In writing about the subject of Bhakti Yoga for beginners I am interested in exploring Bhakti Yoga practices or series of practices that are not simply imported from an Eastern tradition.
Bhakti as the Yoga path of Love is not Eastern. It is universal. There is much to be recommended from the teachings of the Bhakti Vedanta tradition without the need to study the teachings of the Upanishads.
Such study may be for one who wishes to deepen their understanding of Bhakti Yoga but lets explore how one might begin.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners Menu
- The Paths of Yoga.
- Bhakti – The Path of Devotion
- Step 1 – Intention and Longing.
- Step 2 – Trust the Longing.
- Step 3 – Honor the Longing.
- The Language of Love.
- The Language of Song.
- The Tradition of Satsang
- Spiritual Community.
- Bhakti Yoga for Beginners Summary.
- Bhakti Yoga for Beginners Resources.
Bhakti Yoga can be practiced by itself or integrated into other types of yoga or spiritual practices.
The 4 Paths of Yoga
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga path of devotion
There are four major paths of Yoga. These are
- Karma Yoga.
- Bhakti Yoga
- Jnana Yoga.
- Raja Yoga.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion. Swami Radhanath in his talk with CJ Lui equated the path of Bhakti Yoga with the Christian first commandment.
Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul – Matthew 23:37
The question then becomes how you begin the journey into this ALLNESS that is the Love of God of which you are a unique expression.
The Path of Devotion
What is important is not the specific manner in which God is worshiped but the degree to which the devotee is filled with love. (48-49)”
― Prem Prakash, The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras
Bhakti yoga is the path of Devotion which is the path of Love. It is the path of God realisation by way of Love.
The spiritual teacher Guy Finley encompasses a description of the path of Bhakti Yoga when he says-
Your purpose is to serve Love’s purpose – Guy Finley – Spiritual Teacher.
The purpose of Yoga is to KNOW the experience of union. Bhakti Yoga is to KNOW the experience of union by way of KNOWING that God is Love.
According to Swami Radhanath The Bhakti yoga tradition teaches three principles that are really important for everyday living as a Bhakti yogini
- Be in the company of spiritually centred people.
- Spiritual practice.
More about these aspects of Bhakti Yoga for beginners will be shared later in this article.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – Step 1 – Intention and Longing
Blessed be the longing that brought you here and quickens your soul with wonder. – John O’Donohue – The poem “Longing
As with anything in life you have to begin with intention. Not only that you have to have a sense of longing. Bhakti Yoga can’t simply be an intellectual pursuit.
You may not KNOW what this longing is.
However, there is a sense that something is missing even if you do not KNOW what it is. The poet Goethe called this The Holy Longing. It is the longing to KNOW God.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. – Revelation 3:16
Note that the longing is for the direct experience of KNOWING.
It is not longing to believe about God but to have the direct experiencing of abiding within that experience referred to by the word “God.”
This is an experience beyond belief. Bhakti yoga is a commitment to learning how to experience abiding in Love.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – Trust the Longing
Trust in the longing to belong to the Highest within – Tony Cuckson
The journey of Bhakti yoga is a journey of unfoldment. It is a journey of indwelling in the heart. To begin with it is really a journey into the unknown.
It is your journey, and no one can take it for you. You will have companions on the way. You will have guides, but the ultimate guide is the KNOWING of the heart.
It’s your road, and yours alone.
others may walk it with you,
but no one can walk it for you.”
To begin with most everyone who starts on this path (whether it be other than the path of Love) does not KNOW what the experience referred to by the word “God” means.
You can be instructed to love the Lord thy God with all your heart with all your mind and with all your soul but the words “God,” “heart,” “mind” and “soul” are for beginners on the path just words.
What you can KNOW is “Do I have a longing to KNOW this experience referred to by the word LOVE?”
Is there something presently unknown calling you to be realised within you even if you don’t know what it is?
This is a longing that comes from beyond your personal mind. It is the longing of the heart for union with the Divine that is your ultimate fulfilment.
This is your longing to return home as told in the story of the Prodigal Son. We are all Prodigal Sons and Daughters who have ventured into the far off land of the separate sense of the personal self.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – Honour the Longing
The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. – John O’Donohue – Eternal Echoes
You recognize that you have a longing to KNOW what Love is in relation to that experience referenced by the word “God” or other such word such as “Divine “or “Source.”
The second step it to trust that you are given to KNOW this experience.
Now you take the step into honouring that longing by way of exploring practical ways of realising such longing.
The practical steps that I am going to suggest to you in this article are the steps I have been graced to follow.
These are the ways in which I practice unfolding of the path of Love that is Bhakti Yoga.
I call this approach a Western approach because it is distinct from the devotional practices associated with the Bhakti tradition from India.
