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Dancing With God: Ishvara Pranidhana

[Warning: This post is too long. And it took me FOREVER to write and edit. It's also not that interesting. Feel free to skip to this one.]

I'm in my sixth grade classroom, which is in the basement of a rented church building. My teacher calls me to her desk at the back of the narrow, dark room that's just big enough to fit all 10 or 12 of us in the class. It's near the beginning of the school year and she is doing a personal "check-in" with each student, but even at the young age of eleven I don't believe her. It feels like a farce to get to me and ask me the question I'd already been asked by several teachers and adults at this private Christian school over the past four years. She waves me to come behind her desk and puts her arm around me, maternally pulling me in close. It's not creepy at all; I'm friends with her daughter, who is also in the class, and have slept over her house many times. I believe that she is genuinely concerned for my soul (and maybe my relationship with her daughter?) when she asks, after a brief how-was-your-summer cover-up, "And when did you ask Jesus Christ to come into your life and be your savior?"

I couldn't come up with a specific date on the spot, but I'd had "the talk" with Him back in 3rd or 4th grade as soon it became apparent that that's what you do in this place. It wasn't just a matter of believing in God and buying into every word written in the Bible (which we studied daily and earned a report card grade for), but actually having a specifically-worded conversation with Jesus asking him to save me, and then remembering the date as a new birthday of sorts.

I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't name the exact date I became a Christian, sure that she didn't believe me that I was. And I definitely was at that point, I mean, as much as an eleven-year-old can be. So that night before falling asleep I lay in my bottom bunk and asked Jesus, again, to be my Savior. I felt happy about it, but mostly just relieved, knowing I had for sure checked that box. Not because it meant I could now skirt Hell, but because maybe now my soul would fall under less scrutiny by my teachers and friends' parents, all hardcore Christians.

This is just one episode of my experience with "surrendering to god" that I bring into my final month living by the Yamas and Niyamas with Ishvara Pranidhana, translated as "complete surrender". I knew it would be my most challenging, and I figured I'd kind of gloss over the crux of the concept, just do the challenges in Adele's book and stay true to my mostly undeclared atheism. But I was wrong. By the end of the month I had truly pondered what it could mean to invite a divinity into my life--on my own terms.

Ishvara Pranidhana implicitly means surrender to God. The Yamas & Niyamas go in a particular order, building on one another. After going through the nine prior principles, I should be ready to surrender fully to the Divine, in an effort to get closer to union with it. But as Adele points out, this rule "presupposes that there is a divine force at work in our lives", and in order for me to embody this Niyama, I have to genuinely accept that presupposition: I have to believe in god.

I've been here before. It looked very different, but the discomfort and rebellious instincts are the same. Over the last month or so of contemplating god and my resistance to 'Him', I've come to realize that the "He"-god I was taught about (=forced to worship) in school is not the god I can now choose for myself 30+ years later. The Christian God of my youth is certainly not the divinity touched by ancient yogis in India. And when I consider it through Adele's words to "accept the higher purpose to our being", rather than accepting a higher power over my life, it becomes more palatable. Word choice can make all the difference.

There's another attractive aspect of this rule: letting go of the need to know and control everything. There's great freedom in turning control over to something else, trusting an unknowable source to take care of things. I used to see this as foolish, and it can be (ex: fanatic religions that refuse medical intervention or decline to work in the belief that god will provide), but in these Covid times of not knowing or having control over anything, it does feel easier to give up trying. It is easier to flow along in the river of life than to madly paddle against it.

Adele is quick to iterate that surrendering is not a weakness, and not a total giving away of our autonomy or active participation in life. She illustrates the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana as joining with life fully, as if in a dance in which "we do not lead, nor do we limply drag along like dead weight". Quite the opposite, we should be "so present we can follow the next move, wherever the leading step takes us, adding our own style as we go". To surrender is to "simply receive each moment with an open heart, and then dance skillfully with it". Maybe if my teachers had explained becoming a Christian and asking Jesus into my life in terms of creating a partnership with him, rather than him "saving" me from my sinner self and certain eternity in hell, it would have been more durable. But they didn't, and by the time I hit 7th grade I saw nothing but hypocrisy and judgement in religion and begged my parents to send me back to public school.

Following Adele's challenges for weeks 1-3 wasn't too difficult or different from previous challenges, a lot of "noticing" and mindfulness, gearing me up for the final challenge in week four of unifying with god. Here's how it went:

Week 1 of experiencing Ishvara Pranidhana asks me to keep tabs on my attitudes and responses to "the moment" to find patterns, such as being frequently fearful, annoyed, or judgmental. I didn't need this challenge to know that I am frequently both annoyed and judgmental, but I played along anyway.

1. One of my daily runs took me through a new (to me) neighborhood here in LA. It's a lovely, mostly upper-middle class neighborhood--not super extravagant, but not exactly modest either, as it's still LA and you have to have A LOT of money to own a house here, even in the Valley where I frequently run. As I trotted through tree-lined neighborhoods, I found myself putting a value judgement on each house I passed and then measuring my own self-worth against it.

Yes, human vs. house. And yes, I know this is ludicrous.

My internal monologue went something like this:

"Nice house...(jog jog jog)...nice house...(jog jog)...Eh, that one's kind of crappy, doesn't measure up to the others."

Translation: I am superior to that last house and its owners.

And then,

"Whoa, damn! That one is amazing!"

