I have been reading with great interest Ellie's latest post about the Ashtanga Yoga Opening Mantra. As we know, the first line of this mantra is "vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde", which can literally be translated as "I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru."
I can imagine that this line might bring up some anxiety among some Ashtangis. After all, one of the first things that newcomers to yoga learn is that yoga is not a religion, that yoga practice is compatible with any religious affiliation (or none at all, for that matter). Seen in this light, the idea of praying to the lotus feet of some dude called the "supreme guru" may be seen to be inconsistent with the idea that yoga is not a religion.
But there is a way to resolve this seeming inconsistency. Ellie writes:
'“I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru” is not necessarily a command to pray to the feet of an individual that we think of as our guru, but is a metaphor for the practice itself. By thinking of the practice as the guru, we surrender ourselves to it and look to it for guidance. In this usage, surrender is not a quality of weakness; rather, it means fearlessness, trust, and confidence.'
Thus, to "pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru" does not necessarily mean to submit to a person or personalized entity. Rather, what we are doing is surrendering and placing our trust in the life-transforming process that is the practice, with the confidence that the process will lead us to a place of greater self-awareness and realization.
All this also brings to mind the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, one of the five niyamas of yoga (the other four being Saucha, Santosha, Tapas and Svadhyaya). Ishvara Pranidhana is commonly translated as "Surrender to God". Which tends to bring up the same theistic anxieties for many yogis as the idea of praying to the lotus feet of some dude one barely knows :-) At her Yoga Sutra lecture at her Richmond workshop back in April, Kino clarified this issue by stating that Ishvara Pranidhana does not have to entail surrendering to some personalized deity. What it does entail is that one must place a certain fearless trust and confidence in something greater than oneself (see this post for more details). Kino also emphasized that such an element of fearless surrender is necessary if one's practice is not to degenerate into an ego-building, advanced-asana-accumulating exercise.
This is interesting, because if we put everything that has been said above together, then it seems to me that the Ishvara or "God" in Ishvara Pranidhana can actually be the practice itself. In other words, to surrender to God could entail nothing more drastic than simply placing fearless trust and confidence in the practice itself, and following it where it brings your life. I think this is pretty cool. Do you?