A question that people search for related to the paths of Yoga is “What is Bhakti Yoga?
Do you have to wear orange or white robes? Do you have to learn Sanskrit in order to chant mantras? Do you have to belong to a formalised religion where you are expected to give up sex and transcend the material world.
When you are new to the invitation that is the path of Bhakti yoga you will find that a search on the internet related to Bhakti yoga involves a commitment to much of the above.
Most of the teaching around the path of Bhakti yoga comes from Swami’s and gurus from the East who have simply imported the Eastern teachings to the West.
The same thing happened when Western Christian missionaries went East to convert others to the Christian tradition.
How to Practice Bhakti Yoga Takeaway
This is really an invitation to those wishing to explore the Path of Bhakti Yoga who are new to this path. Consider this Stage I of a three Stage journey into the KNOWING of Love.
Much of the focus of the Path of Bhakti Yoga found on the internet and within books written about the subject is taken from Eastern teachings related to the Bhagavad Gita.
In this article my focus is to invite you to explore the Path of Bhakti yoga from a Western perspective.
This is likely to be considered a kind of heresy by those who are devotees of the Eastern Bhakti tradition with its focus on worshipping a personal God, preaching, chanting and following a guru.
This will be part of a series of articles that I intend to write regarding my love of the Path of Bhakti Yoga with a Western, rather than an Eastern focus.
What is Bhakti Yoga
I’m a Bhakti, meaning I practice devotional yoga and the heart and love, so I say to people, start with your ego and go down to your heart. – Ram Dass
If you search for the term Bhakti Yoga you will find the following definition: –
Bhakti yoga, also called Bhakti marga (literally the path of Bhakti), is a spiritual path or spiritual practice within Hinduism focused on loving devotion towards any personal deity. -Wikipedia
Taking this definition there a three-core aspect of this invitation.
- Path of Yoga.
- Devotional Practice.
- Personal deity.
According to this definition of the bhakti path of yoga the focus is on a devotional practice to a personal God.
Traditionally the path of Bhakti yoga has as its focus devotion to a personal God such as Krishna. In Christian terms this would be devotion to Jesus Christ.
As a writer and explorer of the paths of Yoga who is a Westerner by birth (Northern Ireland) I love the path of Bhakti yoga but devotion to a personal deity isn’t my thing.
Having said that I suspect that many Bhakti yogini will say that what I am inviting here is not Bhakti Yoga. I will allow you to decide for yourself.
Key to Bhakti Yoga Practice
The path that is followed by most persons in the beginning of their spiritual search is the path of love, bhakti yoga. — Frederick Lenz
As an explorer of Bhakti yoga I would define the key focus of this path with the word “Trust.”
If you are prepared to explore what it is to live a life of trust in Divine Intention as it is intended to be expressed through you then as far as I am concerned you are someone who might love the path of Bhakti Yoga.
With the focus on trusting the flow of Divine intention through your life you do not need a guru. If you are a Westerner this can lead to a weakening of your ego development. You become dependant on the grace of the Guru rather than the grace of the inner guru.
You do not need to wear robes or belong to a group. (both of which I have done and loved). This is not to say that you might not be drawn to do so but recognize the challenges of giving your authority to someone outside yourself.
This is where you trust the teacher more than you trust the inner teacher. As the modern spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle writing in Stillness Speaks states: –
The true spiritual teacher has nothing to teach in the conventional sense of the word. Doesn’t have anything to give or add to you such a new information, beliefs, or rules of conduct. The only function of such a teacher help you remove that which separates you from the truth of who you already are and what you already KNOW in the depth of your being – Stillness Speaks – Eckhart Tolle.
Bhakti Yoga is the adventure into a Love affair with Divine KNOWING.
To begin with you might not KNOW what that feels like. In essence it is the adventure of falling in Love. It is the cultivation of what the spiritual teacher Burt Harding calls “higher feeling.”
Bhakti yoga as I invite it here is the exploration of the unfolding of trust in the possibility of KNOWING yourself as a unique expression of Love in form.
The focus here as I invite it is the unfoldment of a FEELING within you. This unfolding of the feeling of Divine Presence within is what you are devoted to and what you are devoted to placing your trust in.
At the beginning of the path of Bhakti yoga you may not KNOW this feeling. On the other hand you might have been graced the KNOWING of this feeling of Divine revelation which is known as spiritual awakening.
Notice here that you are invited to become devoted to the revelation of your own magnificence without the need to read Sanskrit, chant, join a Bhakti group or follow a guru.