Translation: I will never be good enough/successful enough or have the good taste and fat wallet to ever afford that. I am a loser.

Isn't this insane? That I measured my own self-worth against the curb appeal of strangers' houses??

But we all do this shit. Maybe not with houses, but maybe with clothes, body type, partner/kids, job title, connections, etc.

Attitude = judgmental

2. My toddler is in this phase where he gets off on doing exactly what I tell him not to do. I know, this is called 'testing his limits' or something like that, but all I care about is that it's annoying and sometimes borderline infuriating. And I wish I could send him to school a few days a week to annoy someone else for a while.

Attitude = irritated

Insight gained? Not a ton. My mental state is not too strong right now, mired as I am in Coronavirus quarantine, so my penchant for irritability and criticism are at unhealthy levels. Moving on.

* * *

Week 2 instructs me to notice tension in my body when something doesn't go "my way", then make the choice to "relax my body and shift my attitude to curiosity". I always want things my way; everyone does. It can be tricky figuring out when to compromise and when to stand firm.

1. This week I tried to negotiate a slightly higher pay rate from one of the businesses I teach for. I am incredibly uncomfortable talking about money and it's only the second time in my life, I'm embarrassed to admit, that I've discussed my pay rate and asked for more. I was incredibly anxious at the beginning of the text conversation (I offered to get on a facetime or phone call twice)--felt in my body as a fluttery lightness--but I was ok with whatever the outcome: either get the slight raise or lose the client and perhaps future clients. The business I get from this source is only a small part of my income, but I have been working with them for over six years, so although I don't want to end the relationship, it wouldn't be a huge loss. The stakes were low, but if you asked my body, I was negotiating terms of a life-long contract that would mean the difference between sudden wealth and certain destitution. In reality I was negotiating $10.

And in the end I didn't get it.

Shifting my mind to curiosity in the wake of the situation gave me so much to think about: power dynamics in business, the yoga/wellness industry, the cultural conditioning of women to stay small and be easy. I wrote more about it here.

2. Weekends generally revolve around my husband's desires and timeline. Our common weekend theme is the question, "How long until you're ready?", which comes from a mostly innocent place--my husband wondering how long until I'm done doing all the cleaning up and getting myself and our son ready for an outing--but is received by me as "Can you hurry the fuck up for no other reason than I am ready right now and I think you should be, too." In these moments I get very irritated and have lots of negative thoughts and resentment that I don't express. I often feel the frustration in my body as a headache, but mostly I feel it in my mood plunging into irritation.

Insight gained: Again, not a lot. Except that living in California allows me to add some THC to my CBD and it has had a wonderful effect on mitigating general anxiety and irritation that I experience in both my mind and body.

Week 3 instructs me to "practice welcoming each moment" and to meet the "opportunity of what is being offered and asked of me". When I find myself "shrinking away, trust that life is giving me a chance to step into a fuller, more skillful" version of myself.

This challenge fell at a very tense and sensitive time of reckoning in our country: the stories of innocent Black people being murdered, often by police, seemingly for just being black in the wrong place at the wrong time--or just sleeping in her own bed--has been piling up for decades, reaching a fever pitch in recent weeks, igniting huge protests and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was intense and necessary and ultimately productive: some perpetrators are being held accountable, some blatant racists are being called out and stepping down from their positions of authority, some police forces are being defunded, some families are getting justice, some inappropriate statues and symbols of hatred are being taken down, and many people are facing their own racial prejudices, conscious or not. It is not nearly enough progress. It will never be enough to amend for our country's historical treatment of Black people.

There is talk of white privilege, unconscious biases, systematic racism, unequal representation in places of business, law, and punishment. It has given us all, I hope, a lot to think about and question of ourselves.

As a privileged white woman, I felt sort of frozen, overly self-conscious of what I say, if anything, and how I say it regarding everything going on. I know that a lot of well-meaning white folks felt similarly. It is up to us to find an appropriate balance between saying something--to remain silent is cowardly and totally unsupportive of Black people and human equality--and not saying too much, i.e., not making it about oneself or taking attention away from the issues at hand.

So in an effort to welcome these moments and the meet what is being asked of me, I first shut up and listened intently to the voices of Black people. I did not tune out the horrific stories of their experiences. I did not judge how their anger was communicated. I downloaded and dove into books and podcasts about their history in this country and the present state of race relations and white supremacy that persists. I asked hard questions of myself and took the time for inquiry. I expressed some thoughts in my first ever video on social media and I taught several fundraising classes for BLM, making the most money I've ever made from yoga classes and donating all of it. Mostly, I just listened and I continue to do so.

This is how I practiced the challenge set before me in week 3. I could have done more. But I'm aware of what I don't know and I don't think my opinions or feelings on the matter were needed much more than I gave them. I know when it's important to speak, and when to let others be heard.

In the last year and a half of my study of the Yamas and Niyamas, I was so often tasked with "observing" myself and "noticing" my reactions. It felt repetitive and too passive at times. But it has set me up to proceed more often from a place of measured thought and intentionality. I'm starting to see the value of this practice on a personal level, but I am definitely seeing at this moment how not living in this way is destructive on a mass cultural level. I don't have any solutions, but I know that to start with myself is a start. Ghandi's words, "Be the change you wish to see in the world" have a more palpable and applicable meaning for me now.

Next, in the final week of this project, I become a born-again fundamentalist Christian.

Just kidding. But I do say what's up to God for the first time in a very long time.


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