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.”

States of Consciousness & AUM

There are either 4 main states of consciousness, or 3 main states of consciousness and one of superconsciousness, depending on how one decides to draw the line*.  These states correspond to the physical symbol of AUM, as well as the vibrational chanted AUM.

Jagrat (the “3” part  the symbol) (the A part of the chant)

This is our waking state.  The state where time and space prevail and we identify with our sense of “I” (ahamkara).  This is an outwardly directed state, based around an external world. This is the state where we are entrenched in the illusion of maya.

Often in yogic philosophy and commentary this state is referred to as the “mundane” “gross” or “bodily” level.  There is a tendency to write-off this level, negate its importance or validity as a state in favor of “higher” states of transcendence.  I prefer Michael Stone’s concept of “horizontal” transcendence which does not create a hierarchy, but instead urges the yogi to encompass multiple states simultaneously, and bring that awareness to our relationships in the Jagrat state.  It’s an expansion to include, as opposed to a moving up to cast off.

Swapna (the “handle” part of the symbol) (the U part of the chant) (waning citta)

This is our dream state, or REM state.  Time and space also prevail here, but often in a warped sense not possible in the waking state. This is an inwardly directed state, but also based around impressions from the external world experienced during Jagrat.

Yoga’s penchant for interesting dualities and paradoxes can be found in looking at Jagrat and Swapna.  We are asked to see these not as separate states, but much the same as likes & dislikes, attachment & aversion, as opposing perspectives of the same reality.  Accordingly, our faculty of awareness that we cultivate so assiduously in our waking life, would well serve the dreaming state as well.  This is not to say yoga philosophy is an advocate of lucid dreaming (although shamanic beliefs are not incongruous).

I was given a simple yet powerful sadhana during my teacher training.  We were instructed to be very aware of the last thought we had before sleeping, in order to encourage this thought in our other states, as well as to be very aware and write down our first thought upon waking.  In lieu of describing my personal experience, I encourage yogis to try this themselves.  Every night and day for a month.  Yoga is based on shraddha (faith) built on personal experience.  This exercise is a simple way of building shraddha in relation to these states of consciousness.

Sushupti (the “swoosh” part of the symbol) (the M part of the chant)

This is the deep sleep state.  There is no time or space.  We are unconscious, and can only be aware of having been in this state by the results afterward of feeling refreshed and nourished.  Accessing this state is essential for physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

In describing this state, the Mandukya Upanishad says, “there is no separateness, but the sleeper is not conscious of this. Let him become conscious in this state and it will open the door to that state of abiding joy.”

Turiya (the dot part of the symbol) (the silent beat after the vibrational chant has ended, but before taking an inhale)

This is the superconscious state.  There is no time or space.  We identify with the oneness of being (hence the singular dot).  This state lacks the duality of either wakefulness or sleeping, conscious or unconscious, inward or outward, aware or unaware, and is all of it and none of it at the same time.  Oneness of being.

In the Mandukya Upanishad this state is represented as the entire mantra of AUM, or thinking of it another way, as all of the previous 3 states combined.  Without this combination of awareness and unconsciousness, Turiya is not possible, or rather, this is what defines Turiya.

“We enter this state regularly, if only we could be aware of it: every night we are ‘like someone unknowingly walking back and forth over a buried treasure’” – Michael Nagler (commentator on Eknath Easwaran’s The Upanishad’s)

The key then, is to discover the treasure.  Every asana class affords the opportunity to do just that with savasana.  If you think back to the beginning of your practice and your first savasanas, you might recall either feeling very sleepy, or experiencing very “deep” savasanas, where you slipped into another space completely.  It is interesting to contrast those memories with the savasana experiences you have now, which might involve more of a struggle to access such relaxed deep states.  This is actually a good sign.  It shows progress. Initially it was easy to slip away because savasana sets us up to experience Turiya, however, without the skills of awareness that come with consistent yoga practice, Shushupti is what happened.  As we gain greater awareness on multiple levels, our savasana begins to incorporate that awareness, and thus begin the shift to a state of Turiya.  Instead of looking at savasana as a chance to relax after a physical practice, allow it to be a place to slip into deeper states of consciousness, while maintaining a light touch of Jagrat awareness around it.

This is also a practice than can be done in meditation.  During meditation, we either choose to actively “work” on a certain practice (such as a meta meditation) or part of ourselves (staying with our arising conditions), or we approach it like savasana, a place that is designed to allow us access to Turiya, if we are able to bring that special combination of awareness and unconsciousness.

Understanding these states of consciousness, and their correspondence to AUM, infuses our opening and closing chant with a fullness and potential that enhances the meaning of the experience for us.  Understanding these states also gives us encouragement.  All of this already lies with us, we touch on it every night, and every class.

“So the Upanishad first gives us an inspiring picture of “that which is”, reassuring us that reality is not limited to the world of changing phenomena, and then hints at an everyday, doable way to reascend the orders of being and regain our spiritual home in the changeless” Michael N. Nagler


Sharon Ganon & David Life ~ Teacher Training 2007

Mandukya Upanishad ~ This is the briefest of the Upanishad’s.  If you were to study only one of the Upanishads, Shankara recommends it be this one.  Rama (incarnation of Vishnu in the Ramayama) offers similar advice to one of his students. ~Eknath Easwaran’s translation

*Sharon & David teach the latter, and the Mandukya Upanishad the former.  I have used the terminology for the states as taught by Sharon & David.  The Mandukya states are termed as follows: Vaishvanara, Taijasa, Prajna, and Turiya.  Iyengar looks at the states in a slightly different way, viewing them as movements of the mind (citta), and names them udaya citta (rising), santa citta (calm), ksaya citta (waning) and turya.  It is interesting that in all three naming systems the fourth state is Turiya (which literally means ‘the fourth’).