What does it mean to surrender? From a young age, many of us are taught the value of hard work, of meeting challenges, of pushing past limits. This type of hard work, discipline and burning zeal falls under what yoga philosophy calls “tapas.” Tapas is burning effort, austerity, and purification through rigorous practice. This type of drive is necessary for transformation. However, on the other side of the coin we have something of equal if not greater importance—Ishvara pranidhana. Ishvara pranidhana is an essential act in yoga. It is that of surrender. Before we dive into what it means to surrender—which can mean something a little different from person to person—let’s understand where this concept fits into yoga philosophy. In yoga philosophy, there are five yamas and five niyamas. These are ethical precepts and a core aspect of Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga, known as Astanga Yoga.

Ethical Precepts of Yoga

You can think of the yamas as universal moral ethical principles. They present guidelines as to how to treat others and how to interact in the world. Their English translations are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy or containment of vital energies, and non-hoarding or non-clinging. Yoga teaches that these principles are to be followed regardless of time, place, caste, class, or creed. On a more individual level, we have the niyamas. These have more to do with our internal practices and how we relate to ourselves. They are (in English and Sanskrit):
  • Saucha: cleanliness, purity of body
  • Santosa: contentment
  • Tapas: burning effort
  • Svadhyaya: education of the self through studying the sacred texts
  • Ishvara pranidhana: surrender to the divine or to things spiritual

Ishvara Pranidhana - To Surrender

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras refers specifically to Ishvara pranidhana in sutra I.23. For this, I appreciate Kofi Busia’s translation of the ancient text:

Īśvarapraṇidhānādvā “Or, one can devote one’s self completely to things spiritual.”

Depending upon your world view, Ishvara pranidhana may mean surrendering to God, surrendering to the divine, or simply dedicating oneself to, as Kofi puts it, things spiritual. Yoga teaches that this type of surrender is essential on the path. It is not about hard work alone. Furthermore, you might also think of Ishvara pranidhana as giving it up to the universe, surrendering to the cosmos, or accepting that you don’t have complete control. Ishvara pranidhana requires humility because by surrendering we accept that there are forces greater than us. I once heard Ishvara pranidhana described in this way by senior yoga teacher Prashant Iyengar: you can take a direct flight from Mumbai to London. Or, you can take a rikshaw from Mumbai to London. Though you can take a rikshaw it is not a reasonable alternative. Surrendering to the higher powers is like the direct flight; relying on effort and practice alone is like taking a rikshaw from Mumbai to London. It can be done in theory, but is it really a reasonable alternative?!

What Does Surrender Mean to You?

So, at the end of the day, the question for the practitioner is “what does surrender mean to you?” It is a key component of yoga, but only you can know what it means to surrender—in your life and your practice. Greta Kent-Stoll is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA), as well as a writer, editor, and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Her Ayurveda practice is based in Asheville, North Carolina and she is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville.
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