Inspired living

Embracing Bhakti yoga

woman yoga pray prayer

Credit: Ben White

The incredible yoga boom that’s swept across the West in recent years has presented countless styles and trademarked techniques — many of which, unlike Eastern traditions, favour physical postures (asanas). More recently, however, Westerners have begun to truly grasp how magnificently yoga extends beyond the mat. We’ve started pursuing faith beyond flexibility, connection over contortions, union beyond body and breath through the ancient philosophies and devotional practices of Bhakti yoga.

“We suffer in this world because of disconnection from our true identities as eternal, spiritual beings,” explains Sydney-based kirtan (mantra music) artist Sri Prahlada. “Instead, we identify with temporary material designations related to the body: gender, shape, nationality, profession. Literally meaning ‘loving connection’, Bhakti yoga gives life meaning, reconnecting us with our true spiritual identity, each other as spiritual beings, the universe as divine energy and with the Supreme Person as our most eternal friend and lover.”

Bhakti essence and evolution

Bhakti yoga is considered the oldest and most revered yoga tradition, which speaks broadly of Hindu gods and goddesses, or deities. Its roots lay largely in 4000-year-old Vedic wisdom. Then, Bhakti blessings were shared in the Bhagavad Gita: the teachings of Krishna (god of compassion, tenderness and love), composed in around 500 BCE. Later, between 800 CE and 1100 CE, the “road of devotion” movement (bhaktimarga) gave rise to the Bhagavad-Purana scriptures.

Ancient yogic texts outline nine practices that progressively unite devotees (bhaktas) with the divine: sravanam (listening), kirtan (chanting), smaraṇam (remembering), pada-sevanam or seva (selfless service), arcanam or puja (worshipping), vandanam (paying homage), dasyam (servitude), sakhyam (friendship) and atma-nivedanam (complete surrender).

Of these, the Bhagavad-Purana enlightens: “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Viṣhṇu; remembering them; serving the lotus feet of the Lord; offering the Lord respectful worship with 16 types of paraphernalia; offering prayers to the Lord; becoming His servant; considering the Lord one’s best friend; surrendering everything unto Him — these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service.”

"Krishna tells Arjuna that spirituality is not about living in an ashram, but cultivating consciousness of loving devotion in all we do."

Jasmine Tarkeshi, co-creator of Laughing Lotus yoga centres in the US, believes applying effort or tapas to know God marks the beginning — and final step — of devotion. “We must know God intimately before committing fully,” she says. “There are infinite forms of gods and goddesses, and each devotee is called on to choose their personal form of god (ishta devata) to enter a relationship with that best serves their innermost needs. Listening to stories of gods and goddesses engages our minds to become fully absorbed in devotion, and recognise the divine’s presence in all through God’s virtues, qualities, teachings and play.

“Tapas must be dropped once we reach the last step, as effort means one is still in bondage. Atma-nivedanam is living in oneness with the whole creation; the heart of Bhakti. ‘Atma’ means ‘I’ and ‘nivedanam’ means ‘offering’. Offering the sense of individuality is highest of all offerings. What remains is the true ‘I’. This stage is quite rare; like the hugging saint, Amma, who became one with the Divine Mother.”

While Bhakti yoga is essentially a non-physical practice, some may connect more comfortably to the divine on the mat. You may perhaps flow through asana with an attitude of gratitude, or bow the forehead to your hands at your heart in anjali (prayer) mudra upon conclusion. As Sri Prahlada explains, indirect intentions may be just as valuable as direct rituals. “We can spiritualise apparently mundane day-to-day activities by connecting them with the divine,” he says. “Your job, family, entertainment, what you eat can all be practised with consciousness of loving service.

“In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna wants to flee the battlefield because he thinks his profession as a warrior and prince is mundane. Krishna tells Arjuna that spirituality is not about living in an ashram, but cultivating consciousness of loving devotion in all we do. It is about engaging our conditioned nature in a spiritual way and gradually purifying our conditioned nature so we fully realise our spiritual identity.”

One voice, open hearts

Bhakti doesn’t make you a better person; it reminds you of who you already are. Byron Bay-based yoga teacher and kirtan artist Rachel Zinman likens the practice to water washing over stone: “Over time, rough edges become smooth like marble. Through daily personal and heartfelt devotion, our struggles, the hardness we feel, become soft and pliable, enabling us to face challenges with an open heart.”

One particularly heart-opening practice is kirtan, which acquired mainstream popularity following The Beatles’ George Harrison’s release of the Hare Krishna mantra in 1969. Kirtan involves call-and-response meditative repetition of divine names and ancient Sanskrit chants — which may elicit overwhelming joy even if translations are unknown.

“Medicine has effect whether we understand it or not; you don’t have to know the ingredients to get benefits,” says Sri Prahlada. “The mind is purified just by hearing and chanting; but, if we focus our attention on hearing the vibration, meditating on the meaning, engaging our tongue and ears as well as heart and mind, the effect is much greater.”

"Through daily personal and heartfelt devotion, our struggles, the hardness we feel, become soft and pliable, enabling us to face challenges with an open heart."

Elevated by classical Indian instruments such as harmoniums and tabla drums, kirtan builds to reach sensational highs. The energy and natural euphoria becomes palpable: clapping, dancing, embracing — all sense of separation dissipates as voices unite with the immense power of repetition.

