Bhakti Yoga, also known as Bhakti Marga, is the Yoga of Love and Devotion and is one of the four main paths, or strands, of Yoga. It offers the yogi fast and immediate access to the transformational energy of unconditional love by stimulating the Heart Chakra through the art of chanting, singing, mantras, mudras and asanas.
What is Bhakti Yoga
Think of Bhakti Yoga less as a physical form of Yoga, and more of a deeply devotional route to the Divine and a methodology for heart-centred living. According to the Upanishads (ancient yoga scriptures), Bhakti is about participation, devotion and love, and for the dedicated Yogi embarking on the journey of spirituality (Sadhana) it is considered the easiest route to Self Realisation (the other three are Raja yoga - the Yoga of the Mind, Karma Yoga - the Yoga of Service and Jnana Yoga - the Yoga of Knowledge).
Bhakti Yoga helps cultivate the energy of love and devotion through a powerful connection from the heart chakra to a point of worship, eg, God, Allah, Buddha, a Guru or Deity. The connection is achieved via rituals, satsang (singing devotional songs), prayers and meditations which invoke feelings of extreme devotion, peace, compassion, forgiveness – and, most importantly, unconditional love.
The principles of Bhakti are often incorporated into yoga classes such as in the rituals of lighting candles/incense, the practice of gratitude, chanting, and in conscious yoga sequences which encourage a pure and strong heart connection.
Although Bhakti Yoga is not considered a physical practice, the movement and flow of yoga can be viewed as an act of devotion, with all movements being like a prayer, and within each asana (posture) a prayer being made.
Therefore, Bhakti is very much an ‘on’ - as well as ‘off’ - the yoga mat type of practice with the key intention to surrender the ego and harness humility to connect to the Self, known in yoga philosophy as Atman. The spiritual teacher and author, Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952) speaks of the benefits of this practice in his best-selling book, the Autobiography of a Yogi.
Three central components form the basis of Bhakti Yoga:
- Mantras, chanting and singing is at the very heart of Bhakti Yoga
Japa and Ajapa Japa (the constant repetition of a mantra) helps to quieten and focus the mind, surrender the ego and rebalance strong emotions. The repetition of mantras such as Om Mani Padme Hum (meaning; Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus, and refers to the mud - the challenges – from which comes beauty, awareness and strength of character) helps the yogi to detach from ego and connect to their Highest Self, while singing devotional songs in a group environment brings a beautiful sense of togetherness.
- Pranayama/breathing practices
In addition to honing the breath (Prana) for vital energy and optimum health, focusing on breath control in the various practices and techniques brings awareness to the lungs and the heart which anchors the yogi with gratitude in the present moment.
These symbolic gestures of the hands or fingers are used to stimulate the awakening of the heart energy, for example, the greeting of Namaste (hands coming together in prayer before the heart) at the beginning or end of class reminds yogis there is something greater than the thoughts/ego, and placing the hands in Lotus Mudra (Padme Mudra) signifies the opening up of the lotus flower and purity of the heart.
What to expect from a Bhakti Yoga class
With an emphasis on building the capacity for unconditional love and universal One-ness, the offering of the self fully to this practice is key. There are nine key principles for the Bhakti Yogi to follow.
These are often referred to in a class, and are simplified below:
- Good listening – the importance of keeping an open mind;
- Kindness in words - does what you are about to say really need to be said?;
- The power of giving and service;
- The philosophy that good thoughts create good experiences;
- Prayer – to God, a deity, the universe or angels, it’s the meaning and experience of prayer that counts;
- Integrity and nobility in your words and actions;
- Respect and appreciation for all of life;
- Surrendering, and living in the moment;
- Prioritising kindness and cooperation in relationships.
You are just as likely to discover Bhakti practices within a restorative hatha class as well as a dynamic vinyasa flow as skilful and experienced teachers will integrate Bhakti principles into the sessions, perhaps a cleansing ritual, chanting, or the setting of positive intentions (Sankalpa) during Savasana (guided relaxation).
They may also include the practice of gratitude, being thankful for the body and life’s blessings, as well as heart-awakening meditations, devotional music and the introduction of philosophy and meaningful quotes.
The physical asanas or sequences can also be viewed as an act of devotion which leads to pure grace, and connection with Source energy. During practice, and in life, the Yogi can consider every thought, word and action from heart consciousness. This is the art of Bhakti.
In a Bhakti Yoga class you can anticipate:
- A pure Bhakti Yoga class will be a seated practice involving devotional meditation, mantras, singing, rituals and prayer to connect with Divine energy via the Heart Chakra
- A traditional yoga class that brings in elements of Bhakti Yoga might focus on flowing movements which awaken the heart chakra energy as a devotional dance or prayer
- Mudras (energetic seals in the hands, working on the body’s subtleties) may be introduced to connect to the Heart Chakra, for example, the greeting of Namaste, where hands are held at the front of the chest in recognition of the light within us
- Rituals, the lighting of candles, burning of incense, giving and receiving of gifts, the practice of prayer and gratitude
- Positive intentions, affirmations and visualisations to enhance peacefulness, love and compassion
- Whether movement oriented or simply a seated class, sessions will be uplifting, calming and soothing, aimed at promoting a sense of balanced bliss, and unconditional love
Effects and benefits of a Bhakti Yoga class
The effects and benefits of Bhakti Yoga practices are limitless. As well as bringing soothing benefits, your personal practice will rise to higher levels. The pranayama (breathing techniques) will help to rebalance strong emotions which can arise from imbalances in the lower chakras and help dissolve the habit of sometimes inappropriate reactions to irritations which come from the ego rather than the heart.
Heart-based living will have a hugely positive effect on your external world, but most importantly on your internal world, and in these busy times, this is a priceless commodity.
Some of the top benefits include:
- A calm and harmonious demeaner stimulated by heart-centred rituals and practices which calm and transmute overwhelming emotions eg anger, fear or jealousy into peaceful counterparts
- A philosophy centred on love and compassion for all living creatures, and a desire to increase positivity in the world
- A feeling of being strong and centred
- Increased release of the body's natural painkillers, endorphins
- The ability to drop into the heart before responding to conflict and to easily resolve issues with compassion
- As the ego is surrendered, the Third Eye Chakra and intuitive abilities are enhanced making the ability to listen and receive guidance from the Divine easier
Fundamentally, Bhakti Yoga is the practice of moving away from the intellectual mind, away from analysing or trying to understand the concept of who we think we are, instead, letting go and following techniques to open and awaken the heart chakra for a deeper, enriched life experience, and the ultimate feeling of universal One-ness.