Exploring the Branches: Bhakti Yoga or the Path of Devotion

bhakti-handsIn our first article, we began our journey into Yoga with a look at its key principles, as well as a brief exploration of how each of the four branches of Yoga are designed to cultivate & support those ideals. We then continued with a deeper exploration of those branches, starting with the physical branch, Hatha Yoga, followed by Jnana Yoga or the cognitive tradition, and  finally Karma Yoga, the path of service. In today’s article, we’ll take a look at the fourth and final branch, Bhakti Yoga or the “Path of Devotion.”

Recapping the Goals & Principles of Yoga  

Again, to begin with a recap of our principles, you’ll recall the Yogis observed that, underneath the distinct, ever-changing elements of our individual selves, including our bodies, thoughts, and feelings, we have a deeper, unchanging Self or witness. The Yogis referred to this as purusha or atman, and pointed out that this true Self is always whole, always peaceful & always present. The Yogis then went on to observe, by learning to build awareness of that timeless presence while also learning to see the transient parts of ourselves for the conditional things they are, we can learn to ride the waves of life while retaining our natural state of ease and joy. From here, the Yogis went on to establish how each of these goals can be pursued through the four aspects we all have in common – that is, our bodies, our minds, our social self, and our sense of spirit. This leads in turn to our four branches of Yoga, of which Bhakti Yoga or the path of devotion is the one related to our sense of spirituality.

The Path of Devotion  

To begin, I think it’s important to note “devotion” is a concept that can be a little polarizing – while some of us are naturally drawn to the idea of the divine and the ritual or worship that can include, others actually find it uncomfortable. For that reason, before we examine the specifics of Bhakti, I’d like to take a little time first to look at the distinction the Yogis make between “spirituality” and “religion” and also to clarify the topic often misunderstood in the world of Yoga of how Yoga, Buddhism, and Hinduism connect and how they differ.

 Bhakti, Spirit & Religion 

Again, like our other branches, the Yogis realized we all have a unique relationship to devotion and should very much honor that. Just as we may find different poses fit us or have different ideas of a moderate diet, so our ideas of God or spirit and the actions we link with that will vary tremendously from person to person. For some, divinity may have a very concrete form with equally specific observations, while for others it may be more general – closer to Tao, or Gaia, or a sense of “greater purpose” –  with in turn a more open idea of what devotion may entail.  In this sense, for the Yogis devotion is much closer to spirituality than “religion,” although of course the formalities of religion may be part of our devotionalism if that accords with our views. Further, just as the Yogis emphasized it’s completely possible to become enlightened without ever practicing asana or fasting, likewise, if devotion doesn’t fit for us, the Yogis stressed the fact the other branches are more than sufficient by themselves.

Yoga & Its Relationship to Hinduism & Buddhism 

Related to this is the topic of the connections and distinctions between Yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism – again, a topic frequently misunderstood even in the world of Yoga. Because many of Yoga’s images and chants come from Hinduism, it’s natural to presume it to be part of that faith. At the same time, there are clear parallels between Yoga and Buddhism, which can be confusing as we know the latter is in many ways “counter to” Hinduism. For this reason, let’s take a moment to clarify what they share and where they differ.

Obviously, each tradition would take many articles to capture fully, but for our purposes we’ll make due with a brief discussion of the core issues. The first thing to know is Yoga is very much distinct from Hinduism and in certain respects constitutes a response or even critique. However, because Yoga evolved within Hindu culture, it naturally uses images from Hindu ideology and cosmology. Likewise, when the Yogis speak of devotional practices, they often draw from Hinduism, much like we might allude to communion or observing the sabbath as these are part of the “spiritual vocabulary” of our audience, even if we and they don’t happen to be Christians or Jews. If you are familiar with Indian religion, you’ll in fact note the Yogis often drew examples from branches of Hinduism that actually conflict with each other, making it clear Yoga is distinct from and you could say “outside of” Hinduism itself.

In this sense, Yoga and Buddhism have much in common: both evolved as critiques of and alternatives to what the founders saw as shortcomings in Hindu ideology. Both emphasize the fact our mindset and intentions are generally more important than actions alone — that is, the “best” actions are meaningless if our intentions are skewed. They also both observed that, as humans, we tend to be unaware of our unconscious assumptions and misconceptions and that these become especially powerful when linked with intense beliefs such as religious faith. For this reason, both the Yogis and Buddhists urged us to work to understand and master the mind before getting “embroiled” in matters of spirit.