In the words of the poet W. B. Yeats you are invited to Companion YOUR Greatness.
All you need to begin is a hunger for a KNOWING of the truth of who you are by way of the journey of heart awakening. You begin with a focus on the willingness to trust the KNOWING within you.
Bhakti Yoga Practice – Stepping into Beyond
Bhakti Yoga is learning to Step into Beyond – Tony Cuckson
The adventure that is the path of Bhakti yoga is the adventure into the KNOWING of Love. In the beginning your purpose as a Bhakti Yogini is to serve Love’s purpose as it is intended to move through and express through you.
The deeper adventure is the learning to abide within that FEELING experience of Divine Love. The journey ends in the KNOWING that you are LOVE. You and the Divine Presence within you are KNOWN to be One.
In that sense there is no intense Love for God because God is Love. There is no duality. There is no somebody who is devoted to God. You and the Divine are One. This is an experience beyond anything that can be described in words.
The Journey of Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti Yoga is the journey into KNOWING your non-separateness from Divine Love – Tony Cuckson
Having explored various paths of yoga I find that for most paths there are three stages. Most people get stuck at stage one. Few at present make it to stage three and even fewer learn to abide within the experience of stage three.
Don’t let this put you off. This is a wonderful invitation to experience a way of living beyond the everyday world of time and space.
It is a journey into becoming a happening. Your life flows. You become an ever-expanding expression of Love in form. You become an ever-expanding revelation of Divine Presence.
- Stage 1 – The Knowledge.
- Stage 2 – The Unknowing.
- Stage 3 – The KNOWING.
What is Bhakti Yoga – Stage 1 – Knowledge
This is the honeymoon stage of learning how to practice Bhakti yoga. It is a time of exploration and hope.
You begin to fall in love with the possibility of finding a new way of being in the world and a new way of being in Love with Life.
You might begin by simply setting up some form of alter in your home or room. You might explore reading about Bhakti yoga.
You may be drawn to a specific teacher or group of Bhakti devotees. Within this new group teaching there may well develop a sense of belonging or coming home.
In this stage of Bhakti yoga you learn the practices. Its all very new to you and you step out on the journey with enthusiasm and hope.
Most of what you might learn in this stage is ABOUT God and how to practice devotion. At this stage there is no KNOWING God although there must be the longing to KNOW God.
The reality for most people is that they do not KNOW God. It is important at this stage to recognise that the path of Bhakti Yoga is a path of KNOWING.
Notice that the question asked of many religious people is, “Do you believe in God?”
Depending on the area of the world you pose this question the percentage varies from high to low. Wherever that question is asked the numbers since the beginning of the century are in steep decline.
Notice that the question is not “Do you KNOW God?” As many spiritual teachers such as Jeddu Krishnamurti affirm, “Why believe when you KNOW.”
At this first stage of Bhakti Yoga you do not KNOW what it FEELS like to abide within the intention of the Divine as it is created to express through you.
You are not yet in love with the way in which Divine Intention (my phrase for the experience of God) moves through you.
Don’t be disheartened because this is a stage everyone goes through.
How to Practice Bhakti Yoga – Stage 1 Practices
While the goal of Bhakti Yoga is to Love God this may not be your immediate feeling. The challenge, especially for the Western mind is that the word “Love” like the word “God” carries any amount of baggage with it.
If you were to ask religious and spiritual people “Do you believe in God?” most of the answers would likely be affirmative. If you ask, “Do you Love God?” the answer would less likely be affirmative.
I think a better question for someone interested in the path of Bhakti Yoga is “Do you wish to be in Love with Life?” I think that most people would answer “Yes.”
What if you were invited into the journey that takes you into an ever-deepening experience of Love of Life?
I think this invitation to explore the journey of loving life is far more invitational and practical than the invitation to “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul.” – Luke 10-27
I think this is easier than devoting yourself to the invitation from Bhakti Yoga that is love of a personal God. Remember its your journey. (Rumi). In whatever way you take it you will walk the way of trusting the magnificence of the Divine Presence within.
Suggested Bhakti Yoga Practices – Stage 1
Devotion is a place where you do not exist; life just flows through you as a certain sweetness and beauty. – Jaggi Vasudev.
In the beginning don’t be concerned if feelings of devotion don’t sweep you of your feet. Stay with the intention of trusting the process. The unfoldment takes place by way of the practice and more by way of Grace.
