Part 6 of a 10-part invitation to inquiry centred on the yamas and niyamas described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The full series is available at

Isvara pranidhana (dedication to the ideal of yoga) (niyama – Patanjali II.32 and II.45)

“Through orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness, one can achieve integration.”  (Hartranft)

“The perfection of pure contemplation comes from the dedication to the Lord of Yoga.” (Stoler Miller)

“Contemplation and its powers are attained through worship of God.” (Bouanchard)

Oh no – the GOD word!  Lord of Yoga is not much different and what on earth is pure awareness?  Isn’t yoga supposed to be non-religious?

When I first encountered this sutra in a text otherwise lacking religious or theistic references, I was surprised and, I confess, a little disappointed.  I quickly glossed over it by using one of the other translations but without really delving into what we meant by ‘pure awareness’ or ‘lord of yoga’.

The use of the word god in relation to yoga seems able to offend a variety of people.  Atheists shy away from the very word.  But equally people who have a religious faith may also be offended, seeing it as a challenge to their own religious doctrines.  Both groups might be inclined to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and discount the Sutras as a whole because of this apparent reference to religion.

I have come to see such an attitude as a mark of my own prejudice.  I find it helpful instead to assume that translations of this sutra as highly contextualised.  That is, different translators inevitably translate according to their own cultural context and individual worldview.

The challenge is to try to find common themes within the apparently contradictory language used in the translations and commentaries.  It seems to me, that at heart, this sutra simply points to letting go into a wider perspective.

“Letting go of what?”

It seems to me that the list is a long one – ideas, concepts, beliefs, attachments, fear, judgement, a sense of being a self, any kind of belief of control, absolute knowledge, permanence etc etc.

What is left after this kind of letting go is a sense of presence in flux.  An awareness in a constant state of emergence.  A sense of ‘self’ as a continuous stream of experience.  I think this is what I think is meant by Hantranft’s ‘pure awareness’.  It is deeply challenging to my sense of identity, rational worldview, beliefs and social references which can all start to feel a little abstract and somehow artificial.

This perspective (or even the idea of this perspective!) can seem incredibly liberating, absolutely alien, and highly disturbing to my sense of identity.  It can feel blissful, ominous or ridiculous!

OK but how does such a perspective relate to the ability to safely drive a car, hold down a job, engage in human relationships?  To do any of these things, I can’t adopt an extreme position of ‘nothing is real, man, we’re all just ripples in the universal consciousness!’.  When crossing the road, it is best to consider the traffic absolutely real.

Holding two perspectives

A teacher of mine once put it something like this.  Integration means simultaneously holding two apparently contrasting views.  Knowing that I am an utterly interconnected piece of the universe and that my sense of ‘permanent and independent self’ is a complete fiction.  She called this the ultimate view.  However, I act as if my sense of self were true, thereby enabling the concepts, preferences, and relationships that are predicated on this view to arise.  This enables me to move through the world as a ‘normal’ human being.  My teacher called this the relative view.

Pure awareness (what I referred to above as the ultimate view) is for most of us an ‘abnormal’ perspective.  This niyama seems to be encouraging us to look deeply at this ‘perspective’, whether we choose to call it pure awareness, God or the Lord of Yoga.

Integration, as my teacher pointed out, is the possibility of wholeheartedly engaging with whatever experience the ‘relative view’ delivers while maintaining the broader perspective of the ‘ultimate view’.

Here’s an example of how it might work.  My life is good at present.  I have enough income, lots of flexibility in my work and home life, good relationships.  And yet some part of me feels squeezed and discontent.  I explain this to myself as arising from the lack of settling into the place I am living, of feeling part of the community, of achievement or recognition in my work life etc (the stories vary from day to day!).  The result is a sense of lack, of wanting, of dissatisfaction.

Everything in the preceding paragraph is the realm of the relative view.  It is utterly dependent on my social and personal conditioning, my expectations, fears, desires and life references.

By contrast, the momentary peace and ease of a full breath, of my face turned to the sun, of the joy of a living, loving touch – all these transient experiences are independent of mental commentary and oblivious to my stories of how things should be, of what is lacking.  They are perhaps glimpses of the ‘ultimate view’.  What Eckhart Tolle calls ‘the power of now’, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘the miracle of mindfulness’.  This is the deep appreciation of a raindrop on a leaf in the millisecond before the thought “raindrop” arises; followed a millisecond later by ‘beautiful’; followed a millisecond after that by ‘I must take a picture’.

Such glimpses provide a pause in the dialogue of explanation, analysis and judgement that is so characteristic of my ‘relative view’.  They seem to loosen the hold of all the stories that I tell myself about how things are and why they are.  By doing so they offer the possibility of choice within the seemingly endless plot lines and judgements that my relative view spins.  As a result, I may become a little less fraught in the face of big decisions, a little more appreciative of the things that bring me joy, a little less hung up on the things that irritate me.  In short, my relative view of the world becomes a little less tightly held, a little more joyful, a little less dominant in my momentary experience.

There is no doubt that we need the relative view in order to participate in the world.  In the deepest forms of integration and absorption in the ultimate view, interaction in day to day life is impossible.  It is no coincidence that the sadhus practiced and continue to practice ‘outside’ of society or that deep meditation is not recommended while driving!

Perhaps this is why the sutra talks about the ‘orientation toward pure awareness’.  Regular practice does seem to make it easier to hold the two views in parallel.  This enables us to engage in society and daily life and yet continue to recognise the simultaneous presence of the ultimate view.

This has become my interpretation of ‘ishvara pranidhana’, of ‘orientation to pure awareness’.  These days I’m even happy to acknowledge that the impact on my sense of being, may not change if I chose to phrase it as ‘devotion to god’.   Perhaps we are just using different fingers to point to the moon.  In the relative view, the god word remains contentious and divisive.  In the universal view, no words, no problem!