From here, though, a significant difference comes to the surface: basically, where the Buddha felt it best to set aside issues of spirituality until the mind has been addressed, the Yogis felt it was fine and even helpful to use the idea of spirit if it appealed to us, as long as we make a point of staying mindful of our tendency to fall into thinking of it from our “limited” viewpoint. Put more informally, the Buddha basically said: “Look, we know until our minds are clear, we tend to think of ‘God’ or ‘Soul’ in a way that’s skewed, so let’s set that aside that until we get the mind clear.” The Yogis said: “Listen, since many of us seem to have a natural sense of something ‘bigger’ connecting us and giving life greater purpose, it’s fine to use that as long as we stay aware of our tendency to fall into that ego-based perspective….” In this sense, Yoga and Buddhism can be seen as both distinct while also very much linked.

The Primary Techniques of Bhakti   

Now that we’ve clarified some of the foundations, lets take a look at the specific techniques as well as how they can be applied in our world. Classically, the tools of bhakti include ritual, chanting, prayer, study & meditation, sacrifice, fasting & observance of holy days, service, and spiritual community. Again, as with the other branches, the Yogis emphasized even within devotionalism, each of these tools can be applied to the extent they resonate for us – that is, even if two people are both drawn to bhakti, they might pursue it through very different avenues. Let’s now explore each of these tools in more detail.

 Ritual, Both Traditional & Personal 

Of course, spiritual traditions across the globe acknowledge the power of ritual – that is, through repetition, even the simplest act can have a profound influence on our mindset.  Given their emphasis on mindfulness and the conditional nature of our normal world-view, it’s unsurprising the Yogis and Buddhist both emphasized the power of conscious ritual for balancing the unconscious routines that form a large part of our lives. In essence, by choosing to include even simple acts that reinforce our awareness of the divine, we can actively counter our normal tendency to fall into our limited, ego-based view. Again, while classically the rituals of Yoga come from the Hindu culture which surrounded it, in our tradition we emphasize any ritual can be used provided it resonates for us and we use it mindfully. For that reason, at the ashram where I lived we had shrines to faiths from around the world and images of saints and sages of all lineages – from Gandhi to Martin Buber to St. Augustine to Black Elk to Einstein. Similarly, Chanukah was celebrated just as devoutly as Guru Purnima. Again, in the Yogic view, the key to ritual is to find the forms that fit our feelings and beliefs.

On this note, along with traditional ritual, the Yogis emphasized personal ritual is every bit as valid –  for example, your daily ritual may include simply looking at a picture of your family and thinking of the blessing of their presence in your life and how you’d like to better care for them, or it may include a personalized chant, or time in your garden, or even mindfully preparing and drinking a cup of tea – again, the Yogis stressed that finding the forms that speak to us is one of the keys of bringing spiritual awareness more actively into our daily lives.

Chanting or Japa & Kirtan 

Of course, spiritual traditions across the globe also include music and song as part of their ceremony. We know pairing music with words greatly amplifies the power – something educators, social groups, and even the military have realized, using songs or chants to speed learning, reinforce values, and even build a sense of camaraderie. We’ve all witnessed the “less pleasant” form of this when we get an ad or a song stuck in our head, and again, the Yogis realized this can be used in a positive way to take charge of our own programming, as it were – using chants to plant constructive thoughts that in turn influence our perspective and actions throughout the day.

Of course, classically these chants were in Sanskrit and used images from Hinduism, with even the musical scales and rhythms being indigenous to India.  But again, in our tradition we stress these are coincidental – if traditional Yogic chants appeal to you, they are great, but if the hymns of your childhood or spiritual music of another culture resonate more deeply, they are every bit as valid. Likewise, the Yogis emphasized chanting can take many different forms – for example, kirtan or “call and response” involves repeating a song in a group, forming connections and a group dynamic, while in japa we repeat a chant silently to ourselves, not even vocalizing but still receiving the benefits of chant wherever we are and whatever the circumstances. In short, by adding this simple technique – either as part of a formal daily practice or during simple tasks such as driving or washing dishes, we can actively reinforce our higher values and take more direct charge of our own “mental programming.”

