Earlier this week, I noticed that a bunch of my yoga friends on Facebook were commenting on some notes from a conference led by Sharath Jois.  Sharath was giving a talk partly on sirsana (headstand).  According to the notes that were so generously shared with all of us by Megan Riley, sirsana not only benefits circulation, but it "help[s] to draw our Amrita Bindu, these golden drops of nectar that, over time, fall down into our digestive fire, back to the head.  [Amrita Bindu] drops as we age, and keeping it from burning away will keep us looking youthful and bright." When I read this, my first reaction was, "Come on?  A golden nectar that keeps us looking youthful and bright?  What's this?  Sounds superstitious to me."  I could understand how a headstand could alter circulation, facilitating the return of pooled blood into the heart, but no science books that I'd come across had located or described golden drops of nectar within the head that when preserved through inversions keep us young, if not immortal, and radiant.

And yet, over the years of being a student of this tradition, I've come to realize that it might not be useful to just blatantly disregard the teaching just because it doesn't fit within my immediate understanding of reality.  I've grown so much over the years as a human being and yoga student by grappling with concepts within the tradition that initially seemed foreign, otherworldly, and, at times, magical.  When I've applied a practice of openness, curiosity, and experimentation to the teachings, I've tended to learn more and, at the same time, grow more.  This isn't always easy for me to do. In fact, this notion of Amrita Bindu is part and parcel of various aspects within the tradition that, even to this day, still trip me up.  Examples include:

  • Ashtanga comes from an ancient text, The Yoga Korunta, written by Vamana Rishi, and is 5000 years old.
  • It is 'incorrect method' to alter sequencing, modify the poses, or include props into The Practice other than adjustments.
  • Do not practice on moon days because injuries on these days take twice as long to heal.
  • When taking padmasana (lotus posture), the left leg should always be on top of the right.  This clears the liver and spleen, straightens the spinal column, and helps the aspirant to maintain strength.
  • Yoga students should eat primarily milk, ghee, and chapatis in order to develop strength because they promote a sattvic (clear) mind and strong body. Avoid eating many vegetables.  Do not eat garlic, onions, tomatoes, or any meat.
  • Drink coffee before practicing yoga because coffee is prana (life force).
  • Don’t wash or wipe your sweat off  but massage it into the body after practice in order to make the body strong and light.
  • Men and women should only have sex:1) at night 2) when the man's left nostril is open 3) when the woman is between the fourth and sixteenth days of her menstrual cycle 4) only for the sake of having children 5) only when lawfully wedded.
  • Never breathe through the mouth because it creates heart troubles.
  • When you make the Darth Vader sound associated with Ashtanga breathing--also known as ujayi pranayama, but technically within the Ashtanga tradition, the term ujayi is restricted to a form of pranayama practiced separately from asana practice-- you increase internal heat, which thins the blood and purifies it.
  • Mula bandha should not be restricted to asana (posture) practice alone but should be practiced while walking, talking, sleeping, and eating in order to maintain mind control.

Not Saying, "Yes" But Not Saying, "No," Either

On first blush, a lot of the rules mentioned above seem a little dogmatic; at times, occult; and, in almost all cases, exotic.  I want to suggest that as Western educated yogis that we both refrain from blatantly disregarding them, and at the same time, not thoughtlessly absorbing them.  Instead, I think it's important that we learn to develop the practice of applying critical thinking.

While there's no doubt that The Practice is powerfully life-changing, it does not mean that as practitioners of this method that we completely surrender our capacity to discriminate.  It's important to be able to question what we're told.  As far as I am concerned, I think it's a sign of a mature practitioner that uses her hesitancy as a tool to learn.  Without it, we run the risk of being pollyanna-ish about everything that's presented to us. If we don't simultaneously apply the qualities of openness and curiosity, however, we run the risk of never growing out of our small bubble, of being arrogant, and of being lazy.  Being stuck on being right and knowing it all is a form of laziness.  The student never has to discover her misconceptions, nor does she have to struggle to learn.

