Yoga for difficult times: Ishvara pranidhana

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at the five yamas: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha; and the first four niyamas: saucha, santosha, tapas, and svadhyaya. Today I’ll be focusing on the fifth and final niyama, ishvara pranidhana (“ish-VA-ra pra-nee-DA-na”).

Ishvara pranidhana can be understood as “surrender to a higher power”. How can we practice ishvara pranidhana during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

When all else fails: There’s a reason this is the last of the yamas and niyamas: ishvara pranidhana essentially means getting out of the driver’s seat and handing over control. For many people, this doesn’t happen easily. You may be a self-described “control freak”. You may want to control your experience, the way people see you, and the outcome of all your efforts. When things go sideways, you may want to be the one to straighten them out. And that works…until it doesn’t. One day you may realize the problem is too big, and you’re too small. Maybe it’s the day your kid gets diagnosed with leukemia, or the day your partner leaves you. Something has happened that you can’t fix, and you find yourself backed into a corner. At this point, the ancient yogis say the only thing you can do is surrender. Whether you surrender to God or the universe or an unknown higher power is not important. You can call it whatever you want. The point is that you put your trust in something bigger than yourself.

This too is a practice: If you already have a strong relationship with something you identify as being a higher power, the act of surrender may come more naturally. Perhaps you have a habit of praying at night, or going to church, or lighting a candle on a home alter. Perhaps you take daily walks to commune with nature and wonder at the universe. These kinds of habits and rituals serve to strengthen your relationship with the divine. If you don’t already have a spiritual practice, consider forming one. It can be as simple as saying grace at meals or listening to mantras (yogic hymns) in the car. Some people find the act of service to be a spiritual practice, and strengthen their connection with the divine through helping the less fortunate. For others, feelings of awe and wonder inspire a greater connectedness, and they seek these out through activities such as star-gazing or snorkeling. It doesn’t matter how you connect, only that you do connect. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of a higher power, perhaps adopt the yogic belief that the divine lives in all of us. Look for the light that exists in every creature on earth. It’s this light that we acknowledge when we say “Namaste”, which means “the light in me recognizes the light in you”. Make a spiritual practice of seeing divinity in everyone you meet (even especially the people you don’t like so much 😉).

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of ishvara pranidhana when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

 How else can you practice ishvara pranidhana in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2017 Erin Bidlake

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