Bhakti Yoga

Some of you may have read a post I wrote last year in which I describe various types of yoga. 

If you missed it, you can read it here. If you just want the gist of it, I outline several yogic paths all of which have the same goal: that of creating a practice which aims to achieve enlightenment through yoga. One of those paths is the yoga of devotion or bhakti yoga. Bhakti yogis might not ever do an asana in their entire lives. Theirs is the yoga of worship. They pray, they chant, they devote all that they do to their higher power. In the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 12 outlines the practice of bhakti yoga. It begins with a question posed by Arjuna to Krishna who says,

"One man loves you with pure devotion; another man loves the Unmanifest. Which of these two understands yoga more deeply?"

To which Krishna replies,

"Those who love and revere me with unwavering faith, always centering their minds on me--they are the most perfect in yoga." (Stephen Mitchell translation, page 144)

One form of bhakti yoga which has become popularized among Western yogis is kirtanKirtan is actually an Indian song-form in which there is a leader or a caller and a group of responders. In other words, it's call and response style chanting. Typically, the chants are chants to gurus (teachers), deities, or they are mantras. The chants themselves are highly repetitive and can last for just a few minutes or for hours. They are accompanied by instruments like harmonium or tablas, or are sometimes a capella.

My favorite bhakti yogi is Bhagavan Das and he plays an ektara which is a single-stringed plucked instrument.

gabriellehopp-instrument.jpg

This practice can be so sweet and devotional. Essentially, you give yourself over to the chant or to the music. You don't have to think about what to do or what to say since the chants say the same thing over and over. You can just feel the music and be surrounded by the vibratory quality and do the damn thing.

This past Friday night, my little sangha (community) held a kirtan. I have dabbled in kirtans in my day and chant devotionally in my own practice, but this time, I had the opportunity to lead some chants. It was incredibly inspirational and deeply moving to feel so connected both musically and spiritually. 

I recorded myself singing a chant. Here is a clip of me on the harmonium in my bedroom. High quality, you can imagine.

The words are "cit ananda rupa, shivo ham, shivo ham" 
A devotional chant to Shiva. In Shiva, I am bliss.

Yoga is For Everyone

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what everyone says, right?
I was talking to a good friend of mine last night about this blog and how I wanted it to be accessible to everyone--even those who can't put their big toe to their third eye--when I said, "yoga is for everyone."
Now, I totally believe this to be true, but my friend lives in Los Angeles where I get the feeling that the yoga culture is not particularly in line with what Patanjali had in mind when he codified the yoga sutras.
So, that got me thinking that people who don't do the physical practice of yoga (hatha) and even some of those who do, are still convinced that yoga is a form of exercise/stretching that requires $80 pants and a beautiful body.

Here is the reality. There are 7 main types of yoga--essentially there is "something for everyone." Many practitioners perform multiple types of yoga, but any one practice eventually leads to the same goal of liberation.

Hatha This is one of two that involves the performance of postures. The goal of performing the poses of hatha yoga is to increase the flow of prana which increases your sense of vitality which begins to make you more aware of the present moment and your very aliveness. This type of yoga should eventually lead to a meditation practice. (See my post on this here: Asana)

Mantra In this type of yoga, the practitioner repeats a phrase in Sanskrit, which is usually a prayer or a praise of a Hindu deity. But it doesn't have to be. It could be a Christian phrase or something that you find inspirational. You make space in your heart and you repeat the phrase 108 times. You can say the phrase out loud, silently but with lips moving or mentally. This repetition is called japa.
Om which is often chanted at the beginning of yoga classes is a potential mantra. It is a call to consciousness.

Bhakti This type of yoga is devotional. This is essentially giving your whole life and being to the devotion of a higher power. Notice that I did not say God. For many people this is "God" but it could also be nature, higher consciousness or love. This form of yoga is performed by praying, singing, dancing or any other action that you find can best express your devotion.

Laya/Kundalini This is the type of yoga that I know the least about. It is a meditative form in which you cleanse/open up your chakras (energy centers along the spine) to make way for kundalini energy to rise from the root chakra to the crown of the head. I'm not going to say anything more, because I truly don't understand it.

Karma The yoga of action. This is typically interpreted as "doing good" or giving back to the community. Which isn't a bad way of seeing it. But from the Bhagavad Gita we understand karma yoga as simply "action." There is a catch however, you must do the action (each and every action in your life) without attachment to the fruits of your labor. Damn.

Jnana yoga is the intellectual pursuit to liberation. It is the "path of discernment" in which you separate the real from the unreal. This is also a meditative form. I have heard people say that this is a form of yoga for atheists. Could be.

Raja yoga is the "kings path" of yoga. I have talked about this several times in this blog before. It is the 8-limbed path involving inner and outer observances, posture, breath, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and merging with consciousness. I think this is a great path for anyone trying to get a beginning grasp on yoga as a whole, before choosing a particular methodology.


I hope this is equally illuminating and inspiring--yoga can be for you at any level. You do not have to be attached to yoga as a form of postures, but rather can think about yoga as a form of liberation.

Yoga of Action

Since moving to a new city and struggling to find a job for the last couple months, I think I've been acting a little crabby. Not having a job and running low on money is admittedly stressful. But not an excuse. For anything really.
This morning as I was showering and thinking about my behavior, I realized that the real trouble behind my crankiness is that I haven't been acting yogically (technical term) despite my stress.
It's easy for those of us "on a path" to be a bit high and mighty about our way of life. We can feel like we've figured it out, like we have a goal in mind and we're working toward it. I can say to myself: despite picking on members of my household all month and whining about my inability to do anything because of my financial situation, I still practiced asana and meditated every day.
What a joke!
What good does it do me to continually improve my trikonasana if I'm being a jerk all day long? And what good does it do me to consider myself a yogi if I'm not continually putting my work into action?
The yoga of action or Karma yoga is one of two yogic paths exemplified in the Bhagavad Gita. While my situation is vastly different from that of Arjuna, one of two main characters, who is being asked to fight against his friends and family in war, the principle is the same--you have to act, to put your skills acquired through practice into action. Always. Lord Krishna says to Arjuna:

This is philosophy's wisdom;
now hear the wisdom of yoga.
Armed with this understanding,
you will shatter your karmic bonds.

On this path no effort is wasted,
no gain is ever reversed;
even a little of this practice
will shelter you from great sorrow. (2.39-2.40)

But then, perhaps more importantly, Krishna goes on to say:

Action is far inferior 
to the yoga of insight, Arjuna.
Pitiful are those who, acting,
are attached to their action's fruits.

The wise man lets go of all
results, whether good or bad,
and is focused on the action alone.
Yoga is skill in actions.  (2.49-2.50)

The point? In my own interpretation, the point is that if you act rightly and justly (yogically) at all times, you will not need to be attached to the outcome. You will know that you did your part and all that comes next is what it is. 
So continue your daily asana practice, continue to meditate, continue to go to class and chant Om, but keep in mind that yoga is more than that. Yoga in action is kind, humble, calm and just. It is doing what you know to be right, even when everything else feels wrong.