Yoga Sutra 2.45 states:
Perfection in samadhi arises from dedication to Ishvara (Ravi Ravindra)
Samadhi is experienced from surrendering the results of action to and deeply respecting the inner, universal light of knowledge (Nicolai Bachman)
Okay, it's time for me to get real. When I did my first teacher training and we (I hesitate to say studied) learned about the yamas and niyamas I pretty much had no idea what was going on. My head was so far in the asana clouds that I couldn't see much that had to do with yogic philosophy. But! I was always interested. Just more from a distance. I wanted to know about yoga philosophy, but I didn't necessarily want to live it. As time has progressed, I am pleased to say that my perspective has shifted to allow space for a life based in yoga.
When isvarapranidhana was first explained to me, it was described as "devotion to god." It's a pretty good start, but there is so much more to it. For one thing, isvarapranidhana is part of a three-step process to weaken the kleshas and work toward samadhi. The other two parts are tapas and svadhyaya or the fire created from regular practice and self inquiry; both which are up to you, the practitioner. They are very much something that you have control of, whereas isvarapranidhana is about giving it up to something higher than yourself.
Indians have no problem with this step. They are all about devotion. Where else in the world could you find businesses called "Sri Hanuman Used Tires" or a clothing boutique called "Jaya Laxshmi"? You can't walk a block in India without coming across a statue, burning incense or flowers laid down as puja. It's as though they were put on earth to devote themselves to something greater.
So, that's what Indians do. But it's not necessarily what we as westerners have to do. We are often cynical and jaded about things religious or devotional. I get it! I was raised in a tradition that I no longer practice and have certain angry feelings toward said tradition. Five years ago, I would have been the last person on earth capable of writing a blog post about "devotion to god."
Alright. Here's where it's up for interpretation. Ishvara is not necessarily "god" in the traditional sense. It can also be understood as "the universal teacher" or the light within you capable of connecting to the light present in someone else. Or maybe for you it's the "inner teacher" or personal sense of something more than you. In other words, you can be a practicing atheist and still identify in some regards with ishvara. It certainly won't be in the traditional sense intended, but likely more of a "giving it up to my inner teacher" idea.
It can be hard to have faith. Or to give away the control to something outside (or deep inside) of ourselves. But it feels so good! So go out there and get your isvarapranidhana on!