And learning is rarely a passive phenomena.  From where I stand, I can see that it would take me several lifetimes to learn all that this practice has to impart.  Guruji's knowledge was vast and his teachings, which, on the surface, sometimes seem simple, are, in fact, quite deep.  I have no doubt that to grasp the depth of the wisdom he imparted would take me many lifetimes. And because I don't come from his or Sharath's culture, I have to struggle to put their words and experience into my life and into terms that make sense for me.  I can't just take them at face value.  I have to try to make sense of them on my terms.

I think that that's part of what makes this practice so challenging for us Westerners.  Terms, concepts, and world views are, at times, diametrically different in India than they are in the West.  There's no doubt that we're all after the same things: peace, wisdom, compassion, and happiness, but how we express the path can be quite different.  What's required as Western students of this tradition is the work of bridging the cultural divide by translating The Practice into terms that are both culturally and individually relevant so that they simultaneously breathe new life into our practices and perspectives on life.

Santa Claus Isn't Coming Down the Chimney Anymore

I sometimes wish that I could just have faith in someone else's words and let that be enough.  I don't think I am alone in my longing.  Having faith doesn't necessarily come easy to a lot of us in the West.  For a lot of us, faith is like still believing in Santa Claus.  At some point we all discover that he doesn't necessarily come down the chimney, that that's just something someone told us.  And when we're old enough to discover this, it can be heartbreaking, but that experience awakens us to something else, the capacity to question what we're told.  And this questioning can be very useful in the times we're living in, especially when our advertisers or our politicians are trying to get us to buy or vote for things that don't serve us.

But at the same time, in spite of our capacity to apply critical thinking, we in the West aren't, on the whole, necessarily a happy culture.  We may be rational, but we're missing a sense of meaning, a sense of order to life.  A lot of what we face in the West is a sort of spiritual wasteland.  So when we look to lineage-based traditions from another culture, like Ashtanga, that are rooted in the wisdom of antiquity, we can't help but want to find the magic, again.

I remember when I used to think that if I did my asana practice six days a week for the rest of my life, "All was coming."  At some point along the way, though, I discovered that Santa wasn't coming down the chimney of my practice, either.  There is no doubt that the practice is an immensely helpful force in my life and has been over the last twenty years, but it's not perfect.  It has helped me overcome the trauma of my brother's suicide; it introduced me to an international family of like-minded people; and it has created a lot of meaning and order to my life.  But it doesn't and can't solve all the woes that ail me.

I completely understand the urge to want to buy the system and everything about it as perfect.  It's so tempting to  do.  And over the years, I've seen lots of my yoga friends initially do this but eventually, something snaps.  I can't tell you how many former vegetarians I've known in The Practice, or people who were incessantly talking about postures and what pose they were on in Mysore, and then, at some point, drop the thing altogether.

One friend of mine had spent a few years living and studying in Mysore.  Like me and like so many others I know, he came to Ashtanga, initially, to heal old wounds.  Early on in his studies, he spoke about, practiced, and taught Ashtanga Yoga with the fervor of a "true believer."  Every other sentence out of his mouth would be a quote from Guruji: "Slowly, slowy, you take." "In-correct!!!" "Yes, yes, you come!"  Eventually, this parroting became a little creepy to me, and I kind of wanted to tell him to cut the crap, but eventually, he got injured.  And while he struggled to continue to practice and teach, at some point the message and the method stopped making sense to him. His conscience would no longer allow him to teach or practice what he eventually saw as "a bunch of bullshit."  This is just one story of many more stories I could recount of friends who started gung-ho, but eventually recognizing that something was askew.

Having Faith in Skepticism

From my perspective, what was askew was not necessarily the teaching, but that my friend didn't maintain his healthy skepticism. When we surrender our capacity to discriminate, we actually  end up suppressing a significant part of our identities, something that we need in order to both get through life, but also to maintain our sanity within the confines of groupthink. In short, it's really a significantly important part of The Practice to question and struggle with the discrepancies between what's taught and what we, in fact, experience.  One of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from one of the most renowned Indian yoga gurus in history, Siddhattha Gotama Buddha.  He said,

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations."

