Ishvara Pranidhana – ईश्वर प्रणिधान – is the last of the five Niyamas given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The word "pranidhana" means total surrender or letting go of the individual ego in favor of a higher Self. The word Ishwara has been defined by Patanjali in sutra 1.24 as " Isvara is the supreme Purusha, unaffected by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions or by any inner impressions of desires." When loosely translated, Ishwara means God. However, we need to constantly keep Patanjali’s definition in mind while we are discussing the sutras related to Ishwara Pranidhana.
Ishvara Pranidhana in the Yoga Sutras
In the Yoga Sutras, reference to Ishvara Pranidhana has been made in four different sutras:
(Sutra 1.23) ईश्वरप्रणिधानाद्वा॥२३॥ IshvarapraNidhaanaat vaa; "Or [samadhi is attained] by devotion with total dedication to God [Isvara]."
(Sutra 2.1) तपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः॥१॥ tapaHsvaadhyaayeshvarapraNidhaanaanikRuyaayogaH; "Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice."
(Sutra 2.32) शौचसंतोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः॥३२॥ shouchasaMtoShatapaHsvaadhyaayeshvarapraNidhaanani niyamaaH; "Niyama consists of purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books and worship of God [self-surrender]."
(Sutra 2.45) समाधिसिद्धिरीश्वरप्रणिधानात्॥४५॥ samaadhisiddhirIshvarapraNidhaanaat ; "By total surrender to God, samadhi is attained."
Let’s first look at these sutras briefly.
Sutra 1.23 simply states "Or, by devotion to Ishvara (God)". Obviously, this sutra is linked to what has been said in the earlier sutras. The main point of discussion in these sutras is samadhi and how to attain that state. Starting with sutra 1.19, Patanjali begins to discuss the various means of attaining samadhi. For example, in Sutra 1.20, he enumerates these five "preconditions" for samadhi – faith, strength, intentness, meditation, and awakening of wisdom. In sutra 1.23, he provides an alternative approach for the attainment of samadhi, that of full devotion to Ishvara. As we know, in chapter 1, the emphasis is predominantly on meditation. As such, Ishvara Pranidhana in this sutra implies deep meditation keeping in mind the attributes of Ishvara which has been defined in sutra 1.24, as mentioned above.
In chapter 2, Ishvara Pranidhana has been mentioned in two separate places.
In the very first sutra (sutra 2.1), Ishvara Pranidhana is listed as one of the three activities for Kriya Yoga. In a subsequent sutra, Patanjali states that Kriya Yoga is helpful in diminishing the "kleshas" or afflictions and also in bringing about the state of samadhi.
Later on in chapter 2, Ishvara Pranidhana is mentioned in the context of the five Niyamas. Sutra 2.32 lists the five niyamas, Ishvara Pranidhana being one of them. In sutra 2.45, Patanjali talks about the results that can be achieved with the practice of Niyama.
According to most commentators on this sutra, the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana in chapter 2 is somewhat different from the one in chapter 1. In chapter 1 the emphasis was to focus on meditation with full devotion to Ishvara, In chapter 2, on the other hand, the emphasis is more on the devotional aspect of Ishvara Pranidhana. From a devotional point of view, one can look at Ishvara Pranidhana in two ways:
One performs every action as an instrument of Ishvara. There is no sense of "doership" about any actions done by us. All actions are done with a sense of detachment to the action or to the expected fruits thereof.
Having done the action, any fruits of action that we get, we offer them back to Ishvara.
In sutra 2.45, Patanjali describes what is achievable with the practice of Ishvara Pranidhana. Once we have completely devoted ourselves to the service of Ishvara, giving up our ego and a sense of doership, Ishvara favors us wit the attainment of samadhi or a total purification of the mind so that the samskaras become ineffective.
This, in chapter 1, sutra 1.23 Ishvara Pranidhana is offered as one of the alternative approaches given for the attainment of samadhi. However, in chapter 2, it is not an alternative but something that needs to be practiced if one decides to practice Kriyga Yoga (sutra 2.1) or follow the guidelines of the eight limbs of yoga, of which Ishvara Pranidhana is one of the five Niyamas.
Ishvara Pranidhana in our Yoga practice
We start every class with the chant of OM (or AUM); similarly we conclude each class with the OM chant. In sutra 1.27 Patanjali states that Aum (or Pranava) is the representative sound for Ishvara. Thus by chanting OM at the beginning and end of each yoga session, we are invoking the spirit of Ishvara Pranidhana in our practice. It is setting an intention that the yoga practice that we are about to undertake is a dedication to Ishvara. Which also means that we are not going to allow our ego to interfere with our practice. If during the practice of an asana, a specific muscle feels tight, we need to "accept" it as a grace of Ishvara and take a step back so we don’t end up hurting ourselves. Similarly when we practice pranayama (breathing practices), we accept each incoming breath as a gift from God and each outgoing breath as an offering back to God. At all time we maintain a sense of surrender and gratitude toward Ishvara.