As a teenager, without any real notion of what I was doing or why, I took a road trip to the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos, New Mexico. By sheer good fortune, I arrived exactly in time for a Hanuman festival.
Gentle, welcoming people helped me to find a cushion on the floor of the temple and gave me a booklet with the transliteration and translation of the "Hanuman Chalisa," a 40-verse devotional praising Lord Hanuman.
The singing went on for many hours, during which I experienced a temporary loss of awareness of self as separate from the Divine. The kirtan was followed by a feast of delicious vegetarian food and chai, lovingly prepared and shared by the devotees of the ashram. They were generous without reservation, both materially and in their handling of my ignorance of how to behave in the ashram.
(Learn the importance of chai in 5 Must-Try Chai Spices: The Benefits of Each & How to Create Your Own Blend.)
In both the kirtan and the actions of the devotees of the temple, I got my first glimpses of Bhakti yoga, the path of unconditional, divine love. Here I'll share with you more on what Bhakti yoga is, its origins and how to practice it.
What Is Bhakti Yoga?
Bhakti yoga is one of the branches, or paths, of yoga, which are generally said to include Jnana yoga (the path of wisdom), Karma yoga (the path of selfless action), Kriya yoga (the path of energy) and Raja yoga (the "royal" path of Patanjali, sometimes said to include Hatha yoga, which uses the body as an instrument for achieving oneness).
(More on the path of Jnana Yoga: Yoga of the Mind.)
Bhakti is the path of devotion, the absolute dedication to the Divine. Rather than a specified set of observances, Bhakti yoga is a complete practice and, as such, demands complete devotion to the Divine.
Devotion is experienced as bliss, the ecstasy of love when the limitations of ego, attachment and expectation are removed. The whole universe is the Beloved. No person, creature or circumstance is outside of the Divine. Over time, love and devotion enable us to see the illusion of separateness for what it is.
Whether one is devoted to Krishna, Shiva, Saraswati, God by another name or God without a name, isn’t the point; so, even those with religious traditions outside of Hinduism can practice Bhakti yoga.
The essence of Bhakti yoga is in the unconditional surrender to God, and the conviction that this surrender is the path to one’s true nature. All of life, from the smallest gestures to the largest decisions, become an act of love for something greater than one's self.
(More on The Practice of Surrender.)
Origins of Bhakti Yoga
Though people in the Western world are becoming increasingly aware of Bhakti yoga, it is an ancient practice. With roots in the Vedas, Bhakti yoga is described in the Bhagavad Gita, written around 500 B.C.E. In the Gita, Krishna describes to Arjuna how to practice Bhakti yoga and claims that it is the most direct path to the state of oneness with the Divine.
Sometimes, the Divine is considered to be personified in a living being, a guru. Recent examples with a presence in the West include Swami Sivananda of the Sivananda yoga tradition and Neem Karoli Baba.
(Learn about Sivananda Yoga: A Spiritually Expanding Practice of Set Asana, Pranayama and Mantra.)
Many people find cultivating love for the guru—a living, breathing being—to be more accessible than cultivating love for an abstract concept of the Divine.
How to Practice Bhakti Yoga
You don’t need a guru to practice Bhakti yoga. Some people find it helpful, particularly if the guru enables them to feel safe in surrendering their lives and sense of a limited, individual self to the Divine.
Other people find that human relationships complicate their conception of the Divine, and the prefer to practice Bhakti yoga through devotion to a personal deity (such as Krishna or Shiva) or to a divine being that is not personified.
Kirtan can be a component of Bhakti yoga. However, Bhakti yoga practice doesn’t have boundaries. There might be times when a yogi isn’t doing asana or pranayama, but for those who have chosen the path of love, there is no time apart from that love and devotion. It comes to touch the deepest recesses of the yogi.
You don’t need to do any specific set of asanas (or asana at all) to practice Bhakti yoga.
That said, when your asana practice is done as service to the Divine, it becomes part of your Bhakti yoga practice. Some people like to take time at the beginning of their practice for a dedication.
Practicing Bhakti Yoga In Everyday Life
While Bhakti is an internal practice, here are a few more suggestions for incorporating it into your life.
- Reflection on the Divine. Each evening, consider those times during the day when you felt the presence of the Divine.
- Kirtan. Sing devotional songs with others or alone.
- Spend time in nature. Bhakti yoga teaches that the whole universe is the Divine. Allowing ourselves time in the natural world helps us to see the interconnectedness of all things.
- Offer your service to those in need. One classical form of Bhakti practice is to care for the sick. Share your gifts with those who need them.
- Meditate or pray on your visualization of the Divine. Whether you cultivate love for the Divine by viewing God as a parent, a friend or other, all are valid for Bhakti yoga.
- Consider those you encounter as divine. God is without limits. Every person you meet is an aspect of the Divine.
A Final Thought
Even many years after that first trip to the ashram, I still love and sing the "Hanuman Chalisa." For me, it has become a direct path to an attitude of love and devotion within the act of kirtan and beyond. Many blessings to you in your journey to finding your own unique direct path to the Divine. Namaste.