To me, the Buddha is saying that part of our job as yogis on the path is to use the practice as the vehicle to work with the teachings.  We don't just buy whatever we're told.  We use our practice as the testing grounds to experiment with the hypotheses presented to us.

Making Sense of Apparent Nonsense

If we're truly on the path, not only do we not have the luxury of taking things at face value, but we also don't get to blatantly put everything that doesn't fit into our worldview into the categories, "false," "wrong," or "superstitious." A former student of ours used to come to samasthiti (even standing posture) each morning to chant the opening prayer, but he refused to join in with the other voices.  When I asked him why he didn't, he said indignantly, "I am not a Hindu. I don't want to say something that I don't believe in."  So I decided to share an English translation of the prayer with him.

When I asked him what he thought of the opening prayer after reading the translation, he said, "Yeah, like I said, I don't want to chant a Hindu prayer."  So instead of leaving it there, I suggested that we go over the translation of the prayer together.  Instead of leaving the prayer in the category of "someone else's sentiments," I wanted him to see where, in fact, the words might actually mean something to him.

So we spoke about the first verse of the invocation, which is about having gratitude for the teacher that helps us overcome samsara.  Samsara is often translated as conditioned existence.  It's this idea that we keep being reborn from one lifetime to the next until we've conquered our misapprehension.  Once we've done so, we've attained suahavabodhe (happiness in the purity of mind). He liked the idea of overcoming delusion and uncovering happiness, but he couldn't get his head around reincarnation.

So, I suggested that he not get stuck on lifetimes, either before or after his current life, but that he see that within this very lifetime he was in, he'd already experienced numerous iterations of himself.  While something of him had always remained the same, he'd also been a child, a teenager, and a young adult.  As a result of these changes, he'd experienced several lifetimes within this very lifetime, and he was bound to experience more.  He liked that notion that within the various stages of life he had left, that he could intend to overcome the delusions of samsara.

He had a hard time with the notion of bowing down to a guru, though.  "I don't want to give anyone else that much power."  So I suggested a few other ways of holding this notion of the guru, either the guru could be an inner part of his psyche that was innately wise, resourceful, and powerful.  I also suggested that the practice, itself could be seen as the guru, that through the practice, itself, confusions, doubts, and suffering could be overcome.  "Yes, he said, that's true.  I feel so much calmer on the days I practice.  It's on these days that I make better decisions.  Yeah, the practice is my guru!"

That was the first verse.

When we took on the second verse, he had a lot more difficulty.  The second verse of the Ashtanga invocation is about prostrating to the author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, and visualizing him as a serpent with a thousand heads with arms holding a conch, a wheel, and a sword.  On first blush, he said, "This reminds me of pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses with multiple arms.  I am spiritual, but I am not religious, and I don't want to pray to a god, certainly not someone else's."

I explained that the verse is an homage to the author of The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, and is suggesting that the philosophical backdrop of The Practice rests in The Sutras.  Patanjali is mythologically considered to be a serpent that serves as the asana (seat or yoga posture) of Vishnu, the god of infinity.  As the serpent, he's holding a conch, a wheel, and a weapon or sword.  The conch is symbolic of the music of the cosmos that calls yogis to live noble lives; the wheel represents the wheel of dharma, or the order of life (as opposed to the randomness); the weapon or sword represents the power of discriminating good from bad, right from wrong, and truth from fiction.

I suggested that he hold the image of the serpent with multiple arms as representative of various values.  First, that our practice is rooted in a system of thought that is deep, profound, and life enhancing, that it's not just another form of calisthenics or aerobics.  Second, the symbol of Patanjali as a serpent that acts as the seat of Vishnu might mean that by sitting or abiding in the wisdom of this philosophy, that we have access to our infinite nature. The symbols that the serpent holds call us forth to make life enhancing choices, ones that are noble, moral, and truthful.

