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The Yoga of Action: Īśvara Praṇidhāna (Part 3/3)

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Patañjali's Yoga Sutra is a mirror for self-reflection, a framework for understanding the human experience, and a primary text of the Yoga tradition. The second chapter is written for easily distracted novices - that's you and me! - and it presents the concept of kriyā yoga as the "yoga of action" that takes us to a state of Yoga. In this final part of our series, we investigate īśvara praṇidhāna.


तपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥ २.१॥ tapaḥ svādhyāya īśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ (Yoga Sutra 2.1)

Yoga Sutra 2.1
"The yoga of action involves purification of body and mind, study and self-reflection, and surrendering the fruits of action to a higher force" (Saraswathi Vasudevan).
 

Īśvara praṇidhāna


Īśvara praṇidhāna is "offering the fruits of action to a higher force."


...Huh?


This final aspect of kriyā yoga is an especially rich concept, and it has taken me many years and many teachers to even begin to understand its powerful implications. Probably some of you can easily and immediately connect to the idea of surrender to God (as it is also translated), and if so, you have a leg up on the rest of us. For the rest of us, we first need some context...


A Cycle of Suffering


At its core, the Yoga tradition is a body of knowledge and practices interested in reducing suffering. I'm not talking about the "world hunger" type of suffering; I mean the psychological pain of simply being alive as a human. The anger that festers; the fear that shackles; the sense of "I" that is easily hurt. We're talking about duḥkham, literally "constricting the heart space."


Duḥkham has three dimensions: that which I create, that which is outside of me, and that which is beyond my comprehension. Yoga invites us on a quest to permanently resolve duḥkham, and the starting point is understanding how we create our own cycle of suffering. Any time we act with an expectation of results (whether consciously or unconsciously), we experience pleasure or pain, which carries a very subtle residue of attachment or aversion. The attachment or aversion informs how we act next time, and it reinforces our expectations of that same result. 99.9% of the time we have no idea that this whole process is re-creating our thought patterns and driving our behaviors.


Here's an easy example: Phoebe recently started a new job, and when she accomplished her first major goal, the boss sang her praises to the team. So she worked even harder on the next goal. But when the boss was distracted by their own stuff and didn't praise her like last time, Phoebe took it as a personal slight and soon lost motivation. Why? Because her perspective of the situation, and the resultant action, were colored by Phoebe's previous experience of a reaction.


To summarize, here's a diagram with more Sanskrit:

Cycle of suffering

Back to Īśvara praṇidhāna.


Now that we've had an uplifting discussion of our innate suffering...let's locate kriyā yoga and Īśvara praṇidhāna within this context. Kriyā yoga is the practice of awareness, attention, and acceptance that allows us to break the chains of self-perpetuated duḥkham. Tapas and svādhyāya, as described in previous posts, bring awareness to our expectations and cleanse our system of such distortions, allowing us to see with greater clarity. Īśvara praṇidhāna is the final piece that ensures we do not gather further residues.


In a perfectly simple phrase, my teacher summarizes it by saying, "I do my best and leave the rest." Īśvara praṇidhāna is an attitude to cultivate - an ego-tempering recognition of my limitations as a human being with a human mind; a reverent acceptance that there are forces acting outside of my control; a humble release of the compulsion to satisfy my expectations. Īśvara praṇidhāna connects me to a higher force that is beyond me, whether that's a concept of God...Source...Nature...or even Life itself. And the concept doesn't matter nearly as much as the practiced ability to relinquish my need for a reaction.


In this way, every action can become an offering and an opportunity for freedom.


 

On a quiet morning or evening this week, I invite you to sit comfortably with eyes closed until your breath softens into satin. Then open your journal and write in response to the following reflection questions:

  • What "higher power" do I turn toward as a force beyond me, such as God, Nature, the Cosmos, or even Life itself?

  • What does it mean to "do my best and leave the rest"?

  • How can I bring an attitude of acceptance to my relationships today?

  • Identify and describe a recent example of how I let my expectations of an outcome drive my actions.

  • Imagine and describe what it might be like to take an action without the need for a result.


 

On Saturday, August 13th, we'll explore these ideas in a small virtual community by stirring contemplative drawing into a gentle Yoga practice. You're invited!


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