Bhakti Yoga. What is it? What is its purpose? What is its significance?
My first experience with Bhakti Yoga was in Jan 2001 in Tempe, AZ, one week after my very first Yoga class. I attended a Yoga conference that was held at Arizona State University and the conference had hired two devotional singers (Western) to lead call and response chanting in Sanskrit. The two acts were radically different. One was a man with red and orange robes, dreadlocks to his knees (except when he had them tied up in a top-knot), sitting with a huge instrument that looked like a long stick fixed to a hollowed out pumpkin with one string attached from bottom to top. He flicked the string to make a rhythm and tone and sung in a hypnotic trance like way. The other act was a 10-piece electric/acoustic band with drummers and guitar, bass, and many singers and soloists. Growing up in the West I gravitated to the band setting, pulled in by the familiar rock and blues style mixed with unfamiliar instruments and Sanskrit chanting. At first I was a bit trepidacious about singing, but the mood was so energetic and delightful I put my judgments and inhibitions aside and just read the words as best I could and started singing.
As soon as I started participating, it hit me. A wave of relaxed joy filled my body and I couldn’t help but move and groove, sing and shout, dance in my seat, stand and dance, laugh and cry, feel deeply the group energy and the intention behind the words. I had no idea what I was singing, and in the beginning (and even later on) that helps, because one of the aspects of Bhakti Yoga is that it points us to a higher than intellectual experience and vision of life. The moods created that day and the states of being that occurred have stuck with me to this day. That started my investigation into Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of Devotion.
Devotion is not really the best English word to use to translate the Sanskrit word Bhakti. The word Bhakti comes from the root verb ‘bhaj’ meaning to participate, partake, share in, as well as devote to, worship, and love. Through grammar rules the ‘j’ turns to ‘k’ when the 3rd person active ‘ti’ is added and you get ‘Bhakti’, more usefully translated as ‘active participation’, ‘committed engagement’, or ‘mutual attachment,’ as in the relationship between lover and beloved, friend and friend, or parent and child.
Bhakti Yoga shows up often in the form of song, dance, music, poetry, and acts of worship. Bhakti Yoga calls for and rests on action. Specifically, action that culminates in spiritual knowledge and quietude, and motivated less and less by ego and more and more by what one knows in the heart. What do we as Westerners do as when observing, investigating, or attempting to follow a spiritual path whose native essence asks of us practice, True Remembrance, abiding kindness, praise (with every breath), faith, surrender, and strong reliable obedience, manifested in every moment with impeccable integrity?
Well… first I would suggest that a person notice that these are qualities which they sincerely in their heart wish for in life and already to some degree or another play out. Notice, what is the first thing you do in the morning? Where does your attention go? Straight to the internet? Facebook? To-do lists? Depression? Anxiety? Fear? What do you devote the first part of you day to usually? This observation is a starting point to cultivating devotional practice. What do you remember most about the nature of life throughout your day? Or the nature of relationship? What do you have faith in? How often do you find yourself reacting to life with frustration, complaint, or even anger? These types of observations help to build integrity and abiding kindness toward oneself and others. The refining of the mind from fettered to fluid, relaxed, and flexible happens naturally as a result of practicing self-observation.
Bhakti Yoga suggests that performing actions that truly serve others without complaint, even if one does not prefer to do the action, is an indispensable part of the path. Even should one find oneself with full Knowledge of the Self, and abide in the Bliss of the non-dual state, action must still be part of the path. For one of the purposes of Bhakti Yoga is relationship. Relationship between teacher and student, between lover and beloved, individual and environment, individual and the Divine. Concerning relationship with the Divine, that can be in form or formless, depending on ones comprehension, predilections, or imagination of the Divine.
The significance of ‘active participation’ in life can be easily understood by the business owner, the heads of a family, one who lives in close proximity to others, anyone in a relationship, and the list goes on and on. What makes it Yoga is that one participates with skill and poise, whether it is making lunch for your 4th grade child or singing a song to God. What makes it Bhakti is that it is not about any one individual’s preference or egoistic command. What makes it Bhakti is one’s actions spring from the immediate and obvious knowledge of what is needed and wanted, and the willingness to act is empowered and vivified by relationship to the Divine.
By Brent Kuecker: Yogi. Musician. Educator.
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