My student liked my translation, but to him the Hindu iconography was just "too Indian."  And, he didn't, in fact, know anything about Patanjali.  He'd heard of The Yoga Sutras, but hadn't read them or studied them, so he couldn't see the significance of venerating someone or the words of someone that didn't mean anything to him.  So, he agreed to chant the first verse of the invocation and refrain from speaking the second verse.  As far as I was concerned, I could completely appreciate his decision.  I also asked him if he'd be up to studying the Yoga Sutras, which he said he'd consider.  I appreciated that he'd walked through this process with me.  He didn't just throw the whole thing out as, "Hindu mumbo-jumbo."  He actually did the work.  And in doing so, he could start to chant the first verse of the invocation without feeling like a fake.

For many of us, we need to do this.  It's important to parse out what is, in fact, meant by the teachings.  We need them translated in terms that make sense to our lives. It isn't in anyway shameful to not understand the teachings.  It's only shameful to simply pass them off as nonsense without making any effort, without seeking to meet the essence of the teachings and to allow them to grow us.

I realize that the list that I made at the beginning of this blog is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we as Western Ashtanga yogis must struggle with if we are to continue to use our discriminative minds within The Practice.  It takes a sort of courage to give up the magical notion that Ashtanga is some divine sequence of movements and postures passed down to us from time immemorial by a saintly being who lived in a time and a place when everything and everyone was perfect and wise.  That'd be nice if that were the case, but it's unlikely that that's true.  But that doesn't mean that The Practice is all hooey, either.  It just means that we get to and, in fact, have to do our work, including practice and study, to find a way in that makes sense and, at the same time makes our lives and the lives of those around us better.

Yoga in India is Not the Same as Yoga in the West

It's my opinion that the method of awakening for a classical Indian seeker is not the same for a Westerner.  And so as teachers in the West, it is critical that we translate the teachings of any method of illumination rooted in a cultural lineage different from our students.  Sticking to doing it "the way it's done in India" is a trap not only for the teacher, but more specifically for our students.  There's always an aspect to the teaching that is culture-specific, and as teachers of a method, we are also translators.  It's our job not only to impart the method, but also to distinguish the essence of the method from the cultural idiosyncrasies that that method is imbued with. I personally teach Ashtanga Yoga. I learned 'the practice' from my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  He was what I consider a classical Indian.  When I say classical Indian, I am actually making a distinction from that of the modern Indian. The classical Indian still exists today but is slowly getting lost in the shuffle of modernity as India grows economically.  One thing that distinguished my teacher's classical Indian's students from their Westerner counterparts primarily had to do with where they were identified.  The classical Indian student tended to be identified with his or her role in society, whereas the Westerner identified primarily with his personality, replete with likes and dislikes, confidence and insecurity.  Much of the work of disentangling conditioned existence-also known in Sanskrit as samsara- for us Westerners required and still to this day requires very different work.  It's clear to me that while the game is still the same--overcoming our conditioning to discover who we truly are--the path of yoga in India is very different from the path of yoga in the West.

Classical Indian Dharma versus the Western Path

In India, the sense of individuality and uniqueness is not valued in the same way it is valued in the West.  From a very young age, what is valued is one's relationship to one's role in society.  If you are a brahman, then, indeed, that's what you are.  That's the role you are to play out in society.  Relatively speaking, life tends to happen to people in India compared to the West.  It isn't chosen the way it's chosen here.  And while that is starting to change, now, the change is slow.  So, for example, it wasn't until recently and in certain very small pockets of Indian culture that one would even think to choose one's partner in marriage.  That was determined by the caste of the individuals, the parents, and often with the aid of a family astrologer.One's role is called dharma, or duty.  A major theme in The Bhagvad Gita, is performing one's duty to caste.  If that means fighting one's family members for the sake of upholding the universal law, or santana dharma, then it must be done, like it or not.  The essence of the training of the yogi in India is the elimination of likes and dislikes, of the overly identified sense of self, called asmita in the Yoga Sutras.  And, in turn, identifying and surrendering to the role the society has put upon him or her.  What we in the West think of as the creative faculty to be at choice in how we live our lives is completely eliminated.  Surrendering to one's role-be it one's role in society or in the family unit-is the transformational breakthrough that's asked of the aspirant.

