What is Bhakti Yoga?

by Ramesh Bjonnes

It is often said that yoga means union, but what does that actually mean? It all depends on the kind of yoga you are practicing. If meditation and the study of philosophy is your kind of yoga, then yogic union means the individual mind merging in the higher Self. And this higher Self then merges in the Cosmic Self, in Paramatman. It is an experience of deep inner peace and oneness. But if you practice bhakti yoga, the yoga of love through chanting and dancing, then the union may mean an ecstatic state of bliss, a feeling of love for the Divine.

Bhakti yoga can of course be expressed and experienced in meditation, but it is more often expressed through external worship through chanting, music and poetry. The ecstatic poetry of Mirabai and Kabir, for example, has been sung in the form of bhajans in India for the past 500 years. Moreover, many yogis today sing kiirtan (spiritual songs) in praise of Krishna or Shiva.

A couple hundred years before Kabir, St. Theresa in Europe, and Rumi in the Middle East, expressed their love affair to their Divine Beloved. The goal of bhakti yoga is to praise God or Goddess, an outward expression of the Divine, in order to reach the expressionless consciousness within.

In one of Rumi’s poems, someone is singing to God but never receives a response. Rumi counsels the frustrated devotee by saying that “the longing for the Beloved is in itself God’s response.”  For Rumi, there is no need for any other sign from God than that. In terms of meditation, what does this kind of union mean? Kabir has an answer to all breathing, loving yogis:

When you really look for me, you will see me
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.

Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath. 

In other words, God is an inner awareness we can reach through concentrated love expressed through chanting or deep, inner listening in meditation.
But bhakti yoga is not idol worship, or magic make-believe. It is an art and a sincere practice, just like any other form of yoga.

Mirabai, another famous Indian bhakti yogi sings:
“If we could reach him by munching lettuce and dry leaves
Then the goats would surely get the Holy One before us!
If stone statues could bring us all the way,
I would have adored a granite mountain years ago.

Mirabai says: The heat of midnight tears will bring you to God!
Listen, my friend, this road is the heart opening….

If hatha yoga is the yoga of the body and jnana yoga the yoga of the mind, then bhakti yoga is the yoga of the heart. The poet Robert Bly said that this kind of yoga is practiced deep inside the heart and requires the kind of concentrated focus a bee has when seeking pollen inside a flower.

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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh is the Director of the Prama Wellness Center where lifestyle is considered our best medicine. Ramesh is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurveda at California College of Ayurveda and is a certified yoga detox theraphist from the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of four books, including Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra:The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India).

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