How to Practice Bhakti Yoga
The Beatles had it right when they sang “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Bhakti is about making more love—putting it out into the world, not just in principle but also in practice. There is no one “right” way to do that, but bhakti yoga offers a number of tools to point the heart in the right direction.
One of the best known of the traditional practices of bhakti yoga is kirtan—the devotional chanting of the names of God. Other classic Hindu methods focus on prayer, japa (repetition of mantra), and devotion to the Divine—in society, in nature, in the capital-S Self, and in all of creation. The path will look different for every being that walks it, says the singer-songwriter Jai Uttal, who created the bhakti yoga 101 audio program “It’s so individual, and that’s what is so beautiful about it,” he says. “Each person has a different emotional landscape, and in bhakti yoga we can let our emotions be our internal compass. Nobody can tell us how or whom to worship, but we can draw on techniques that act as keys to open our own hearts.”
What’s the ultimate bhakti practice for when you’ve suffered a loss, romantic or otherwise? Brooks has a ready answer: Be willing to do it all over again. “Fall in love again, and never stop. Bhakti is not a zero-sum game. You never run out of love. You must expect that you will find love again, and even if you find more heartache, there will always be more love.”
That was certainly the case for Cornell. “I went to India for six weeks after my breakup, and during that time I invited a sense of fullness to fill my aloneness by imagining a life in which I was loved and in love,” she says. “I had begun dating, but I somehow knew to hold out for what I really wanted in a partner. Two months after I returned home, I found him.”
Married in 2009, Cornell credits her earlier breakup with creating the openness and compassion she needed to find a more lasting relationship. “Believing in love gave a sacred purpose to the pain I was going through,” she says.
That’s as it should be, Brooks says. Since you can’t transcend heartache, you should embrace it. “We were all created out of love but born into separation the moment the cord was cut,” he says. “That’s what it is to be human. Heartbreak is not the end of love. It’s the beginning.”
Connect with the Divine
In its most literal translation, bhakti yoga calls for faithful devotion to the Divine. This doesn’t mean that you have to worship a specific deity, but simply that you identify a source of spiritual inspiration to revere and call on for comfort and love. “Bhakti is about creating an eternal loving relationship with the divine source,” says Gaura Vani, a renowned mantra musician and member of the kirtan band Hanumen.
“No matter what tradition you come from, chanting God’s name opens a process of healing and cleansing the heart,” Vani says. “The Vedas say that there are as many names for God as there are waves on the ocean. We call him Krishna; Christians call him Jesus; Jews call him Yahweh; the Sufis call him Khuda. Whatever the case, let the beautiful name of the Lord remind you that you are more loved than you can even imagine.”
If you happen to already have a spiritual practice centered around a particular divine entity or spiritual guide, chant that name to fill your heart with love and ask for help healing your heart, says Vani. If not, try asking for help from your capital-S higher Self. Either way, call out with intention, focusing on quality over quantity, and on opening your heart to divine love and intervention.
Saying “Namaste” Is Bhakti Yoga
Just about everyone who has taken a yoga class is familiar with the class-closing ritual of saying Namaste accompanied by Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) and a small bow of the head. The meaning, which is something along the lines of “the light within me salutes the light within you,” is a beautiful way to practice bhakti outside class, too, and to bring more love into your life.
Mean What You Say
Every time you take leave of a friend, loved one, or acquaintance, choose parting words infused with blessing or connection—”take care,” “be well,” or “vaya con dios” all work—and say them with genuine intention. Even if you simply say “goodbye,” take a moment to fill the word with meaning.
Says Vani, “Namaste means ‘I bow and humble myself before you because I recognize myself as a loving servant of the Divine, and I recognize you as a living temple.’” This is something you can do whenever the spirit moves you, even silently, Vani says. “Simply take a second to see that everyone you come in contact with is an expression of divine consciousness,” he suggests. You will soon realize the truth: Love is all around you, whether you’re checking out at the grocery store, standing in line for a movie, or sitting behind the wheel in traffic.
Learn to Love Globally
Practicing bhakti yoga means seeing everyone and everything as a creation of God. Interpersonal relationships (including the romantic kind) are one aspect of this kind of devotion, but a good way to soothe the pangs of heartbreak is to expand your realm of who and what is loved. When you’re feeling bereft, try loving everyone, everywhere.
Nischala Joy Devi, author of The Secret Power of Yoga, suggests a simple seated practice for sending your love out into the world. “Imagine spreading a fine mist of healing energy over the world,” she says. “You can direct your thoughts to the world in general or focus on areas you know are plagued with unrest or war or famine. Hold them in your thoughts, and send them some of your light.”
