I have learnt a lot at Kino's workshop this past weekend. For me, one of the highlights of the workshop was her Yoga Sutra lecture on Saturday afternoon. She covered a lot of ground during this lecture, and rather than give a blow-by-blow account of every single thing that she said, I'll just focus here on the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, which she discussed at some length during her lecture.
Ishvara Pranidhana is commonly translated as "Surrender to God", and is one of the five niyamas or spiritual observances of yoga, the other four being Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (Perseverance), and Svadhyaya (Study of One's Self).
Although it is commonly translated as "Surrender to God", one does not need to worship a particular god or deity in order to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. What one needs to do, however, is to surrender or devote oneself to something bigger than oneself. This something can be the Christian God, Allah, Krishna, or something non-personified such as a particular conception of Divinity or the Universe. In fact, Kino observes, one might not even have a name for this something, and that's totally fine. What is important is that one make a conscious decision at some point to devote one's actions to something that is bigger than oneself. According to Kino, Ishvara Pranidhana is so central to self-realization that Guruji once said (I'm paraphrasing), "There can be no yoga without surrender to Divinity."
This really resonates with my experience of the yoga practice. As a Buddhist, I really feel that over the years, my yoga practice has helped me to become a more effective person and, by extension, a more effective Buddhist (for more details, see this post). For me, the practice has given me an invaluable set of tools with which to understand and grasp the core of my spirituality more clearly. I cannot speak for other faiths, but I suspect that the practice also has this same potential for practitioners of other religions.
But the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana also seems to present a paradox. One of the first things that many beginners to yoga are told is that "yoga is not a religion." But if yoga is not a religion, what business does it have telling us to surrender or devote ourselves to something bigger than ourselves? Indeed, as a participant at Kino's lecture pointed out, many people who are drawn to yoga are people who are disenchanted with organized religion, who see in yoga a non-threatening, non-intrusive way of engaging their spirituality. For these individuals, Ishvara Pranidhana and the need to devote or surrender oneself to something bigger brings up many of the same emotional and psychological baggage that led them away from organized religion in the first place.
Kino made an interesting observation with regard to this phenomenon. She observes that while many people have no problem with the word "spirituality", the words "divine" or "divinity" seem to be highly charged with many of the issues that organized religion brings up for so many people in western society. Perhaps what is needed, she continues, is a new, value-neutral word to describe that thing that is greater than oneself. At any rate, yoga philosophy is uncompromising in its view that no real spiritual progress can be made without some kind of devotion or surrender to some entity that is greater than oneself: Without such surrender or devotion, one's practice can easily degenerate into an endless ego-boosting exercise.
In the end, I think it is true that yoga is not a religion, if by religion one means a system of beliefs that tells a concrete story about how the universe came to be, and which accordingly prescribes the exact powers that one is to devote oneself to. However, there is a sense in which yoga is more than a religion. In philosophical terms, one might see yoga as a meta-religion. It does not tell us exactly how the universe came to be, or prescribe what exactly we are to believe in. However, it does affirm the value of such belief, and gives us a blueprint with which we can embark on the path of such belief more fruitfully and productively.