The word yoga, for most of us, conjures up an image of a room full of people in intricate poses. That might be a valid picture, but it’s not the whole picture. In fact, hatha yoga (the yoga of asana, or postures) is only one of the limbs of Raja Yoga, the path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Raja Yoga is like a comprehensive training manual. It includes ethical standards, internal practices (such as studying scripture and cultivating contentment), postures, pranayama, and the withdrawing of the senses from the outer world to explore our internal space, culminating in the three stages of meditation.
It is one of four paths of yoga that are each designed to bring us closer to the union that is the meaning of the word yoga—union of the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness.
Many texts teach that the practice of yoga begins with another of the paths, karma yoga, which refers to using service to others as a tool for spiritual growth. That’s a path that Kripalu has focused on since its beginnings.
There is also Jnana (pronounced “gyaan”) Yoga, a path of study and contemplation, of diving deep within to explore the nature of being. This is a path that was easier to pursue in times when spiritual practice was an integrated part of everyday life.
But perhaps the simplest and most accessible of the paths is Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. In the Uddhava Gita (“the song of Uddhava”), Krishna is instructing his disciple, Uddhava, just as he did Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita(“the song of God”). Uddhava asks Krishna, “Which is the best path in man’s journey to God?”
Krishna answers, “Uddhava, my child, there are many ways to attain the Supreme. Each of them leads to the knowledge of God beyond scriptures or creeds. By love, or by inward control of the mind, by faith, or by wisdom, by serving mankind—all these have been taught as the way to reach God, but the best way of all is devotional love.”
Notice that Krishna mentioned all the other paths—the inward control of the mind of Raja Yoga, the wisdom of Jnana Yoga, and the service of karma yoga—and what he recommends is simple devotion to the Divine.
Bhakti Yoga is practiced in many ways, including reading or listening to scripture, kirtan (literally “praising”), or ecstatic group chanting, focusing on the Source or universal consciousness (however you understand those concepts), service, and friendship. The ultimate aim is to see and serve everyone as a manifestation of the Divine.
Keep in mind that in the Hindu tradition there is one God: the Self. You can think of the deities as anthropomorphized qualities. For example, Krishna is all about love. So if you want to bring more love and compassion into your life, you might pick Krishna as what’s called your “ishta deva,” your chosen deity form to be in relationship with.
Then you’re ready for the most well-known practices of Bhakti Yoga: mantra meditation and Vedic ceremony. Mantra meditation is the repetition of a Sanskrit phrase invoking the energy of your chosen form of deity. It’s usually practiced using prayer beads called a mala; doing mantra with a mala is called doing japa. Mantra can be done without the mala as well, which makes it a very portable practice. You can do it in the car as you drive to work, silently at the grocery store as you wait in the checkout line—anywhere.
Vedic ceremony involves creating an altar in your home where you have statues and/or pictures of deities and other beings who are dear to you, and using prayers and sacred rituals to pay homage to them.
The aim of Bhakti Yoga is loving union with the Divine as you experience it. The exact form of your practice is up to you.
Bhavani Lorraine Nelson is a Kripalu Yoga teacher who leads workshops and programs on meditation and mindfulness, Bhakti Yoga, stress reduction, and the power of the voice. She has recorded six CDs, including Meditation Made Possible Volume 1: Meditation on the Breath and Meditation Made Possible Volume 2: The Body Scan and Walking Meditation.
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