Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When elephants fly, or, how a non-religious yogi interprets "Ishvarapranidhana"

I am not usually one to re-post old posts. But I came across this one from my archives the other day and couldn't help but re-post it.  

When you begin to dive deeper into the philosophy of yoga, some of the first things you encounter are the ethical principles that serve as guidelines to a 'yogic life'. Known as the Yamas (abstinences) and the Niyamas (self-restrictions), these principles are the foundations of any practice of yoga that goes beyond the physical body.

As a person with no religious upbringing, the ethical code of yoga both inspired and daunted me. And since I have never had the inclination to devote myself to a deity or God, I initially struggled with many of the devotional aspects of yoga philosophy, and with teachers who are on a devotional path. It wasn't that I didn't respect their views - I simply couldn't relate to their journey or understand their explanations of things. One concept in particular that stumped me was the requirement, as expressed by the Niyamas (which every yoga teacher must sort of 'swear' to uphold) of "Ishvarapranidhana" - Devotion to God.

So if you, like me, struggle somewhat with this concept, perhaps the following story about a loveable, big-eared elephant will speak to you, too...

Ishvarapranidhana: When elephants fly

Yoga is about transformation. In yoga philosophy, the five Niyamas, or "self-restrictions", teach us how we can prepare ourselves to receive this transformation, to become the change in our lives. By cleansing our bodies and our environment (saucha), we get rid of what is unhealthy, making space for positive growth. By accepting ourselves as we are and feeling gratitude for all our blessings (santosha), we are able to appreciate even the smallest transformations in our lives as a gift. By being disciplined and putting in effort (tapas), we turn wasted energy into the fire of transformation. By studying ourselves (svadhyaya), we strip away the ego and allow our True Self to manifest.

The final Niyama is "Ishvarapranidhana", or "devotion to God". It is a concept that I have struggled with, not being, or ever having been, of any religious creed. So for those of you who may also struggle to untangle this concept, I offer you the story of Dumbo. Yes, Dumbo - the baby elephant with the enormous ears.

Because of his huge ears, Dumbo is a social outcast. When his mother tries to protect him from a judgmental mob, she is imprisoned as a mad elephant. The people who run the circus make him an object of ridicule, dressing him as a clown and forcing him to fall from a high platform into a vat of pie filling. But then, Dumbo is given a magic feather and told it will make him fly. Desperate to change his situation and get his mother released, Dumbo grabs the feather and flaps his ears. And sure enough, he flies!

The next night he takes the magic feather to his act, but at the last minute he loses it. As he plummets down, Dumbo finds out that the feather has no magic at all, and, finally believing in himself, he opens his ears and soars through the air. The audience is thrilled, the circus loves him, and his mother is freed.

The moral of the story is that the feather never had any magic powers - it was the power of Dumbo's belief that allowed him to go beyond the limitations he was stuck in, and perform miracles.

Ishvarapranidhana, then, for me, is not about devotion to God, but about devotion to the Self. It teaches us that if we believe in transformation, it will happen, if we open our minds to the possibility of new patterns, we can manifest them. If we have faith in ourselves, walls can crumble, barriers can come down, and we can be free.  If we devote ourselves to the process of change, then miracles can happen and yes, even elephants can fly.

Readers, how do you interpret Ishvarapranidhana in your yoga practice?


  1. While, I'm one of those who is on a 'devotion to God' path, I can definitely understand and respect your position on this area. I don't believe that one has to dedicate oneself to a particular God or deity in order to gain the benefits from yoga or follow the transformational path that it takes us on. Your outlook on Ishvarapranidhana is interesting and can definitely be used by just about anyone, even those who are devoted to God, because doesn't a yogi need to sort of be dedicated to their self too? By believing in ourselves, we are able to complete the tasks that are set forth through the limbs of yoga.

    Thank you for this outlook on Ishvarapranidhana. :) Love the Dumbo connection too.

    1. Hi Brianna - thanks for sharing your viewpoint! I totally agree that everyone needs to be devoted to their Self and their journey, regardless of whether or not you are also devoted to a higher being. I'm glad that the metaphor also speaks to you!