It can seem as though the word “yoga” has become synonymous with contortionist poses, usually performed by fit, nondisabled, white bodies in utopian locales — but that is far from the full picture of what this rich tradition has to offer.
The physical postures are just a tiny fraction of the practice. In fact, many styles of yoga don’t involve doing poses at all.
Returning to the root of the word “yoga,” we find “yuj-,” which means “to yoke, bind, or connect.” While there are many lineages of yoga, all with different routes and aims, all styles and schools of yoga share a search for connection to something greater than ourselves.
It could be argued that no style of yoga is more devoted to that search than Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion.
Bhakti yoga is often called the yoga of love or the path of devotion.
Nubia Teixeira is a well-known Bhakti yoga teacher and the author of “Yoga and the Art of Mudras.” Teixeira describes the Bhakti yoga path as “different practices that support one’s heart to express love in any and many different devotional ways.”
The word “bhakti” comes from the root “bhaj,” which means “to pray” or “to share.”
While there can be a heavy focus toward specific deities or the Divine, depending on your lineage, many modern scholars and teachers now explain Bhakti yoga much more globally. They consider it the practice of seeking unconditional loving for everyone and everything.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion.
Humans have been curious about the Divine since the beginning of contemplation and critical thinking.
Many of the prayers and mantras that Bhakti yoga practitioners recite originated in the first texts of yogic teaching, the Vedas (1500 B.C.), which are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.
Another early mention of Bhakti yoga appears in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.
The Upanishads are a series of commentaries on the Vedas, composed over many years from about the first century B.C. to around 1400 C.E. In the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, “Bhakti” is said to mean “devotion and love for any endeavor” (not just specific to seeking the Divine) (1).
But some teachers feel that it was in the Bhagavad Gita, a poem found within India’s great epic, the Mahabharata (composed somewhere between the first and second century C.E.), that Bhakti yoga was first taught as its own path of yoga (2).
The Bhagavad Gita (meaning “the song of God”), talks about four paths of yoga, called the four margas. These are:
- Karma Yoga, the yoga of selfless service
- Jñana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge and learning
- Raja Yoga, the practice of conquering the mind through Patanjali’s eight-limbed path
- Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion
It’s worth mentioning that the Bhagavad Gita is specifically devoted to Lord Krishna, while there are numerous other deities in Hindu theology. For this reason, other teachers reference the Puranas (written between 400 and 1500 C.E.) as additional pivotal Bhakti yoga texts (3).
There are said to be 18 Puranas (though the number can vary depending on the source) dedicated to different deities.
Many of the prayers and mantras practiced in Bhakti yoga were first shared in the Vedas in 1500 B.C., but humans have been praying to the Divine much longer than that!
Although it is now offered at popular studios, you don’t even need a mat to do this style of yoga. In fact, you don’t need anything other than your heart.
Where many forms of yoga are focused on the physical movements (asana) or specific breathing or meditation techniques, Bhakti yoga employs a wide variety of contemplative practices and rituals.
These days you’ll find many Bhakti yoga classes combined with other styles of yoga. For example, there may be something on the schedule called Bhakti Flow Yoga that includes practicing physical postures with Bhakti elements, such as kirtan (devotional singing) or mantra.
Teixeira calls her movement classes “Hatha & Bhakti.” In them, she teaches asana woven with different Bhakti practices, such as hastabhinaya, which is a form of storytelling through hand gestures.
All you need to do Bhakti yoga is your heart.
There are many forms in which you may practice Bhakti yoga:
In addition to praying to a deity or the Divine, sending prayer to other people can be considered a form of Bhakti.
Swami Rama (1925–1996) was a well-known yoga guru and practitioner of Bhakti yoga. He differentiated between “ego-centered prayer,” which he explains as “desire-filled prayer,” and “genuine prayer,” which comes from within.
The word “mantra” actually comes from two Sanskrit words: “manas,” which means “mind,” and “trava,” meaning “to liberate.”
Mantras can be single syllables, individual words, or passages. Many mantras are given to students directly by their guru or teacher, but others are found in yogic texts.
For example, the word “aum” (sometimes spelled “om”), which is often used as a mantra, was first introduced in an Upanishad. When a mantra is repeated, it is called japa.
Mudra is symbolic gesture usually expressed by the hands and fingers, though some mudras involve the entire body.
Teixeira enjoys teaching and sharing the work of medieval poets Mirabai (c. 1500–1545) and Aka MahaDevi (c. 1130–1160), but any poet who speaks to you and moves you can count.
The word “kirtan” means “to recite, praise, or narrate.” This style of music is based on ancient chants, mantras, or deities’ names and is usually sung in a call-and-response format.
In addition to being a renowned Bhakti yoga teacher, Teixeira happens to be married to Grammy award-winning artist and kirtan artist Jai Uttal.
Altars are structures upon which people make offerings and religious rites. In the Bible, altars are sometimes referred to as “God’s table.”
An altar can be something as simple as a desk or windowsill on which you have pictures of family members and a feather you found on a walk, or as ornate as a proper altar table. Altar items are any items that have meaning to you.
Bhakti yoga practices include (but are not limited to) chanting, mantra, mudras, prayer, poetry, tending to an altar, and group singing, known as kirtan.
There are plenty of benefits to reap from practicing this profound, meditative, and gratitude-inducing form of yoga. Some of the benefits of Bhakti yoga include:
Group song and chanting have long been linked to improved mood and psychological well-being, but a recent study found that even online chanting appears to have positive psychosocial benefits, showing the power of collective song (
Improved attention capacity
A 2017 study found that praying a situation would improve helped people fixate less on their worries and strengthened their overall capacity for holding their attention on the things they wanted to focus on (
Reading, writing, and listening to poetry has been linked to pain management over the years. A 2020 research review noted that poetry seemed to have particularly healing effects during the recent COVID-19 pandemic (
One of the main goals of Bhakti practices is to attain rasa, which is sheer bliss as the result of connecting with the Divine. While this is entirely subjective and needs more scientific backing, many practitioners anecdotally report this blissful benefit.
Bhakti yoga has a number of unique benefits due to the myriad practices that fall under the umbrella of this style of yoga.
Many people are intimidated by the idea of trying yoga, assuming that it must involve an hour (or longer!) of sweat and movement, but yoga is really anything we do as an offering.
There is also a misconception that yoga is highly religious and God-centered. While Bhakti has a devotional element, the ultimate intention is to make everything we do a love-filled endeavor.
Sending well-wishes to people across the world who are facing upheaval, praying for family members down the road, chanting mantras, placing pictures on an altar, reading your favorite poet, even practicing self-love — this is all yoga.