Bhakti yoga is one of six major branches of yoga, representing the path of self-transcending love or complete devotion to God or the divine. A practitioner of bhakti yoga regards God as present in every person or sentient being. Although bhakti yoga developed within a Hindu culture, it can be practiced by members of Western religions, as it focuses the believer's mind and heart on God as a supreme Person rather than an impersonal Absolute. Unlike hatha yoga, which is the form of yoga most familiar to Americans, bhakti yoga does not place great emphasis on breathing patterns or asanas (physical postures), but rather on acts of worship, devotion, and service.
Bhakti yoga is thought by some to be the oldest form of yoga, with its roots in the Vedas, or ancient scriptures of India. Some of the hymns in the Vedas are thought to be four thousand years old. Bhakti yoga did not emerge as a distinctive form of yoga, however, until about 500 B.C., the time of the composition of the Bhagavad-Gita, a Sanskrit work containing the teachings of Krishna, one of the most beloved of Hindu deities.
Bhakti yoga eventually became the focus of a popular devotional movement in India known as the bhaktimarga or "road of devotion." This movement flourished between 800 and 1100 A.D.. Around 900, devotees of Krishna who belonged to the bhakti-marga produced a scripture known as the Bhagavad-Purana, which contains Krishna's instructions to his worshipers. In one passage from the Bhagavad-Purana, Krishna praises bhakti above all other paths to bliss. He is represented as saying, "The wise person should abandon bad company and associate with the virtuous, for the virtuous ones sever the mind's attachments [to worldly concerns] by their utterances.. O greatly blessed devotee, these blessed ones constantly tell my story, by listening to which people are released from sin. Those who respectfully listen to, esteem, and recite my story become dedicated to me and attain faith and devotion to me."
The chief benefit of bhakti yoga, from the perspective of its practitioners, is greater love for and closeness to God, and to other people (and all beings) as reflections of God. Although bhakti yoga is also beneficial to mental and physical well-being, improved health is not the primary reason most adherents choose this form of yoga.
The Hindu sacred texts list nine forms of bhakti yoga:
- Sravana. Sravana is the Sanskrit term for listening to poems or stories about God's virtues and mighty deeds. Sravana bhakti cannot be practiced in isolation, however; the devotee must hear the stories from a wise teacher, and seek the companionship of holy people.
- Kirtana. Kirtana refers to singing or chanting God's praises. Ram Dass has said of this form of bhakti "When you are in love with God, the very sound of the Name brings great joy."
- Smarana. Smarana is remembrance of God at all times, or keeping God in the forefront of one's consciousness. In Christian terms, smarana is what the French monk Brother Lawrence (1605–1691) meant by "the practice of the presence of God."
- Padasevana. This form of bhakti yoga expresses love toward God through service to others, especially the sick.
- Archana. Archana refers to worship of God through such external images as icons or religious pictures, or through internal visualizations. The purpose of archana is to purify the heart through love of God.
- Vandana. Vandana refers to prayer and prostration (lying face downward on the ground with arms outstretched). This form of bhakti yoga is intended to curb self-absorption and self-centeredness.
- Dasya. In dasya bhakti, the devotee regards him- or herself as God's slave or servant, carrying out God's commandments, meditating on the words of God, caring for the sick and the poor, and helping to clean or repair sacred buildings or places.
- Sakha-bhava. This form of bhakti yoga is a cultivation of friendship-love toward God—to love God as a member of one's family or dearest friend, and delight in companionship with God.
- Atma-nivedana. Atma-nivedana is complete self-offering or self-surrender to God. Unlike some other forms of yoga, however, bhakti yoga does not teach that the devotee completely loses his or her personal identity through absorption into the divine. God is regarded as infinitely greater than the human worshiper, even one at the highest levels of spiritual attainment.
The nine types of bhakti yoga are not considered a hierarchy in the sense that some are regarded as superior to others in guiding people toward God. An Indian teacher of bhakti yoga has said, "A devotee can take up any of these paths and reach the highest state. The path of bhakti is the easiest of all [types of yoga] and is not very much against the nature of human inclinations. It slowly and gradually takes the individual to the Supreme without frustrating his [sic] human instincts."