As Westerners, we learn not to totally identify with our roles as brother, mother, teacher, or CEO.  While this is a form of our identity, it doesn't define us the way it does the classical Indian.  A large portion of our identity is formed on our relationship to our personality and personal preferences.  So, when a father asks his son, "Do you want to be a football player or baseball player," and the child responds, "I want to be a make up artist,"  then that child is exerting his separate identity through his or her wants and wishes.  The same is true when we choose our wives and husbands or even when we choose either to have or not to have children.  The faculty of making choices and choosing what makes us happy is what forms this persona we in the West identify as, "me."

So when a Western person--with a developed sense of ego--goes to an Indian guru--that's rooted in a classical Indian culture--and learns yoga, the guru does not and cannot totally recognize what he or she sees.  The Westerner's sense of self is strongly identified with his or her persona along with its various wants.  Additionally, us Westerners really struggle mightily with issues of confidence, feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.  While I am sure that plenty of classical Indians struggle with the same issue, a confident, outgoing personality is not as valued as the fulfillment of one's responsibilities to society and family.  And because the "come from" is so different, often times, the method doesn't work in the same way.  This isn't to say that the method doesn't work.

Mistaking Cultural Maps for Spiritual Maps

I remember it used to baffle my guru that we'd keep showing up at the shala year after year, either unmarried, littered with more tattoos, and still experimenting with various illicit drugs.  I imagine that he would sometimes scratch his head wondering why the method wasn't working the way it ought to for some of his students.  He'd often say in his lectures to us that we needed to get married, to have children, essentially to surrender to our dharma.  I am sure that he saw that even though we came from comparatively wealthy places, we were equally spiritually lost.  And yet I wish to argue that, while the practice wasn't working based on his cultural maps of dharma, it was, in fact working on us.

It's my hunch that the path of illumination for us Westerners has less to do with surrendering to our roles in society and has more to do with having the courage to trust what authentically moves us.  And that's what we were doing when we were saving up all the money we earned as waiters or yoga teachers to go back to practice with our teacher.  That's what we were doing when we would show up on the mat day after day.  We weren't doing these things because society deemed them valuable or worthy.  On the contrary, most of my parents' friends thought I was a freak for waking up at 5 am to contort my body in odd shapes.  We were doing this because it moved us.  It resonated with something very individual within each of us.  We used the practice to help strip away all the nonsense our parents, teachers, and society had foisted upon us so that we could each find our own individual way in the world.

Mistaking 'Correct' for the Truth

And that's how I think the practice worked and continues to work on us Westerners differently.  So when I hear Ashtanga teachers insisting that their students practice exactly the way it's done in Mysore today; that they never vary the sequence to meet their student's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; that they alienate those that cannot practice six days per week, I can't help but think that this is laziness on the part of the teacher.  He or she is foisting a brahman interpretation of yoga onto Western students.  As Westerners our path is not necessarily to become more dutiful.  For some it is.  But for most of us, our work is to strip away what isn't true so that we can sense and choose life from our essence, the part of us that is authentic, awake, and deeply resonant.  And for each student, that's different.  Overlaying a system of "ought to's," of "right and wrong," of "correct and incorrect" is just another system our students will, at one point, need to throw off.


Isvara Pranidhana: Sticking With What We Truly Know

In my previous blogs, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, which is really a description of the experience of yoga.  If you've been following the series, you'll notice that I give examples of Sat-Chit-Ananda from the perspective of not just our yoga students, but various coaching clients of mine, as well.  This experience shows up not just when we're practicing ujjayi pranayama (victorious breathing) or following the vinyasa count exactly the way it's performed in Mysore.  In fact, Sat-Chit-Ananda is an everyday, common experience we all have.  It spontaneously occurs in moments that ring of profound truth; in moments that wake us up; and in moments that evoke resonance. But if everyone can experience Sat-Chit-Ananda, and it happens in everyday, normal experiences, then why do we practice yoga?  What's the point?  The point is that to continually discover Sat-Chit-Ananda in our lives, it requires both practice and the capacity to stay.  In one sense, the practice gives us the kinisthetic experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  We tune and attune to the instruments of our bodies in order to experience what it's like to be in accord with our inner most truth; to develop the knack for directing our attention without distraction; and to know what "the yum" feels like.  Not only do we cultivate the feeling sense in the body, but we also foster and learn to stay connected to the part of us that is courageous, wise, and clear, the part that Patanjali calls isvara.  In this blog, we will explore why this part is so important.