Consider the practices akin to the practice of gardening where you plant seeds, and you tend them. You trust that they will flower as intended. You don’t go around digging them up to see how they are progressing.
Here are some of the areas in which you can begin the process of trust and unfoldment.
- Embodiment – (Yoga – Dance – Running)
- Creativity (Poetry or Art)
- Study of spiritual Writings. (Tagore, Mirabai, Rumi, Rilke)
With these practices you are at an exploratory stage of the journey of Bhakti Yoga.
If this is your path then you will begin to feel a deepening connection to the practices. You will begin the process of falling in Love with the invitation to KNOWING the Divine Presence within.
With these practices you are dipping your toe in the water. You can practice these on your own. There is no requirement to a group or to a teacher.
This may happen at a later time but always be aware that such commitment has the challenge of giving your authority in matters of the heart to an authority outside yourself.
It’s your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you. ― Rumi
As a long-time traveller on the spiritual journey I have found that in the beginning of the journey (whatever path) there is a lot of what is called disembodiment.
This is one aspect of a wider phenomenon called Spiritual Bypassing.
Mr Duffy lived some distance from his body – The Dubliners – James Joyce.
My first meditation teacher who taught Vipassana meditation to me when I was around 23 (in 1973) years old was disembodied.
The founder of the Western Buddhist Order the Venerable Sangharakshita found the issue of disembodiment an issue when he returned to the West to teach Buddhism.
I have witnessed the same disembodiment within The School of Philosophy and Economic Science and within the Krishna Consciousness devotees. The disembodied individual becomes ethereal.
They take the spiritual teachings “I am not my body” literally.
While this is true at a deeper dimension of KNOWING the disembodiment comes from a teaching that has not been embodied but that allows for disassociation from lower feeling states.
There is an attraction in the invitation “You are not your body” because it means you don’t have to feel your feelings. All you have to do is feel your “higher feelings.”
The Invitation to Embodiment
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Mary Oliver – Wild Geese
One of the key spiritual teachings from the Western spiritual tradition comes from the Lord’s prayer. The prayer states.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven – Matthew 6:10
With some Eastern traditions and many fundamentalist Christian teachings this is not the approach. The idea is that you escape the experience of living within the form called the body.
With many fundamentalist Christian groups there is the looking forward to the end of the world where the chosen will be raptured and the rest of us will go to hell in a hand basket.
They have mis-understood the meaning of the “end of the world” because they only understand it in literal terms.
They think the “end of the world” has to do with the end of the earth when it refers to the end of the experience of the end of time.
The end of time is the experience of eternal life which you can only ever KNOW within the direct experience of NOW. It doesn’t mean the end of form but the ability to live in the formless while being in form.
The question one then has to answer (for oneself) is “Why is Life is in love with creating forms to dance through?”
The Paradox of Feeling
In order to heal it you have to FEEL it – Colin Tipping – Radical Forgiveness
The paradoxical aspect of much of the approach to Bhakti Yoga is the invitation to “higher feeling states” when in my experience the devotee often suppresses and represses those “lower feeling states” that lead to a state of disembodiment.
The journey of Bhakti Yoga is the journey into Love.
This is a journey of FEELING and Presence. It is expansive rather than repressive. It is a journey of healing the sense of separation from Love. However, if you don’t feel the experience, “You can’t heal it.” (Colin Tipping – Radical Forgiveness).
My approach to How to Practice Bhakti yoga begins with a focus on embodiment. The body is the temple of the spirit. It is through the body that you experience the higher feeling states of devotion.
Enlightenment is not away from the body but through the body – The Power of NOW – Eckhart Tolle
It is through the body that you feel the connection to the Divine within this dimension of time and space. How do you expect to Love God if you do not feel Love for the form that the Divine has created as you?
When the Christian St Paul makes the statement about the “sins of the flesh” it is unfortunate that the word “flesh” became associated with the body.
This has given licence to the denigration of the body within many religious traditions. This is especially the case with women’s bodies.
It is especially the case within the teaching of fundamentalist Christianity.
The way in which St. Paul refers to the word “flesh” is to refer to the separate sense of the personal self which we refer to as the “ego.”
The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others. And then that fragile separate self tries to make itself superior besides. It will never work. – Richard Rohr – Paul as Liberator.
The so-called sins of the flesh arise from the core sense of self that says you are separate from everything else.