The practice of bhakti yoga does not require any special physical or emotional preparation. It is a good idea, however, for Western readers to gather more information about a specific form of bhakti yoga that may interest or attract them. This preparation is particularly important because the tendency of Western culture to separate intellect from feeling leads many people to think of bhakti as sheer emotional fervor that does not engage the mind, whereas many of the great teachers of bhakti yoga were known for their wisdom and mindfulness as well as intensity of devotion. Useful resources for learning more about bhakti yoga include such periodicals as Yoga Journal and the various organizations listed below.
Bhakti yoga tends to attract persons of a strongly emotional nature. There is some risk, however, of such individuals remaining spiritually immature or joining cult-like groups. The Hare Krishna movement, for example, is an offshoot of one school of bhakti yoga, the Gaudiya vaishnava tradition. Although some members of the movement consider their participation meaningful, others have left because they experienced it as repressive and intolerant of other faiths.
There are no known side effects associated with the practice of bhakti yoga.
Research & general acceptance
A number of research studies have shown that such spiritual and devotional practices as those associated with bhakti yoga have positive effects on physical as well as emotional health. The positive physical effects include strengthening of the immune system, lowered blood pressure, and improved ability to cope with chronic pain. Chanting or hymn singing (kirtana) has been shown to be particularly effective in pain management.
Several research studies published in early 2004 report that all forms of yoga are becoming increasingly popular among Americans over 40—particularly women and people living in urban areas—for general wellness as well as back pain or other specific health problems. At least 15 million adults in the United States have participated in yoga programs, according to a study conducted at Harvard Medical School. Ninety percent of those contacted by telephone in a research sample said that they found yoga very or somewhat helpful. A survey of cancer patients in a supportive care program at Stanford University found that yoga and massage therapy were the activities that drew the largest number of participants.
Training & certification
There are no international or nationwide licensing or credentialing procedures for spiritual guides or teachers of bhakti yoga. The web site of the American Yoga Association (AYA) does, however, include an article on "How to Choose a Qualified Teacher."
Dass, Ram. Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook. New York: Bantam Books, 1978. Contains some prayers, hymns, chants, and other suggestions for devotion drawn from Christian and Jewish sources that can be used in the practice of bhakti yoga.
Dossey, Larry, MD. Healing Beyond the Body: Medicine and the Infinite Reach of the Mind. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2001.
Feuerstein, Georg, and Stephan Bodian, eds. Living Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide for Daily Life, Part III, "Cultivating Love: Bhakti Yoga." New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee Books, 1993.
Pelletier, Kenneth, MD> The Best Alternative Medicine, Chapter 2, "Sound Mind, Sound Body." New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Sivananda, Swami, and the Staff of the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Center. Yoga Mind and Body. New York: DK Publishing, 1998.
Rosenbaum, E., H. Gautier, P. Fobair, et al. "Cancer Supportive Care, Improving the Quality of Life for Cancer Patients. A
Saper, R. B., D. M. Eisenberg, R. B. Davis, et al. "Prevalence and Patterns of Adult Yoga Use in the United States: Results of a National Survey." Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 10 (March-April 2004): 44–49.
Wolsko, P. M., D. M. Eisenberg, R. B. Davis, and R. S. Phillips. "Use of Mind-Body Medical Therapies." Journal of General Internal Medicine 19 (January 2004): 43–50.
American Yoga Association (AYA). P. O. Box 19986, Sarasota, FL 34276. (941) 927-4977. Fax: (941) 921-9844. <http://www.americanyogaassociation.org>.
Yoga Alliance. 122 West Lancaster Avenue, Suite 204, Reading, PA 19607-1874. (610) 777-7793. Fax: (610) 777-0556. <http://www.yogaalliance.org>.
Yoga Research and Education Center (YREC). P. O. Box 426, Manton, CA 96059. (530) 474-5700. <http://www.yrec.org>.
Yoga.com Staff. "History of Bhakti Yoga." [cited May 23, 2004]. <http://www.yoga.com/ydc/enlighten/enlighten_document.asp>.
Rebecca Frey, PhD