Prayer

The next major element of bhakti is prayer.  Again, the Yogis emphasized this can take different forms depending on our disposition and skipped if it doesn’t resonate. To begin, the Yogis approached this not as a form of “requesting” or praying “for” but rather as an inner dialogue. There are a couple of powerful elements to this approach. To begin, the Yogis realized we all have a pretty steady stream of thoughts, the majority being more trivial worries, aspirations, and desires we probably wouldn’t express out loud. They then realized, if we were to think of our thoughts as a “conversation with God,” however we might think of him or her, obviously we’d be more selective in what we think about. You’ve probably heard the adage: “Don’t do in private what you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in public,” and the Yogis realized prayer can have the same power – by asking ourselves: “Is this something I’d want to trouble God with?” we often realize it’s something we don’t want to waste our time worrying about, either.

A natural continuation of this is the idea of focus. Let’s say the president of your company calls you in for a meeting – if you have 10 minutes to share your thoughts, how much of that will you spend talking about, say, the coffee in the cafeteria?  Now ask yourself, if God were your constant companion – not only in your actions but even inside your head – how would that shift both your actions and your thoughts?  Practiced regularly, this is the power prayer can have.

One final element of prayer relates to the Yogic idea of satguru discussed previously. Again, satguru means “true teacher” and refers to the innate wisdom that resides in all of us. In the Yogic view, when we pray, we are not reaching “out” to God so much as going inward and experiencing the presence of God inside of us, in turn, deepening our connection with that inherent wisdom. Practiced regularly, prayer thus allows us to realize how much understanding already resides inside of us and in turn how many things we don’t need to seek externally because they already reside in our hearts.

Worship 

The next major tool in bhakti is worship. Again, this is a concept that can be uncomfortable for many and in turn is worth examining. When we think of worship, we often think of placating or appeasing an external God who requires our obedience or at least chooses to reward it. The Yogic approach is very different: worship for the Yogis – again, only encouraged in those drawn to it – is instead about appreciation and celebration. In the Yogic view, worship is an opportunity to reflect on and express gratitude for the blessings of life, done not to “make God happy,” but rather to build our own happiness. Further, for the Yogis, worship is not “hierarchical” – that is, we are not worshiping an external, higher power, because of course God is all around us. In this sense, to truly worship God we must celebrate and appreciate every one and everything we see – and if we don’t, we aren’t truly worshipping. In fact, because we too are part of God’s creation, in worshipping the Divine we should also appreciate and care for ourselves.  Again, worship can take many forms, from the more symbolic to the more practical, but the Yogis remind us even the most abstract must ultimately have real world application – that is, it must influence how we act and treat one another or it isn’t true worship.

 Study & Meditation  

Related to prayer and worship are the practices of study and meditation. The Yogis realized these tools have as important a place on the path of devotion as any other branch. Again, even though our personal relationship to God has its own unique nature, the Yogis realized we can still learn from those who have gone before us. Through study of scripture and the lives of those we admire, we can often save ourselves valuable time in “trial and error,” conserving that energy for areas where we require our own unique approach. Similarly, as discussed earlier, both the Yogis and Buddhists realized through meditation we can get better at seeing our assumptions and attachments, in turn getting better at seeing when they are distorting our relationship with God, including when they prevent us from seeing God in the people and events around us.

Sacrifice, from Literal to Symbolic

Another classical element of bhakti is sacrifice – again, a concept that can be foreign or even uncomfortable and therefore worth clarifying. When we think of sacrifice, most of us think of “giving up” something or even of killing an animal, either in the name of appeasing God or earning favor. Again, the Yogic view is very different. For followers of early Hinduism, sacrifice was seen as an important part of remembering, embracing, and honoring the cycle of life. Basically, the founders of Hinduism realized all of life – from birth to food and shelter to the pleasures that give us joy to the love that gives our lives value – is a gift.  In turn, sacrifice was seen as a symbolic way of “offering back” – giving thanks and acknowledgement to the world that sustains us, including the people who went before us.  In this sense, sacrifice is clearly very much not about “giving up” but rather about honoring and giving thanks.

That much said, it is worth noting, Hinduism like any faith had periods where the spirit of certain practices got lost amid the details, and sacrifice is no exception. Over the millennia, there have been times when so much focus was placed on the particulars of ceremony that sacrifice became a form of building stature rather than of honoring and appreciating. For this reason, the Yogis strongly emphasize it is the spirit of sacrifice that matters, not the act itself – that a single flower offered humbly has more meaning than a lavish ceremony done to garner attention or admiration. Further, in the Yogic view, “internal sacrifice” – that is, relinquishing thoughts or attachments – is every bit as powerful or even more so than material offering. In this sense, the Yogic approach to sacrifice serves to reclaim this powerful tool from the “sanctioned” or “ordained” and restore it to the hands and minds of all.