This is the basis of the Buddhist practice of tonglen (“sending”) meditation: taking the suffering of others (and yourself) into your heart and then sending back loving compassion to all who suffer. When you send your love out into the world in this way, the effects can be dramatic for both sender and receiver, says Devi. “Victims of the recent earthquake in Central America reported that they felt the prayers from people around the globe and that the prayers eased their suffering,” she says. “It also has a big effect on you in that it gets you out of your head and back into your heart.”
Practice Self-Love and Devotion
In the deepest throes of despair, it can be hard to lavish yourself with love. Your asana practice is a great way to show devotion to your Self, and when you feel immobilized by sadness, it can help bring you back into your body, says Mark Whitwell, author of Yoga of Heart and The Promise of Love, Sex, and Intimacy. “When people are depressed, they stop their asana practice,” he says, “but that’s when they really need it!”
Whitwell sees asana as a bridge to help you reconnect to a state of wellness that was available to you before your experience of loss. But it’s also a way, he says, to realize the ideals of bhakti just as you are here and now—broken heart and all. “Consistent daily practice is your way to reconnect directly with the intimacy that is life,” he explains. “It is a whole-body prayer, a celebration of that which beats the heart and moves the breath.”
If you don’t feel up to doing your usual practice, try a few Cat-Cows and slow Sun Salutations, staying mindful of the body and breath. “When you practice, you connect with a deeper source of love and become part of the context in which all relationships are arising,” says Whitwell. From this broader perspective, he adds, “it is easier to accept loss.”
If your heart is feeling locked up by sorrow, consider adding an element of bhakti yoga to your daily practice. Here, a few modern bhakti masters offer ways to exercise the muscles of love and fill your heart to overflowing.
Be Nurtured By Nature
Nature is a powerful reflection of divinity, says Sara Ivanhoe, a Los Angeles yoga teacher who recently participated in the making of the film Women of Bhakti. “When we are suffering from heartbreak, we have all this love we’re carrying around and an intense longing to put it somewhere,” she says. “Giving it to the planet makes sense, especially if you’re a yogi.”
The ancient yogis offered unconditional love to all that was around them, says Ivanhoe, worshiping and emulating the sun, the moon, the plants, the animals. You can do the same, she says, by simply stepping outdoors and opening your senses and your heart to nature—trees, grass, and plants if you’re in the countryside; air, sunlight, and wind if you’re in the city. Mountains, blades of grass, and the stars at night work equally well as sources of inspiration and, yes, love. “Yoga was created to help yoke our consciousness to nature, which nourishes us,” she says. “When you are able to do that, you have a huge amount of support.”
Ivanhoe suggests a simple journaling exercise for reaching out to nature for help in healing your heartbreak. “When you are consumed by grief, ask yourself, ‘If nature could console me and talk to me, what would she say?’” she suggests. Go outdoors to do this, if you like, and don’t feel that you have to craft an essay; just write down what comes to you. “Nature is full of guidance and support for us,” Ivanhoe says. “We only need to ask for it.”
Fill Your Heart With Song
In bhakti yoga, says Jai Uttal, music is medicine. And singing—a mantra, a hymn, or the name of your spiritual guide—is another way to treat an aching heart. “You can sing kirtan sweetly, or sing them fiercely with angst, or sing them with yearning or whatever emotions are arising in you,” Uttal says. “If you get bored, keep on singing. Sing until the singing itself becomes part of your molecules, and your heart flows into the ocean of divine love.”
If you’re timid or need inspiration, start by listening to kirtan or gospel albums (or any other devotional music that moves you). Try http://www.amazon.com/Million-Moons-Gaura-Kindred-Spirit/dp/B001WBK9L6/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1353103531&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=10+Million+Moons+and+As+Kindred+Spirit by Gaura Vani,Grace by Kundalini yogi Snatam Kaur, The Essence by Deva Premal, Devaloka by Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band, or any of Uttal’s excellent offerings, including his personal favorites Queen of Hearts and Shiva Station. First listen, and then sing along. Then take it a step further, and sing all by yourself—in the shower, in the car, or in the garden—anytime you want to feel uplifted.
And don’t worry about what your voice sounds like—kirtan is about filling your heart with love, not about being a great singer. “No matter our accents, our ability to carry a tune, or our musical aesthetic,” says Uttal, “when we sing kirtan, we are awakening our hearts and healing old traumas.”