The Threshold

We all come to places in our lives where we just have to make an authentic, resonant choice over doing what we think we "should do" or what the so-called "right thing," is.  Joseph Campbell describes this choice in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949,  CA: New World Library) as "the threshold," which he described as the "passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown."  It's a place in which we have to become bigger than we know ourselves to be.

Devorah and I often have the privilege of sitting in the front seat of our students' lives as they're at their thresholds.  Sometimes it shows up in the form of of a physical injury.  I don't know what it is about us Ashtangis, but often it takes the experience of pain to wake us up and connect us to the fact that we have to change.  On one level, we can't keep practicing the way we've been practicing previously.  We have to clean up aspects of our asana practice, so we don't keep getting repetitive strain.  Maybe we need better alignment; maybe we need to back off certain postures; maybe we need to just stay more present when we're entering and exiting.  More often than not it's not just the asana we need to clean up.  We also have to face the fact that our lives need to change.  And change can be a pretty scary thing for most of us.

The Resistance to Change

We all get pretty locked up at the threshold of change.  We resist and resist because we're frightened of what we might find out about ourselves and whether we will find what we're truly looking for on the other side.   To make choices that lead us toward authenticity, toward awakening, toward aliveness, toward healing we often have to say, "no" to what we're habituated to.  And when we don't, our "world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and [our lives] feel meaningless." (Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. p.23)  In other words, when we can't muster the will or courage to make the leap, life feels stagnant and heavy, dull and grating.

I recently had a chat with a new friend who spent three years in a quagmire.  Once she and her partner had her first child, she discovered that he didn't really meet her.  As she said, "if he was just a jerk, leaving him would've been a cinch," but she loved many things about him.  And it was important to her not to leave him because "he is the father of our child."  So she tried all sorts of different ways of staying in the relationship.  And no matter what method she employed, she kept discovering and rediscovering throughout those three years that they just weren't a match.  She described those three years as "some of the hardest years of my life."  That's what it's like for most of us when we just can't move even though we need to...badly.

Samsara: Conditioned Existence

We're so conditioned to stay with things even though they don't suit us.  Choosing differently often can feel like a death.  We're programmed at such a very, very early age to choose things that don't necessarily resonate with us in order to receive the love we crave.  I am watching this first-hand since my wife, Melissa and I took a puppy into our lives.  I know that our little Disco would like to poop wherever she wants to in our house, but she's learning that the pleasure of affection and attention will be temporarily removed from her if and when she does so.  And, more importantly, she will get rewarded when she goes to the bathroom outside.

I know that we're psychologically different from dogs, but we're all trained in a very similar manner.  Most of us were rewarded when we did things that others wanted, and, likewise, were punished when we did things they didn't like.  That's how we were taught to survive in our homes, at school, and any other place we were exposed to as kids.  For all of us, our survival was predicated on a few things.

In my case: "Always look your best, even if you don't feel it;" "don't be so negative;" and "never let them know how you really feel."  As a result of these subtle messages, I developed a pretty affable personality, but for many years, I was frightened of confrontation.  Still to this day, I struggle with expressing anger, except to the few who I trust will stick with me, even when my anger starts to look ugly.

In order to fit in to our family settings and to survive all of the socialization we get as kids, whether it's at home, in the classroom, or on the football field, we had to make choices that took us out of accord with ourselves, with who we authentically were.  We had to do this.  That's just part of growing up.  If Melissa and I just let Disco take a crap on our rug, like she did today--ugh--and just say, "Hey, she's just expressing her 'authentic, doggy nature,'" we're setting her up for a rough adulthood.  By conditioning her to live in our home in such a way that she can live in harmony with us, we all get to thrive.

