Saturday, October 08, 2005

"sweet" surrender

In recent days, I have come to realize that my surrender to Sir's teachings has paid off immeasurably in my Ashtanga yoga practice, not just physically but spiritually as well. By eliminating the second-guessing, the doubting, the questioning of whether I have "enough to do" in class, of whether I can benefit from a practice that I can finish in less than an hour, I have come to look forward to my practice as a place where I can simply "do" and not "think". I leave the thinking and planning to someone else, to Sir, and I trust that he knows what is best for me. Until the moment I surrendered, my mind was busy with chatterings that centered mainly on, "Does Sir realize that maybe MY body will never be able to bind in C, and MAYBE I am a special case, and MAYBE the same rules that apply to everyone shouldn't apply to me?". Ego. Ego. And more ego. I don't know how or when, but I let that stuff fall away, and I have found myself accepting that Sir has made a determination based on his experience and his education that the practice that he has prescribed for me is the practice that my body needs. Sure, yoga must be personally tailored for each body that practices asana. But my assumption now is that my teacher has done that for me, and I don't need to question it.

The results have been sweet. I am millimeters away from a nice, strong bind on both sides in Mari C. I don't know how long it will take for me to completely "get there". But when I do, it will feel much more rewarding than it would to be given the rest of the Primary Series without being able to bind on my own. For all of my bellyaching and rebellious bravado, I think the truth is that I LIKE rules.

But all of this "surrender" to Sir and to "the rules" of Ashtanga has been getting me thinking about the concept of "surrender". Surrendering to God, also known as "Isvara Pranidhana", is one of the "Niyamas" of yoga, as set forth in the Yoga Sutras, and is thus an integral part of the practice of yoga. Within Isvara Pranidhana is the notion that if we surrender ourselves to the will of God (or another higher power, one which we believe is responsible for putting us here in the first place), all will work out. The universe will bring us everything we need. There is no need to struggle, no need to strain, no need to harden ourselves against events, people and other forces over which we have no control (including out own bodies...aging and illness being notorious challenges to our ability to surrender).

In the everyday practice of Ashtanga yoga, we are also asked to surrender ourselves to our teacher, to trust what he or she tells us to do (and not do). We are asked to surrender ourselves to the point where we have only one teacher and we practice when and where and how that teacher instructs us. And once we actually surrender, there is the same sort of trust in things working out as there is when we surrender to God or the universe, as the case may be.

Considering the softness and peacefulness of "surrender" in the practice of yoga, I find it interesting that in Western usage, "surrender" is a word that conjures quite negative images...images of war and defeat and relinquishment. As defined by Websters, "surrender" means:

1. to yield to the power, control, or possession of another upon compulsion or demand, 2. to give up completely or agree to forgo especially in favor of another, 3. to give (oneself) up into the power of another especially as a prisoner and 4. to give (oneself) over to something (as an influence).
Synonyms for "surrender" include: capitulation, relinquishment, submission, acquiescence and concession.

The image isn't pretty. "Surrender", at least as defined in English, seems to occur only when there is no other choice, when enough power has been exerted upon us, when we are essentially beaten into submission. Is "surrender" really the word Patanjali intended for us to impose upon "Isvara Pranidhana"? In other words, is there a translation glitch here?

A quick Google search indicates that "surrendering" to Jesus is encouraged in Christianity, that "surrendering" to a higher power is a crucial step in 12-step recovery programs and that "sweet surrender" is "all that we have to give" in our romantic relationships. But why not "accept" Jesus? Why not "embrace" a higher power? Why not bestow "sweet devotion" upon our loved ones? Apparently, or at least from my cursory review of the Googled data, we Westerners like our calm to come after a storm. In other words, surrender is not so sweet without a struggle preceding it.

But is this the case in yoga? It could be that we have imposed our view of "surrender" on Isvara Pranidhana. Or, it could be that Isvara Pranidhana is expected to follow turmoil, questioning, expected to take the form of acquiescence, a relinquishment of power, a concession?

I don't know. What I do know is that I would rather not think of a decision to trust my teacher (or my God) as a hard-won surrender to a more-powerful force. And of course, ultimately, it's all just semantics. I know. But I am a deconstructionist at heart, and I always assume that a sage chooses his words with care, and even if he didn't, they would still indicate his intent.



Susan said...

I don't think we would understand what the
surrender was if we hadn't struggled first.
I think only very evolved souls can experience
ishvarapranidhana with out questioning and doubt.
Look at the Buddha, even Jesus, they had plenty of
questions and doubts and lots of turmoil.
So what was my point?

Chris said...

I think of surrender as a letting go of myself, giving myself. Allowing but still choosing that which is to be. It is not a defeat or failure, it is simply allowing someone to give us direction or guidance.

And do you not surrender yourself to those you love and care about with no sense of loss or defeat but instead with a sense of unity, closeness and love?

tina said...

In practice, I see the process as a relinquishing of control, for a while, in a safe environment. A toughie, but infinitely rewarding for it.

Susan said...

I like what Chris said about giving yourself to loved ones. Especially as parents. We surrender to the child pretty much immediately upon their arrival.
That is an amazing experience of love, definitely humbling, but freely given.

But, if you are allowing but still choosing what is to be, is their still not ego involved? Still a need for control?
Iyengar states that" through the surrender of ego, brings the humility that leads to the effulgent, sorrowless light of Ishvara.

yoga chickie said...

Thanks for all the great thoughts, guys. I am still trying to process my own thoughts about "surrender". Clearly, giving onesself to the practice, to a loved one, to's all good. But I still wonder why the word, itself, the word, "surrender" is such a "hardened" word, connoting war and struggle. It is stuff I need to think about. My Canadian friend SG pointed me toward a text that I still need to seek out regarding "Isvara Pranidhana" ("the Guru-ashtakam by Shankaracharya," she writes, "a short text which has been translated from Sanskrit into English. These are verses on Guru-devotion, analogous to the notion of surrendering to the divine/teacher"). I will try to find it and see if that helps my understanding at all. In the meantime, be well...


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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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