“The whole world is on repeat,” explains Zinman. “We wake every day, the sun rises, waves crash, the earth turns. Repeating sounds is a way to link ourselves with the natural world, become attuned to cycles and seasons. The mind thrives on repetition: the more we repeat something, the stronger neural connections in our brain become. Syncing our body-mind system with a certain frequency frees us. The literal definition of mantra is ‘that which frees the mind’. However, mantras are also chanted to free the heart, to help us to let go of whatever we are hanging on to.”

John Weddepohl, Zinman’s partner and fellow kirtan artist, adds that repeating the name of gods we love reminds us of our blissful true nature. This realisation filters through to all facets of life, and we can begin viewing the world and others differently; this encourages us to open our hearts selflessly to others through seva.

“Seeing all as one, no longer feeling separated, you can’t help but serve the whole of society — including animals and nature,” says Weddepohl. “In fact, you can’t stand to see pain and suffering of another. When you feel complete in life, all sense of selfishness disappears and you can’t wait to serve and share that happiness with others.”

Dasyam is a similar concept to seva: desire to serve with no expectations. As Tarkeshi inspires, “In the beginning stages of our relationship with god, our mantra is, ‘What can I get?’ As it evolves, our mantra becomes, ‘What can I give without wanting anything in return?’”

Divine offerings

Beyond the compassionate offerings of seva, worshippers progress to the heightened spiritual ceremonies of puja: giving thanks or marking significant events. Commonly performed in temples and ashrams before images or statues of deities draped with flower garlands, puja involves chanting Sanskrit mantras while offering symbolic gifts such as ghee, flowers, fruit and rice into a fire.

According to Zinman, “Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer as oblation to the sacred fire, whatever you bestow as a gift, and whatever austerities you perform, do them as an offering to me.’ Puja is exactly that. Every offering is an offering to God. Each part of the puja becomes blessed through the ceremony and offered back as a reminder of our own divinity.”

Red turmeric powder (kumkuma) is often placed on each devotee between the eyebrows, upon ajna chakra: the energy centre believed to enrich spiritual connection. Puja may initially feel uncomfortable for newcomers, particularly extended seated periods. But, before long, the joyful gift of giving powerfully soothes, settles and satisfies every fibre of your being.

"In the beginning stages of our relationship with god, our mantra is, 'What can I get?' As it evolves, our mantra becomes, 'What can I give without wanting anything in return?'"

“The flower of Bhakti devotion is opened in giving up what we love the most to that which we love the most in total adoration,” explains Weddepohl. “The offerings to gods symbolise our love; giving thanks and gratitude for the benevolence they bestow upon mankind.

“Traditionally, whatever we give to God is immediately given back to us as God’s blessing (prasad). In this way, we pray our offerings don’t go unnoticed, and that God kindly gives back to us whatever we desire in life — that could be removal of obstacles to our happiness in love or business. God being all-kind and all-giving, what ways are there in which God’s love does not please and is not of benefit? Sometimes what we want is not what we need, we just don’t know that. God knows exactly what we need.”

Caught up amid the chaos and disconnection of modern consumerism, the line between wants and needs can easily blur — as can our grasp on who we truly are spiritually. Ultimately, though, we’re all united by one common necessity and aspect of inherent nature: love. In the wise words of George Harrison, “Everyone is looking for love — some know it, some don’t.”

Prominent deities

Yogic scriptures share thought-provoking stories and wisdom of many gods and goddesses. Alongside Krishna, common deities and their representations include:

  • Lord Ganesha: remover of obstacles, depicted with an elephant’s head.
  • Lord Shiva: fertility and destruction. Shiva joins Brahma (creation) and Vishnu (universal preservation) to form the Hindu Trinity.
  • Goddess Durga or supreme Shakti: empowerment and protection.
  • Goddess Kali: destruction or ‘tough love’, holds severed heads and wears a garland of skulls.
  • Goddess Lakshmi: wealth and prosperity.
  • Goddess Saraswati: knowledge and creativity.

 Bhakti yoga FAQs

Bhakti may initially confuse or confront newcomers. Shedding light on common queries should pave a smoother path:

  • Is Bhakti a religion? Bhakti is not a religion but a way of life and expressing love. Alongside Jnana (wisdom) and Raja (mental discipline) yoga, Bhakti is just one “spiritual path” of Hinduism. Rachel Zinman reiterates we don’t need to be religious to be spiritual or love: religion and devotion can be intertwined or separate. Bhakti is therefore beyond sectarianism.
  • How does honouring deities help realise true Self? Deities are symbolic tools representing one’s own divine qualities. Prayer is therefore not necessarily for miracles, but clarity. Honouring Ganesha, for example, may enable recognition of self-fabricated obstacles. Such self-realisations and inspired actions means that honouring deities also gives thanks to Self.
  • Where could I find puja ceremonies? Hindu temples worldwide welcome public attendance at puja and list events online.
  • Must I be a good singer to partake in kirtan? Absolutely not — connection and intention outweighs vocal ability!
  • How can I explore kirtan if I am unable to access community groups? Bhakti Breakfast Club has extensive online courses, including chanting and harmonium.