How to Practice Bhakti Yoga
It takes tremendous strength to surrender life to the supreme – to the cosmic unfolding. – Mooji
Whatever practice you choose there is one focus that the makes such practice the path of Bhakti Yoga.
This is where you devote this practice of embodiment to the greater glory of Divine Intention and for the highest good of all.
This is your only real responsibility. It is the invitation to allow the will of the Divine to be done on earth through the experience of your personal embodiment.
With this intention you begin to dissolve the sense of personal separation from the Divine which is the purpose of all Yoga practice.
Here are some practices that you might explore either individually or in combination.
The key is to begin the practice by offering the results of the practice to the greater glory of Divine Intention in whatever way you view this.
- Hatha Yoga.
- Yoga Nidra.
- Sufi Dancing.
- Dynamic Meditation.
It is not your responsibility to decide what that Intention is.
It is simply your responsibility to be willing to allow such Intention to manifest in its own way. This is foundational to how to practice bhakti yoga.
This is the only desire of the Bhakti Yogini. It is the one desire that leads to fulfilment.
Bhakti Yoga Creative Practices
How can we KNOW the dancer from the dance – Amongst School Children – W. B. Yeats
You are designed by Divine Intention to express its glory.
You are a unique dance of Love in form. As the poet William Wordsworth declares in his poem Intimations of Immortality you come into manifestation trailing clouds of glory.
Dance, dance wherever you may be I AM the Lord of the Dance said he and I’ll lead you all in Dance said he and I’ll lead you all in a dance said he.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of learning to undo all the blocks to the KNOWING of the Love of the Divine that is within designed to be expressed without.
This is not something you do. It is a revelation you allow.
It is not something you earn because this Divine Love is never kept from you. When you KNOW it, you will KNOW you could never earn this experience of Grace.
It’s just too magnificent for words.
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. ― Rumi
The blocks are mental, emotional, psychological and by way of armouring of the body. Many Bhakti yoga approaches simply avoid any approach to unblocking this energy. This the practice of spiritual bypassing.
These are the blocks that keep you from FEELING your connection to the experience of the loving presence of the Divine. The blocks are on your side.
A key way in which Divine Intention expresses through you is by way of the flow of creativity.
Divine Intention loves creation and the process of creativity. It is why it designed you to express through you.
To this writer this expansion of creativity is the Western way of Bhakti Yoga. You devote your energy to allowing the fullness of Divine Intention to be expressed through you.
This is the invitation from the parable of the talents as told by the Master Jesus.
This is not your talent, but the talent given to you from Universal intent to be expressed in the world of time and space.
When you devote yourself to this expression you are unfolding as you are created to unfold. In this way you honour the way in which creation is set up to express through you.
This is the practice of allowing and surrender to the energy of the Divine. This is the practice of undoing all the blocks that keep you from the KNOWING of Love.
Note that the unfolding of the talent and creativity designed to be expressed through you is not for the aggrandisement of the ego or separate sense of personal self.
It is for the greater glory of God and the highest good of all.
How to Practice Bhakti Yoga – Creative Practices
Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God. – Julia Cameron – The Artists Way
What is it that you are drawn to by way of creative endeavour? It may be drawing, writing, or felt making.
It has to be something that you create. I create stories and songs. I create a magical garden. I create a community of song.
I recognise that the best stories and songs are those that come through me. They aren’t really mine. They are the expression of Divine Intention. They appear. They flow. They are a happening.
What makes these practices Bhakti Yoga is the intention and practice of devoting the practice to the unfolding of the highest good of all and the manifestation of Heaven on Earth.
This creative unfolding is really a combination of the path of Karma Yoga (the way of action) and the path of Bhakti Yoga (the way of devotion).
Begin to explore the path of Bhakti Yoga by committing to unfolding the talent that you are given to express. If you don’t know what that is then your task is to discover what it is.
I wanted to be a yoga teacher and musician at the age of 17 years but became an accountant. It took me to being 50 years old and the death of my elder sister at 54 to decide I would follow my heart.
I left accountancy left England returned to Ireland and became a writer and storyteller. If someone had said this would be my path I would have laughed.
The practice of Bhakti yoga as an ever-unfolding creative process is beautifully summed up by the mystical poet Rumi when he declares: –
Let the beauty that you are be the work that you do – Rumi
Discover the Essence of Bhakti Yoga
Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray. ― Rumi
Your work as one learning how to practice Bhakti Yoga is to discover what brings you alive. This is what you devote yourself to unfolding within you.
