There is no denying that yoga is a valid form of exercise and a great way to promote physical wellness. However, as any accomplished yogi will tell you, there is a more profound meaning behind it all – this is especially true when it comes to Bhakti yoga.
In recent years, Bhakti yoga has seen a dramatic rise in popularity. Truth be told, it could also be argued that nowadays the most popular form of yoga is in fact Bhakti yoga. So, if it is more than just a way to stay in shape and promote physical wellness, how can we properly define Bhakti yoga in an easy-to-understand way?
Let’s find out.
What Is Bhakti Yoga?
So, what exactly is Bhakti yoga and how exactly is it different?
Well to put it simply, Bhakti yoga is a spiritual experience of devotion and love for the divine. As a central element of this, adherents of this type of yoga are expected to focus their senses, mind, and emotions on the divine.
The History Behind It All
First, let us take a look at the literal meaning of the word “bhakti”. This is a Sanskirt (a classical language of South Asia) term that means “devotion”. In addition to this, the word “bhakti” can also be further divided into separate parts that each has its own meaning.
- Bha; means “nourishment” or (in a less literal sense) “fulfillment”.
- Ka; is used to indicate “knowing” (and to a lesser extent “awareness”)
- Ta; stands for salvation.
- I (or “ee”); refers to shakti, the principle of divine energy.
Here we see the premise of “the divine” being brought up once again. The term “bhakti” travels from fulfillment to knowing, to salvation, before finally ending up at “the divine”. So, what exactly do we mean by “the divine” when we are speaking in the context of Bhakti yoga?
Understanding Your Relationship With The Divine
Whenever newcomers hear the term “divine” or “beloved divine” being used in this context, their thoughts usually initially go to the concept of god. From a traditional standpoint, this is not incorrect as Bhakti yoga would usually involve devotion to a deity (or deities) or a guru. However, in that same breath, those traditional lessons also teach us that the divine has infinite forms.
In essence Bhakti yoga (and other types of yoga) gives practitioners the freedom to worship the divine in and form of their choosing. So for example, yes this worship and love can be focused towards a god but it can also just as easily be directed to an all-encompassing concept like mother nature. Fundamentally, your devotion to the divine should be shown in the form of first filling yourself with love. Then, you unconditionally give this sense of love and gratitude to something that is presumably outside of yourself. Ultimately, by performing the act of giving this unconditional love you are also receiving it. Eventually, with enough practice, the giving and receiving become one and the same.
What Are Some Of The Benefits Of Bhakti Yoga?
I was once told, by a Bhakti yogi that had been practicing for decades, that the reach of Bhakti yoga’s benefits is infinite. At first glance (as a newcomer) this statement seemed overly vague and nebulous. However, after having my own experience with bhakti yoga I can see the factual merit behind this statement. However, that being said, here are some clear-cut benefits of Bhakti yoga that newcomers can easily grasp:
- It teaches us how to give unconditional love.
- It helps to quiet the mind and see past external distractions.
- It gives us the ability to quell self-destructive thoughts and tendencies.
- It teaches us to say what we mean and in due course mean what we say innately.
- It ultimately teaches us how to love ourselves.
How To Practice Bhakti Yoga
At its core, Bhakti yoga is undeniably an incredibly personal experience. So, as a result, it is highly likely that your approach will not be exactly the same as your friend’s or your neighbor’s methods. Now, that being said, it is not absolutely necessary that you follow all of these steps word-for-word. However, just the same, it is important that you properly learn and understand them if you want to have the best experience with Bhakti yoga.
Find Your Space
Traditionally, practitioners of Bhakti yoga would always – first and foremost – find or establish an altar. The word “altar” is important in this context because it would, above all, be a sacred place where they could best worship and/or perform Bhakti yoga meditation. Nowadays, many contemporary practitioners of Bhakti yoga do not have an altar in the traditional sense. Instead, they establish a dedicated space that they can use to meditate and focus on their relationship with the divine.
This dedicated space will serve as your sacred altar where the energy of your divine will reside so that you can better focus on it. To help with this, it is recommended that you adorn this space in such a way that it reflects the way that you personally perceive the divine. On a basic level, this can simply be by adding an image, a statuette, a symbol, or even a piece of jewelry. However, there is also nothing wrong with thinking outside the box and going a bit more abstract. For example, you may also choose to symbolize your divine with specific colors, shapes, scents, or decor items.