The key to Bhakti Yoga is FEELING. Whatever makes your heart lift or soar is the guide that you are encouraged to follow.
You might follow the path of Love by way of art, dance, music, carpentry, motor mechanics, architecture if this allows your heart to feel expansive.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – The Language of Love
I will speak of love until you go mad and join me in my mad worship of love. – Kamand Kojouri
As a spiritual teacher I recommend that you explore the language of Love by way of mystical poetry.
This is the language of the heart. If this language speaks to your heart, then I recommend that you make it a practice to read some mystical poetry each day. (See resources below for recommendations).
If you find this doesn’t speak to you then it is your task to explore a language that does. This may be by way of reading sacred texts.
If mystical poetry doesn’t do it for you then read or listen to works about the lives of the mystics from whatever tradition you are drawn too.
The Alchemy of Love – Rumi
You come to us from another world;
From beyond the stars and a void of space
Transcendent, pure – of unimaginable beauty.
Bringing with You the essence of Love.
You transform all who are touched by You –
Mundane concerns, troubles and sorrows dissolve in Your presence
Bringing joy to ruler & ruled, to peasants and kings.
You bewilder us with Your grace;
All evil is transformed into goodness.
You are the Master Alchemist!
You light the fire of Love in earth & sky,
In heart & soul of every being.
Through Your loving, existence & non-existence merge –
All opposites unite –
All that is profane becomes sacred again.
Mystics are the people who KNOW the experience of God. They are the lovers of the Divine. They are not believers. They are KNOWERS.
They are not out to convert you to their way of thinking or to their tradition. They may belong and often do belong to a religious tradition, but they are not missionaries for the cause.
They KNOW that you are a unique expression of LOVE in form.
Their joy is to guide you to the realisation of that expression. Their focus is on guiding you to the KNOWING that God is Love not as a system of belief but the revelation beyond belief.
Whatever way that happens is of secondary importance.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – The Language of Song
Kirtan Is For All People. There Are No Experts, No Beginners. The Practice Itself Is The Teacher, Guiding Us To Ourselves. – Jai Uttal
This is another aspect of the path of Bhakti Yoga that I love. I have always been a singer. One of the key aspects of Bhakti yoga that is part of the Eastern tradition is called Kirtan or devotional singing.
This practice is becoming more popular in Yoga studios and other places. In my experience there is nothing quite as wonderful as a session of devotional singing with like-minded open-hearted people.
I have a proviso here.
Make sure that such a gathering does not have as its main focus recruitment into its belief system. For example if you attend at a Krishna consciousness kirtan gathering you need to be aware that the key focus is on recruiting you into their movement.
When I cannot attend at a Kirtan session I love to listen by way of Youtube videos.
Here is one of my favourite devotional chants from the Sikh tradition. This is a chant that honours that experience referred to by the word “God.”
The translation of this chant is
Aad Guray Nameh
Jugaad Guray Nameh
Sat Guray Nameh
Siri Guru Dayvay Nameh
I bow to the Primal Wisdom.
I bow to the Wisdom through the Ages.
I bow to the True Wisdom.
I bow to the great, unseen Wisdom
Aad Guray – Deva Premal & Miten with Manose (Live in Concert ~ Zürich 2019)
One of my favourite things to do is play this chant on guitar.
I play the chord progression by way of a looper pedal. I then play lead guitar instead of the flute (as played by the wonderful Manose in the above video) and in this way I have my own kirtan band.
If you are into playing music you might begin to explore a devotional practice by way of chanting.
I am presently exploring creating a community of people who want to explore chanting from different traditions. (This is in Ireland).
The difference is that I am not out to convert anyone to a specific tradition.
Let me share with you another favourite chant that gives you a further idea about this devotional aspect of Bhakti Yoga.
There are many of these beautiful chants from different traditions. I call these heart songs. Many of the singers of these chants are committed to a given tradition.
There is nothing wrong with this, but it is your responsibility to explore the way the chant resonates with you.
I am someone who loves all traditions and belongs to none.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – Satsang
Satsang is a gathering of people to listen to the truth of who you are – Tony Cuckson
According to Radhanath Swami author of author of The Journey Home one of the key practices of Bhakti Yoga is Satsang.
“Satsang” is a defined as a spiritual discourse or gathering. This takes place in front of a teacher or guru. Following the teaching of a guru without question is a long-held tradition in India.
Personally speaking I think it is not part of the Western tradition because the Western mind is much to individualist to simply surrender to the guidance of the Guru.
It is extremely strange that the idea of gurus is associated with meditation because they are usually opposite. The guru is an outer authority to obey.
Over time, as you become more and more dependent upon the guru, your basic individuality and ego strength are damaged and weakened, perhaps permanently.
