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Bhakti, Devotion

This month we explore another of the 5 Tenets of Jivamukti Yoga: Bhakti, or devotion to the Divine. In their book “Jivamukti Yoga,” Sharon Gannon and David Life explain Bhakti:

“One who has devotion for God is called a Bhakta. It is through the method of Bhakti Yoga that the Bhakta attains access to the form of the Divine that resides in his or her own heart. Devotion does not mean blind following. It means conscious seeking after the truth. How does one cultivate Bhakti? Start by loving another being

who is already near to you, such as your child or partner or friend. Make it a true love, a love that has the power to perceive the essential nature of this being you love. In Sanskrit, this kind of unconditional love is called prem, or Divine Love. To cause evolution of this prem inside yourself, use kindness. Begin to extend kindness to others who are not so near to you, to beings who don’t resemble you, or who aren’t even born yet. All relationships are important to the yogic practitioner because they provide an opportunity to feel love. They also provide opportunities to practice humility. Without humility, unconditional love will not arise. Working to perfect the relationships of everyday life helps the yogi to approach the ultimate relationship: the relationship with God.”

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, devotion to the Divine is given as the most direct path to Self-realization. In what we might think of as Patanjali's "one-step plan" to enlightenment, Sutra 1.23 tells us “By giving your identity to God you attain the identity of God.” Sutra 2.1 says “Discipline, study of Self, and devotion to God are the actions taken for the attainment of Yoga.” And Sutra 2.45 teaches that “Union with cosmic consciousness is realized by devotion to God.” Devotion to God is also one of the five niyamas, the second limb of Patanjali’s 8-limbs of Yoga. Patanjali makes it clear that devotion is essential on the journey to awakening.

Bhakti yoga is a practice of selfless devotion and is sometimes referred to as the "path of the heart." In recognizing the Divine in everything, Bhakti practitioners may use chanting, mantras, singing, prayer, kirtan, dancing, rituals, and selfless service as part of their practice (no headstands necessary!) However, it is wise to infuse one's asana practice with Bhakti. As Martyna Eder says in her Jivamukti Focus-of-the-Month essay, "Practice without devotion is like a lamp with no oil. It won't sustain and it will bring no light."

Surrender is both a necessary component and subsequent consequence of Bhakti yoga practice; by observing the divinity of everything in the universe, ideas of self and ego tend to dissolve, along with a sense of separation from others. The intention when practicing Bhakti yoga is to devote one's self to the Divine in everything, thereby realizing the union of atman (the individual self) with Brahman (universal consciousness).One of my favorite quotes about surrender comes from Ram Dass:“You can do it like it’s a great weight on you, or you can do it like it’s part of the dance.” In other words, we always have a choice as we move through our lives: we can struggle and resist what is. Or, we can surrender and go with the flow. We can try to control, or we can choose to trust the unfolding journey that is our path.

Yoga practice helps us remember that we have no control over anything except our own thoughts, words, and actions. And ultimately, as Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, the Divine is the force behind even those. We may think we are the “doer,” behind our thoughts, words, and actions, but through devotion and surrender we come to see that the Divine is the ultimate “doer.” Bhakti yoga helps us learn to “let go and let God,” as Sharon Gannon often says.

Sharon Gannon and David Life write, “It does not matter to whom your devotion is directed. Your devotion should be directed to something higher than your own ego-self. Your devotion should stir your heart. Devote yourself to some form that, by mirroring your soul, shows you your inner wisdom, your highest potential for unconditional love. Whatever form it takes, devotion is essential for the awakening of the soul. Because love is the nature of the immortal soul, do all you can to awaken your ability to love.”

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