Ashtanga Yoga and God

Dancing Shiva

‘Samadhi-siddhir Ishwara-pranidhanat’ -
From devotion to God, Samadhi is attained
- Yoga Sutra 2.45 *

In Patanjali’s yoga sutra, the final stage of yoga is Samadhi - ‘clear perception.’ In the second part of the sutra, Patanjali outlines two methods by which to accomplish Samadhi:

Kriya Yoga - the yoga of action and Ashtanga Yoga - eight limbed yoga.

A vital component found within both methods is the observance ( ‘Niyama’ ) of Ishwara Pranidhana. Most traditional commentaries define ‘Ishwara’ as ‘Lord’ or ‘God.’ ‘Pranidhana’ means ‘surrender’, and can also be translated as ‘submission’ or ‘devotion.’ So Ishwara Pranidhana then is ‘surrendering to God.’

Patanjali’s inclusion of Ishwara Pranidhana in both Kriya and Ashtanga Yoga indicates that he felt it was particularly significant: so much so that, within the framework of eight limbed yoga, Patanjali states that through the practice of Ishwara Pranidhana: Siddhi(r) - ‘attainment’ or ‘perfection’ of Samadhi is attained. The implication thereof, is that this one practice alone can lead us directly to Samadhi.

Patanjali thus offers a theistic doctrine, albeit in a very non-dogmatic way. The sutra doesn’t elaborate upon the way in which God should be interpreted and the practitioner is apparently free to find a form of their choosing. The traditional commentarial interpretation of Ishwara is an archetypal Deity residing as the ‘Lord of Yoga’ - usually represented as Shiva or Krishna, and devotion to whom, by extension, involves a firm commitment to the practice of Yoga. However, relationship with God is an intensely personal, subjective experience and in India we find the idea of Ishta-Deva, meaning ‘preferred (or cherished) Divinity.’ Within the broad scope of Ishta Deva, there is freedom to choose from a variety of Deities or even to worship a formless, non-personal interpretation of Divinity. There are said to be 33 million Gods and as many ways to worship God as there are people. So for western yoga students there is no need to abandon an existing belief system or convert to an unfamiliar concept of God. Each is free to cultivate their own faith and unique understanding of the Divine.

Examples of Hindu and Christian Iconography
In the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, Ishwara is interpreted as a universal absolute that is oneness, and with which all things are connected. So again, Ishwara isn’t necessarily an idolised form, and can also indicate an abstract - Nirguna ( ‘without quality’ ) concept of the absolute.

Belief in a religious doctrine isn’t a mandatory pre-requisite for the observance of Ishwara Pranidhana.

Some of us may not be entirely comfortable with the concept of God. We may have had unpleasant experiences of religion at school or find it difficult relating to the idea of an archaic, authoritarian figure from another time and culture. We live in a materialistic society in which objective science refutes the meta-physical and anything which cannot be empirically measured and verified. For some it may therefore be easier to interpret Ishwara in a more liberal way. Ishta Deva is limitless in possibilities and could take the form of any number of transcendent experiences: the smile in someone’s eyes; light reflecting upon the ocean; the view from a mountain peak; a starlit sky or the sunset on the beach. For the objective materialist it might be an appreciation of the all pervasiveness of quantum particles, by which the entire universe is bound, (a similar idea to the Advaita Vedantists’ universal absolute.)

Finding God in nature
In as many ways as there are to recognise Ishwara, so too are there myriad ways to practice surrendering. It could be through the recitation of prayers and mantras, or making offerings such as flowers, food and incense. Surya Namaskar can be practised as a form of Pranidhana and originates in offering prostrations before the rising Sun. Some yogis connect with Ishwara through Kirtan: ecstatic singing, dancing and chanting of the Holy names. For others, Ishwara Pranidhana takes the form of spending quiet time in nature, going for long walks, or contemplating the big questions of life.

However we choose to acknowledge and revere Ishwara, the ultimate effect is that we are humbled. We experience a sense of being a part of something much greater than ourselves and begin to let go of constantly trying to control the universe around us. When we realise our relative smallness in relation to the whole we begin to relinquish our ego (‘asmita') and sense of self importance. In so doing, we are freed from the bonds of our self constructed prison and can experience a greater sense of connection with the whole - a deep seated feeling of trust and acceptance that all is as it should be.

The one who has surrendered all to Ishwara has no need of any further yoga practices. He or she is content in the reciprocal exchange of Divine love: Bhakti yoga.

*Translation from ‘The Bhashya’ of Vyasa (Swami Hariharananda 1963)
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