Meditation is process of getting in touch with your inner authority and learning to sense the electricity of your own soul. This is the opposite of following a herd.
–Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms.
This is not to say that there are not Western devotees who follow the path that involves devotion to the guru. Such devotion to the guru is the focus of the Krishna Consciousness movement in the West.
Satsang with a spiritual teacher and community can be a great experience.
I loved this experience when I stayed at the Osho ashram in Pune in India when I travelled and lived in India for a year when I was 29 (1979)
The challenge is to remain true to the way in which Divine revelation is expressed through you.
Teachers now engage in the practice of “Satsang” on Youtube.
They may not be specifically focused on the path of Bhakti yoga. Most all of those who are so focused are members of the Krishna consciousness movement (ISKCON)
The focus here is on the constant chanting of the name of Krishna and following the Vedic way. This is where you commit to worshipping Krishna as your personal God.
This is the path of Bhakti Yoga as traditionally taught in India and which was transferred to the West by Srila Prabhupada founder of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. (ISKCON)
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – Spiritual Community
However, community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another – Henri Nouwen
Another key aspect of Bhakti yoga according to Radhanath Swami is the need to connect with a spiritual community.
I have belonged to different spiritual communities over a period of 50 years plus.
There wasn’t a community that I didn’t love. However, there always came a point when I had to choose whether to stay in the community or leave.
I always left. There always came the time when the group dynamic wanted a deeper commitment.
This always involved a movement into some form of recognised hierarchical structure with increased rules and formulated practices. It meant that you had to belong to the group.
In the beginning you may not have a spiritual community other than one you join online. This can be a good beginning. Recognise that there will be a honeymoon period.
At least you are not so drawn into the community politics and personal dynamics that are part of all human groups.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners – Summary
Here are some of the questions that you honestly have to answer if you are going to follow the path of Bhakti yoga.
- Do you have a heart felt longing to KNOW the truth of who you are?
- This longing has to be more than lukewarm.
- Are you prepared to take responsibility for following the path of inner KNOWING? (Western)
- Are you prepared to follow a guru? (Eastern)
- Are you prepared to commit to a practice of unfoldment of the heart?
My writings about the path of Bhakti yoga have a focus on inviting you to a take responsibility for walking your own path to the revelation of Love.
Like the spiritual teacher Joseph Campbell, as quoted above, my view is that following a guru is not suitable for the Western mind.
There are exceptions such as Ram Dass.
One Western spiritual teacher devoted to his Guru Mother Meera was Andrew Harvey. She advised him to give up his homosexuality. She made claims that she had cured him of his homosexuality.
He left and was devastated by the experience which he wrote about in The Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night.
Like Andrew Harvey I recommend that you do not put your trust in individuals or organizations who claim to control the path to the Divine.
Bhakti Yoga for Beginners Resources
Satsang is a Sanskrit word that means “gathering together for the truth” or, more simply, “being with the truth. – endlesssatsang.com
Here are some resources that I think you can explore if you are drawn to this invitation that is the path of Bhakti Yoga for beginners.
My interest is to take this wonderful invitation out of the hands of institutions and gurus. This is not to say that you cannot benefit from listening to teachers and reading sacred texts.
I will be writing more on the subject of Bhakti yoga. This will be from my personal exploration of the path and not from the teachings of any guru.
So the approach I think you might begin to explore as someone new to this idea of Bhakti yoga could include: –
- The Rumi Collection – Andrew Harvey editor
- 10 Poems to Open Your Heart – Roger Housden.
- Soul Food: Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds – Neill Ashley – Editor
- Wise Love – Bhakti and the Search for the Soul of Consciousness – Pranda Comtois
- The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion: A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras – Prem Prakash
- Narada’s Way of Divine Love – Swami Prabhavanada
- Ad Guru Name – Deva Premal – Sikh Tradition.
- Kiss the Earth – Ajeet Kaur
- Ong Namo – Ajeet Kaur
The chant Ong Namo is the one that I would allow to play during the periods of meditation that I taught at one of the open prisons in Ireland.
This will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn chanting/kirtan together with learning how to play the chants on guitar or keyboard.
I took this course and loved it.
- Aum Namah Shivaya #1 | Easy Beginner Mantra | Tutorial
- How to Play Saraswataye Namaha, Kirtan with David Lurey
If you are musical and like playing guitar (which I do) you might like to explore the above YouTube videos.
Spiritual Community Online
I have not explored this community (as at Jan 2022).
Having viewed their promotional video it appears that some of the teachers featured in this community are Krishna Consciousness devotees.
From the above suggestions it is hoped that you might begin to develop your unique devotional practice that is the way in which the Divine intends to express through you.
Let me know what you find from your explorations.
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