Chant Or Sing
One of the most common misconceptions that many newcomers have is that yoga (and meditation as a whole) has to be a silent affair. However, this is simply not the case – especially in regards to Bhakti yoga. Singing or chanting is a great way to settle your mind and connect to the divine. Many experienced Bhakti yogis (or bhaktas) will recommend that the name of your divine be the central part of your chanting or singing. Ultimately, by getting into a rhythm of repetitive chanting or singing, your mind is able to rest and allow your spirit to take over.
Offerings Are A Symbolic Gesture
To further symbolize the unconditional love that you have for the divine, it is often recommended that you make offerings. Now, this is not a case of you putting your money in a basket and handing it off to someone else. Instead, this is a symbolic gesture by which you offer the best of whatever you have; be it flowers, fruit, incense, etc. So that your mind can better contextualize the meaning behind this offering, it is also recommended that you carry it out at your sacred altar.
Furthermore, it is also important that you try to give offerings that have some sort of connection to your beloved divine. Ultimately, all offerings should be made with care and unconditional love and it should serve as a focus of your Bhakti yoga experience. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that at times many Bhakti yogis give their offering out in nature. As long as it feels fitting for the relationship between you and your divine, go for it!
Praying is a global concept that is used in countless cultures and religions to show reverence and give thanks. Bhakti yoga teaches us that prayer is one of the simplest and more clear-cut ways that we can enter into (and foster) a relationship with the divine. The obvious location to carry out prayer is at your sacred altar; however, that does not mean that it is the only place. Praying to the divine can be done at any time and at any place, here are some key examples:
- When you wake up in the morning.
- Before you eat a meal.
- Before a bath or shower.
- Before you go to sleep.
Speaking of food; praying before a meal, saying grace, or blessing your food, are all practices that can foster gratitude and joy towards the divine. Try to make this a regular practice that you incorporate into your day. In fact, you don’t even need to have a verbal prayer before meals. Closing your eyes while having a few moments of silence and deep breathing can be a symbolic way to show gratitude as well.
Bhakti is not a set regimen of rules and regulations. In fact, it is just as much about your feelings and instincts as it is about the guidelines and the practices. So, as a result of this, every now and again it is recommended that you use nature as a spiritual catalyst. Take your worship and your meditation away from your dedicated space or altar for a while. Spend time in nature, marvel at its beauty, meditate there, truly enjoy the experience. Find a place in nature that means something to you and infuse it (and the way that it makes you feel) into your relationship with the divine.
Make Your Bhakti Yoga Journey Your Own
As we’ve said before, when it comes to Bhakti yoga, everyone’s experience is going to be unique. This type of yoga is a very personal experience and ultimately no one can judge the way that you approach this journey. Even if, let’s say that you have a twin sister and you both start to experience Bhakti yoga at the same time, your journey will never be identical. Your journey into Bhakti yoga should focus on your feelings and instincts just as much as the obvious guidelines and the practices. It is also important to remember that, at its core, Bhakti yoga is about acceptance. So as a result of this, you can easily supplement it with other types of meditation, exercise, and rituals. In fact, this type of supplementary behavior is recommended because, in the long term, it helps you make your relationship with the divine more personal.
Furthermore, in order to become a true devotee to the divine, one needs to have a complete absence of selfish desires. As you can imagine, this is a seemingly insurmountable mountain that many yogis spend decades trying to conquer. Ultimately, this absence of selfish desires even means that one must eventually find themselves absent of the desire for liberation. To many, this may seemingly be paradoxical to the initial goal that we have when we first start to practice Bhakti yoga. This is simply viewed as the final step in the journey of Bhakti yoga. This is because it is viewed as the ultimate act of surrender to the divine and attaining a true level of inner peace. True self-love at its finest.
“Bhakti cannot be used to fulfill any desires, itself being the check to all desires.” Narada gives these as the signs of love: “When all thoughts, all words, and all deeds are given up unto the Lord, and the least forgetfulness of God makes one intensely miserable, then love has begun.” -Swami Vivekananda