Samsara Halahala

But there's no doubt that many of the experiences that socialized us also scarred parts of us.  That conditioning is what we're requesting to overcome when we chant:

vande gurunam charanaravinde sandarsita svatmasukhava bodhe nihsreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai

We're essentially calling on the guidance of our guru to eliminates the delusion of our conditioning.  Delusion includes all of the ways we numb out to the suffering that results when we don't follow our Sat-Chit-Ananda.  For many of us, the experiences that conditioned us also left us lacking in confidence, either about how beautiful we were, how smart we were, and many of us grew up wondering, deep down, whether there was something fundamentally flawed about us.  So we remained stuck in what everyone else wanted for us.  We never found our own unique way in the world.

In fact, even when we survive our childhood, even when we "make it" relative to the standards of most human beings in the world, we still sometimes make choices that don't feel very life affirming.  We still make choices that keep us in a sort of unconscious fog.  We choose the yuck.  On a deeply emotional level, on the level of the pre-rational brain, we're still looking for some sort of affirmation that we're okay; that we're wanted; or that we're lovable.  In many ways, we're still surviving our childhoods even though we've totally outgrown them.

Isvara Pranidhana: Staying With the Seer, the Knower, and the Guru Within

It takes a lot of guts to make some life-affirming choices because we've all been programmed to believe that if we do, we might end up "without a home, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone." (Dylan, Bob, "Like a Rolling Stone". Highway 61 Revisited.  Columbia. 1965)  To make choices that go against our conditioning can be downright frightening because it often feels like we have to cast ourselves off of a cliff with no clear sense that there will be anything below to catch us.  And no matter how intensely we practice asana, somehow the physical practice doesn't always take us all the way there.  This is where isvara pranidhana is needed.  Isvara pranidhana is typically translated as surrender to God or faith in God, but as we explore further, we'll discover that it is something altogether different.

In the West, we have all sorts of funny reactions to both the words, "surrender" and "God."  Either we wholeheartedly give our life to our savior; we're just over the superstition of the whole thing; we're not sure what to believe; or we have inklings of some relationship to a higher power, but that relationship doesn't fit the models we grew up with.

But pranidhana isn't exactly faith or surrender.  Surrender is what we do when we realize we're not going to win the war. We pull out the white flag, both literally and figuratively, and enter the battle field with our hands in the air.  "We give up. Don't shoot!" Maybe we give up to a higher power, which is beautiful, but it's not pranidhana.  Faith is belief without proof.  When we have faith we don't need it.  We just believe.  But pranidhana is a "continual placing of ourselves into." Pra means continuously, ni is into.  And dha is place. So it's much more active than faith or surrender.  It is the act of totally staying with the part of us that is isvara.

And isvara isn't God, the way we know God.  Isvara is not the biblical God.  It is not the judger, the punisher, the ruler, or the guy with the white beard.  Patanjali describes the three qualities of Isvara like this:

  1. the seer that is unaffected by the suffering we face (1:24).
  2. the knower (1:25)
  3. the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness (1:26)

Isvara can either be perceived as a force outside of ourselves or something that is within.  My preference--since it is easier for me to access-is to see isvara as the one within me.  It's the part of me that is not afraid to suffer, the one who knows, and the one who, as the teacher of teachers, is always learning and growing in order to become wiser.  Accessing this part of ourselves can be extremely useful in moments when we're scared shitless; when we're confused; when we're depressed; and when we're so angry that all we see is red.

I recently got a call from an acupuncture client who said that within an hour or so after leaving the appointment that she started to feel tightness in her chest and breathless.  My first instinct was to press my internal "panic button" along with the button that say, "You're no good at what you do.  See you're a failure.  People pay you to feel better, and you make them worse. Just give up.  It's not worth the fuss, anyway.  You're a fraud.  Just think what people will be saying about you."

