Devotion to God, or a Power greater than oneself. This is the crowning glory of the Niyamas. After all, this is a spiritual path, so it is only right that at some point the mention of God, or a Higher Power, enters the discussion. For many people, this is not a problem. For others, this is where they shout, "Stop the train, I want to get off!" It is important to remember that the paternal God of the Judeo-Christian traditions is totally foreign to the Hindu practitioner. God is not a person, but a power, a form of energy that pervades everything in the world and the universe. Hinduism has many gods and goddesses, all of whom possess different human attributes and yet are only a small part of the Divine Energy. Hindu practitioners choose their own god or goddess, depending upon which human attributes they wish to cultivate. That is a system which is in line with Yoga, one of the six schools of orthodox Hinduism. On the yogic path, we are choosing what to pay attention to and what to work on: greedlessness, non-violence, truth, etc. You can practice yoga and be a devout Catholic at the same time. You can be a Hindu who chooses Jesus as your personal god. This is not sacrilegious but rather a mindful choice of spiritual practice based on paying attention: our personal needs are different from our neighbors, and only we ourselves can determine them with any accuracy. We can seek help and guidance from our spiritual leaders and mentors, but in the end it is we as individuals who are responsible for choosing our spiritual path.
If you are an atheist, how do you practice Ishvara Pranidhana? Keep in mind that in this ancient tradition, there is no GOD but rather Divine Energy. Rather than a father figure who watches over us and keeps score, deciding who lives and who dies in any given year, divine energy is what the world was created from: it is a power greater than ourselves. I think we can all agree that the universe and all its mysteries is definitely a power greater than ourselves! The ultimate goal of a yoga practice is to experience first-hand this divine energy in ourselves and our interconnectedness through divine energy to every other form, animate and inanimate, on earth. If you have dabbled in quantum physics, you will begin to understand that it is the modern-day physicists who are the closest to understanding this concept. This Divine Energy can be proven scientifically. You don't need a messiah or a miracle to prove it, just a really good physicist who can explain some tricky concepts to you. Good luck! : )