Fasting & the Observance of “Holy” Days  

Related to sacrifice are the practices of fasting and observance of holy days. Again, many of us when we think of fasting or observance think of giving up or denying ourselves certain pleasures, but the Yogis approach these quite differently.  Essentially, the Yogis realized there are many worldly issues that consume a great deal of our time and focus. Of course, this is natural and in no way bad, but it does represent something of an “untapped reservoir.” Take food, for example: consider for a moment how much time you invest in food in the course of a day. Of course, there’s time spent eating and preparing and cleaning up, but also shopping, thinking about what we’re going to have, and even reminiscing about previous meals. Now imagine what you could accomplish if every now and then you took that time and invested it in a project – say, time with your family or a book you’ve been meaning to read or just reflecting on the direction of you life. The Yogis realized, approached this way, a simple act like abstaining from food can have great impact on our personal and spiritual growth.

Of course, the same can be done with other areas, whether time in front of the television or reading the newspaper or engaging in social media. Ask yourself, what might you accomplish if, once a week or even once a month, you were to pause one of the activities that consume the most of your time and invest it in a “greater purpose,” however you might define that? This is the idea behind both spiritual fasting and observing holy days in general – in both cases, we’re purposefully choosing to put certain worldly issues on hold, not “giving them up” entirely of course, but merely setting them aside for a period so we can invest that time and energy in something we feel is more important but often pressed out by daily routine.

Service as an Act of Devotion 

Again, as discussed previously, the Yogis realized the branches of Yoga all ultimately interconnect. But in some cases the connection is easier to see. One such case is the link between devotion and service. For example, if we see the people and things around us as part of the Divine, we naturally will want to care for and support them every bit as much as our own children or loved ones. For this reason, karma yoga or service of others is naturally a key practice of the path of devotion as well. Again, it’s worth noting that, while this service can be directed to the poor and those removed from us, the Yogis emphasized that caring for our loved ones can also be an act of service, again provided we do it not out of attachment to their place in our lives but rather through care and love for their own unique place in life as a whole.

The Power of Spiritual Community 

A final element of bhakti is again a tool used in other branches, and that is community or satsang. As discussed previously, the Yogis realized there is great power in community – not just in terms of what we can achieve as a group, but even more so in terms of how our thoughts and actions profoundly influence one another. We know, for example, that working with pessimistic people tends to be less effective than with a group that is positive, and of course the same applies when it comes to our view of life as a whole. When we spend time with people who share our greater values and goals, we naturally focus more on the thoughts and actions that move us forward and in the process support them in doing the same.  In this sense, satsang can be a very powerful “upward spiral” in which we empower both ourselves and others.

Of course, it’s worth noting the idea of spiritual community is in no way meant to endorse “exclusivity” or avoidance of those who think differently. Remember, a large part of Yoga is embracing the variety of life and learning to handle it with equanimity, and avoiding others because they don’t share our views would very much go against that. Likewise, in the Yogic view, aversion is a symptom of assumption and a source of pain just as much as attachment is. For this reason, satsang should never be taken as grounds for excluding or avoiding, but rather for being more aware of the power of cultivating positive relationships so we have the energy to deal with “less constructive” relationships in a positive way. Of course, occasionally we may need to draw boundaries between ourselves and people who are engaged in patterns that don’t serve us, but through true satsang even then we can set limits that are kind and caring rather than “judgmental” or exclusionary.

Bhakti Yoga & Its Connection with the Other Branches 

Linking back to our other branches, again, the Yogis emphasized each path can be pursued separately,  with others, or skipped entirely if it doesn’t resonate, and this applies both to bhakti as a whole and to each of its elements. They also emphasized that, properly practiced, each branch naturally leads to the others. Using bhakti as an example, in striving to see the divine in our surroundings and circumstances, we gradually realize this is easier to achieve when we are not falling into our limited, conditioned beliefs, in turn naturally leading us to the tools of the cognitive branch such as self-study or discernment.  Similarly, as we get better at seeing the divine everywhere, including ourselves, we naturally realize our bodies are also part of the wonder of life and will strive to care for them just as we care for those around us, leading to the tools of the Hatha branch.

So those are the basics of our final path, Bhakti Yoga. In our next article, we’ll begin to look in more detail at some of the major tools of Yoga, starting with what we’ve seen to be a central practice of all branches: meditation. Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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