In spite of the fact that I have been practicing yoga for almost 20 years, I still have these self-loathing and belittling voices in my head.  But I've also cultivated isvara pranidhana.  When the shit hits the fan, not only do I consult the self-critical voices, but I've also learned to consult the part of me that is isvara and to stick more with that wisdom than the crap that my self-sabotaging voices would have me believe.  And when I contacted this part of myself, it asked:

"What's the truth here?"

"The truth is that my patient experienced a reaction from my treatment."

"Does that make you a failure?"

"No, I did and continue to treat my patients the best way that I know how.  And I make mistakes.  So, I guess I get to admit being a human here, a human that makes mistakes."

"Yeah, you get to be human.  And you get to have compassion for yourself.  Now, what can you do to support your client?"

"Well, I can call her.  I can see if I can help her with her pain.  And I can learn from this experience."

So for me isvara pranidhana is a bit like having a dialogue with myself.  I am accessing the wiser part of me that dispels the lies of the self-sabotaging voices; offers compassion and the gift of humility; allows me to see what can be done to rectify the situation; and most importantly, sees the opportunity for learn and grow.

It is a lens through which we see the world, an access point for moving forward, for making choices that are informed by the depth of who we are rather than those smaller, superficial parts of us that are holding on for dear life.  We're all in samsara, or conditioned existence.  We all have things we must overcome in order to meet the direct experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda. For me, personally, Isvara pranidhana, is really the gift of seeing that the things we suffer with are really opportunities for our evolution.

My brother-in-law, Boyd, just came back from a hospital visit to a friend who only a few days ago fell backwards from the bed of a truck onto his spine.  In a split second he went from being an agile, capable man to being a quadriplegic.  His response to the accident was, "It's just another of life's hurdle."  One might read that as either machismo or naiveté, but it also just might isvara pranidhana.  Somehow it shows up in those moments we need it the most.  And in those hours, weeks, months, and years when we're stuck on the threshold, Isvara pranidhana can be our greatest ally.  We need allies on the journey toward Sat-Chit-Ananda, whether we're paralyzed in our body or paralyzed by life.



It can help immensely to tap into the three faces of Isvara within ourselves: the seer, the knower, and the teacher.  Whether they actually exists or not is really of no significance, but it's a powerful lens or perspective to step into when we're stuck or we're freaked out by change.

  1. Take a moment to slow down.  In fact, don't just read through this exercise if you don't have time to really give it the thought it deserves.
  2. Notice if there are areas of your life where you're on the threshold.  Is there a fulfilling move you've been too afraid to make because you fear a loss of love, affection, or care from another or others?  Are you sticking with something even though you know it doesn't fit you, but it's the so-called "right thing to do"?  Take a few moment to either write, contemplate, or meditate on where, exactly you're held back and what it's like being there.
  3. Describe, think about, or meditate on what the self-critical voices are saying about the situation.  Notice if you can hear the voices of your parents,  teachers, or mentors.
  4. Tap into the part of you that is the seer.  It's the part of you that is permanent, pure, unchanging, non-material, and everlasting.  It's the part of us that knows that you can withstand all suffering and so is not afraid of it.  What's the perspective of the seer in you?
  5. Tap into the part of you that is the knower.  This is the part of us that just knows the truth.  When all the drama of life is dropped away, when all of the fear and doubt are dropped, what's true about this situation? What's eternally true?
  6. Now pay attention to the part of you that is the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness.  As the teacher of teachers, you recognize that all of the experiences of life are opportunities for growth and evolution.  What's the bigger lesson you're learning in this situation?  What's the big lesson you still have to learn?
  7. Finally apply pranidhana to isvara.  In other words, you're job is to stay with the wisdom and knowing of that part of yourself rather than letting the self-sabotaging voices take over.  Make a practice of reminding yourself of what you know deep inside.  Consider that the practice of isvara pranidhana is not one you'll ever master, but it's a powerful practice that will take you very far on your journey, much farther and much more interesting than the journey your self-sabotaging voices will lead you down.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the fourth installment of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!