga is the practice of the intellect, through inquiry and study the Jnani Yogi traverses his/her path towards realization.  Svadhyaya is very much a jnana yoga practice.dep_5277997-Strong-brain

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.”

svadyaya-sanskritClassical svadhyaya practices are: studying foundational texts such as the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita – both alone and in satsang (community of yogis), meditation, and chanting “om”.

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.

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecently 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



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.

there__s_a_sunset_inside_me_i_guess_by_incandescentinsanity-d508l1xSantosa, 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


Ahimsa-pratisthayam tat-sannidhau vaira-tyagah PYS II.35
In the presence of one who is established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.

On the subway the other day there was a group of young teenagers. They were acting boisterously and reveling in each other, as teens are wont to do.  Suddenly, some part of their revel caused a great big BANG! of some kind to occur.

One teenager sheepishly says “That was loud…”

To which a compatriot replied “So?  We’re in public… we’re not bothering nobody.”

While most of us would smile, as I did, at the idea of the compatriot, it made me realize we tend to share her perspective to a certain extent.  We believe only in private do we affect others, are we important, can we disturb, are we connected. In public we tighten, draw in, arm ourselves and step out the door ready for battle.

That may seem a bit extreme, but take a moment to think about the degree to which you allow yourself to be vulnerable, perhaps even the degree to which you think vulnerability is more of a detriment to life, then a positive.  Every time we step away from being vulnerable, one layer of armor is put on in order to deal with others – in private or public.

The armor we put on is generally in places where we have been hurt before.  When someone “steps” on the places we’ve armored ourselves –  we get triggered and react himsically.  So ironically, in order to lessen harm, we wind up creating it.

In a recent teacher training with Rodney Yee, a student asked him “What do I do? All of these practices, when I practice them intently, leave me feeling sensitive. What do I do when I leave the practice space with that sensitivity?”  To which he replied. “Nothing”

For him, one major benefit of the practice is to create and cultivate this sensitivity, and then share it with others. What’s the point if you’re open, vulnerable, and able to be authentic on your mat, if you close it all off when you walk out the door?  Wouldn’t it be a more worthwhile question to ask “What do I do to stay sensitive when with others?” “How can I cultivate a vulnerability I can share with others?”

One way is to decide before you leave your house, every morning, to let go. Decide that nothing will be more important that day – not being on time, not your personal space, not being right – then ahimsa, then the breath.  Because your ability to breathe slow and steadily like in asana class, is in direct correlation to how long you can stay vulnerable without drawing on armor, or allowing yourself to get triggered into harmful feelings.

This requires a great deal of self-honesty, to know yourself that well.  We actually spend most of our time ignoring the places we’ve been wounded, the places we lash out, the places we’ve armored.  If we do look at them, we are usually looking at the story of how it happened, why it happened, etc. – and never just letting it be that it happened.

A second way is in a preceding sutra (PYS II.33).  “When one is disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think the opposite.”  This is not the idea of putting a silver-lining on an event.  It is the idea of antidotes – the idea that it’s not possible to hit someone and shake their hand at the same time.  We must make a choice.   It is a choice for our own inner state.  It does not mean we put a happy face on the situation or wish it were different. It’s acknowledging that the only thing that we can truly change is ourselves, and so we change it. We uncurl the fist, and open our hand to shake. It doesn’t mean the other person is any more likable, any less arrogant or hurtful, any closer to being a better person with better choices.  We have decided to shift our own perspective, without trying to shift anything else.

A third way to think about that is inspired by Ram Dass. In his book Paths to God, he relates a conversation he had with his father, a lawyer.  Ram Dass had recently put out a recording of his talks, and was selling it for the exact price it took him to produce. His father found this ridiculous, asking him, even, if he was against capitalism!  🙂  Ram Dass asked him how much he had charged his Uncle Henry on a recent case his father had argued for Uncle Henry.  His father asked if Ram Dass was crazy?! You don’t charge family.  Ram Dass’s reply was that since he saw everyone as his family, he wouldn’t rip them off any more than his father would rip off Uncle Henry.

David Life describes the practice of yoga, in one part, as a practice of widening our circle of compassion. That we have our usual group of people we include in there – and if we can just keep extending it to 3 more people, to a couple more, to all different types of beings, to nonbeings – then we really start living in ahimsa.

The People – By Beaver Chief

A fourth way is the koan level, as Michael Stone calls it. This is when you are so steady in ahimsa, you embody it when you walk, in the way you put away props, the way you get into bed, and out of bed, the way you do laundy, and buy a metrocard – it’s all en expression of ahimsa.

A last way comes to us from Dogen – who advises that we speak to everyone as we would a baby. I don’t believe he’s asking us to make babytalk to everyone we meet. But if you can think about moments when you are talking to a baby – and how open and vulnerable you are in front of a baby – they see right through you, there’s no place to hide, and what would you really try to hide anyway? Think also, of how you think of that baby – as full of potential, possibility, of the concentrated seed of all the world of humanity.  Then they get older and we start seeing them quite differently, and consequently, speaking to them quite differently.  Could you offer this to others? Could you speak to them from that place in you, to that place in them?

In the end – it’s working towards cultivating a place of ahimsa within you – so it’s not so much something you have to do. You don’t have to do ahimsa, and try to speak ahimsa. You just are ahimsa, then you’re just sharing it with others. You are reshaping the field of people, beings, nonbeings, and energy around you, just the way you are.