You discover why you are here which is to serve the purpose of Love as it is intended to be expressed through you.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
– “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte, House of Belonging
It isn’t for you to decide what that purpose is.
It is your purpose only to allow it and live in alignment with it. This receptivity and allowing is the true nature of prayer. Your purpose is to FEEL what brings you alive.
No one can tell you how that purpose is to be manifested better than your INNER KNOWING. All authentic spiritual teaching invites you to explore such INNER KNOWING.
You have to take the adventure into trusting your own magnificence. Those who teach you how to practice Bhakti Yoga can only point you in a certain direction.
In this way you fall in love with the Being you are and who you are created to be. You don’t have to worship images or believe in concepts. You have to turn within and FEEL the flow of Divine Presence within that then expresses without.
In this way you become a living expression of Love in form. In this way you do not practice devotion. You become devotion. You are the flow of the Beloved.
There is not the devotee or One to be devoted too. Love is. Devotion is. The experience and experiencer are One. You can’t tell the dancer from the dance. (W. B. Yeats)
The dancer disappears in the dance. The musician disappears into the music. The writer disappears into the writing. This is re-membrane of the Divine in the real sense of the word “re-member.”
The degree to which your sense of creativity flows and expands is the degree to which you are unfolding Divine Intention. The more expansive this feels the more in love with the process you become.
It isn’t your doing but the flow of Being allowed to move through your unarmoured body temple.
In this way you avoid the need to give up some ideal image that you are devoted too and worship as being separate from you.
Bhakti Yoga – Stage 1 Summary
You, too, can be carved anew by the details of your devotion. – Mary Oliver.
The way Bhakti Yoga originated in the East was by way the Bhakti movement beginning in the 15th Century and reaching its zenith in the 17th Century.
This yoga path was brought to the West by Swami Prabhupada and institutionalised with the formation of ISKCON (1966) better known as the Kare Krishna’s.
The beginner who wishes to learn how to practice Bhakti Yoga would be forgiven for thinking that the only way of exploring the path of Bhakti yoga was by way of Krishna consciousness.
Bhakti is the practice of devotion by way of the experience of Love. Always keep this in mind.
Bhakti Yoga – The Eastern Approach
True devotion brings you to a state where you live with your Ideal in every moment of your life. – Swami Paramahansa.
The Eastern Bhakti approach is to practice devotion to the image of a personal God. This is much the same with the way Christians practice devotion to God by way of the image of Jesus of Nazareth.
Similar to many traditional religions sexuality and spirituality are considered as conflicting opposites
For many this approach to learning how to practice Bhakti Yoga doesn’t appeal and doesn’t work. Yet there are those like myself who love to walk the path of Bhakti Yoga without the need for a commitment to:-
- Chanting the name of God.
- Distributing literature.
- Building temples.
The reality is that there isn’t that much out there in the world of the internet other than by way of the Eastern approach to Bhakti as brought to the West by Swami Prabhupada and other Eastern gurus.
As a result I am exploring how to practice Bhakti Yoga in a way that suits the Western temprament.
Bhakti Yoga – A Western Approach
Devotion begins at home, inside your own awareness. – Debbie Ford.
My focus on writing this How to Practice Bhakti Yoga for beginners is to explore a more Western approach to the walking Path of Love that doesn’t involve the need to:-
- Believe in a personal God.
- A commitment to preaching.
- The need to belong to a group.
- Follow a guru.
To begin this exploration the focus is on Love as a FEELING. God is LOVE.
This is not a focus where God is an image but a focus on the FEELING of Presence that is within and that expresses without.
This focus is not on the practice of devotion to an image of a personal God (outer) but to the practice of FEELING the Presence of Divine Intention within (inner).
Notice here that the focus is not on devotion to an image but on the exploration of FEELING. The feeling itself is the expression of devotion.
This movement from within to without is the way in which Heaven is expressed on Earth. The FORMLESS expresses as LOVE IN FORM.
This learning how to practice Bhakti yoga is an ongoing exploration which I will share here. I hope you found this of value.
The intention is to explore other questions of interest related to this path of Love that include:-
- What is devotion?
- What is a Personal God?
- The issue of Preaching.
- The Challenge of Chanting.
While the first question is essential to learning how to practice Bhakti yoga questions two and three in the view of this writer are not essentials.
They are part of a tradition from the East. There is much to celebrate from this tradition but do what is invited here is to explore how to practice Bhakti yoga that allows you to fulfil Loves Purpose.
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