Ishvara-pranidhana, or surrender to the divine, is the fifth and final Niyama. There is no specific definition for “the divine” – there is no particular god or “higher power” that yogic philosophy asks you to worship. Some might interpret this as “surrender to what-is,” or surrender to the way of the universe. This isn’t blind adherence to a religion or philosophy, but rather a principle of faith, or trust, in what-will-be.
Ishvara-pranidhana is about trusting the natural flow of things. Letting go of your need to control things, or your desire to force the outcome of a given situation. It’s about cultivating faith, dedication, sincerity and patience – and getting one’s ego out of the way.
One of my favorite illustrations of this principle is all about taming the ego. I teach gentle yoga classes. Sometimes yoga students who are accustomed to a more challenging practice attend my classes, and I can see them struggling against the relative ease of what I’m teaching. We’ll hold a simple downward-facing dog, for example, and they’ll be lifting their legs one at a time and adding chaturangas to make the pose more difficult. Meanwhile, I am encouraging my students to tune into the finer points of the posture – the position of the fingers and toes, the depth of the breath . . . It can be frustrating for me, and distracting to the other students.
There’s something to be said for adapting a pose to meet your own needs (in fact, I encourage it), but there’s also a lot of value in slowing down and approaching a practice with beginner’s mind. Sure, your ego says, “I can do more with this pose, and so I will,” but the other side of that is your ego saying, “I’m too advanced for what’s being taught here, so I’m going to change it,” essentially thumbing your nose at what the teacher is trying to teach.
In those situations, I encourage the students to ask themselves why they need to follow their ego and why they think there’s nothing to learn in the simpler pose. Perhaps – just perhaps -- there is something to gain from going with the flow of a gentler class and having more time for introspection . . .
Of course, my own ego flares up in these situations too, because I’m supposed to be “the leader” and there are people not “following.” Ah, yoga . . . there’s always something to learn!