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.”



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.


Asteya, non-stealing.  Perhaps one of the easiest to abide by yamas, and yet Patanjali felt it worth a place in the cannon of ethical ways to work with others.

Two perspectives:

1)    Broaden the definition

The full definition of asteya is not taking things belonging to others (Edwin Bryant).  Still, when taken at face-value, it seems obvious – don’t take another student’s awesome yoga mat home with you while they’re in the bathroom.

But what if we broaden our definition of “things”, and start to include “time”, “talent”, “love”, “space”, “energy”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice very much alive in each moment – choosing to take up an extra seat on the subway for your bag, or not – choosing not to ask that extra favor of a friend when they are already so busy – choosing not to take your frustration out on a loved one because they will always be there –  choosing not to plan your grocery shopping during savasana or meditation – it can become a really interesting lens for viewing our choices and actions.

How about if we broaden our definition of “others”, and start to include “the Earth”, “animals”, “our ancestors”, “future generations”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice that peers into every nook of our lives – choosing to use an animal’s fur to keep yourself warm, or not – choosing not to add additional pollution or usage strain to the water supply of your grandchildren – choosing to watch a documentary on the condition of the Earth (11th Hour, Flow, Earthlings, I am …) to become more knowledgeable of ways we may inadvertently be stealing from the Earth  – choosing not to take the credit due to someone who came before you – asteya starts to become something a lot more complex and fascinating to work with than simple theft.

2)    Letting go

At the root of asteya – is letting go of desire.  If you don’t desire that awesome yoga mat belonging to the yogi next to you, you won’t be inclined to steal it.  Letting go of desire is cutting asteya off before it can even become an issue, and it’s also the foundation of the Budhha’s  Four Noble Truths, some of the earlier practices in the Yoga Sutras such as Vairagya, and the heart of the Bhagavad Gita’s karma yoga.

Letting go of desire though, is a “biggie” in terms of our practice.  As Ram Dass says – surrender is only surrender when there is no surrender.  In other words – letting go doesn’t really work if you stop drinking coffee, but think of it as much as you used to drink it.

The next time you practice asana, try this intention: start by focusing on the breath.  Notice the inhales and exhales, gradually lengthening them to a comfortable asana practice duration.  Then let go of noticing the breath, and don’t replace it with anything.

Too often in our practices, we’re busy thinking something yogic, we’re busy thinking anatomy, we’re multitasking in our asana.  One of the hardest practices can be to let go of trying to change your awareness to be directed in a specific way – without letting it go wherever it wants.  It’s one of the things I most enjoy when I take class.  So often in my home practice I multitask thinking about students, and teaching points, wording, dharma talks, actions of energy, etc.  When I take class it’s incredibly mentally freeing to just let go, even of focusing on the breath.  It’s also a great trust exercise that your breath will continue to serve your asana without your strict attention.  Although the breath is a great starting point – so when the mind does get distracted and you notice, start again with noticing intently the inhales and exhales, and then let go again. And again. And again.

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.”
― Rumi


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.