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.”