Bhakti Yoga and Practice Guide

The aim of yoga is to reunite with the ultimate reality. It is the inward journey of realizing what is real and what is unreal in life. Through this journey, one moves from a state of ignorance to Self-realisation. Ancient knowledge of yoga philosophy passed on through the Vedas. This scripture contains systematic and holistic ways to reach Self-realisation through the four yogas. Bhakti Yoga is one of these four paths. It is the path of devotion. We purify our emotions and direct it to something beyond ourselves. It is a path of love, faith and practices that engender those feelings further. 


The four paths of yoga are Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga. These paths cater to the physical(Karma), emotional(Bhakti), intellectual(Jnana), and mental (Raja) aspects of a human being. There can be a predominant path which you choose or a combination of them. The aim is to use these paths to reduce the ego; attachment to our ideas, in order to reach the ultimate goal of Self-realisation. Depending on one’s nature, environment, and circumstances, a particular path will be more conducive for spiritual development.

Read on to find out more: "The Four Paths of Yoga Explained: A Comprehensive Overview of Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga"

What is Bhakti Yoga?

Bhakti Yoga is referred to as the path of devotion. It is prescribed for those with an emotional nature so as to direct their emotions to devotion. In yoga philosophy, the concept of the three gunas helps us to understand the qualities of all living matters and categorize them into sattva, rajas, and tamas. Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion to sattva (purity). In this path, you devote yourself to a life of purity. By devoting yourself to a life of purity, you purify yourself and reach Self-realisation.

What is devotion?

Devotion and its practices are sometimes tricky to define. To be devoted means to surrender to something or someone beyond yourself. For example, a mother is devoted to her child. If the child is unsettled at night and requires milk, although she has a need for sleep she will put that need aside so that she can tend to her baby. She puts the baby’s needs before her own. The mother surrenders to the righteousness required of motherhood. In this way, there is a surrender to the purity of selflessness. 

Another facet of Bhakti Yoga is the ability to “follow” something or someone. You decide, on certain grounds rather than blind faith, to practice Bhakti Yoga. This can mean, but is not limited to, following a God-like Krishna or a person like a spiritual master. You may choose to follow the teachings of a book of scripture. However, remember that Bhakti Yoga practiced properly is when you are devoted to purity. Choosing what to follow is not simply, mechanically following something or someone. Bhakti Yoga means following that which is sattvic (pure) in nature. It means finding a role model that follows a pure system and following that system with curiosity and awareness. 

Is Bhakti Yoga right for me?

It’s an important question to ask when treading the spiritual path. To find the answer, it is important for you to assess your nature. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you someone that plunges into action or,
  • Are you someone that is inclined toward study, contemplation and reflection or,
  • Are you someone that is, ‘of the heart’ which means you seek connection with something, someone through your emotions?

In the scripture called the Narada Bhakti Sutras, the sage Narada describes various kinds of Bhakti Yoga. Those who naturally gravitate to the below or some of them will do well to choose the path of Bhakti Yoga :

  • Worshiping the Divine (Pujasakti)
  • Surrendering oneself to the Divine (Atma-nivedanasakti)
  • Serving the Divine (Dasyasakti)

In short, if you feel you have the natural inclination to seek a connection with something beyond yourself using your emotions and your faith, then Bhakti Yoga is a suitable path for you. 

Bhakti Yoga & selecting a role model 

You may very well need a role model; someone to look up to. On the path of Bhakti Yoga, it may not be crystal clear at times. A mundane example may be that you need to reduce your body weight for health reasons. A solution may be to find a health and fitness role model. A decision is made to follow his way of eating, exercising, and his healthy lifestyle. The past poor lifestyle habits you had once lived begins to fall away. Instead of unhealthy food choices and laziness, you are inspired to follow your goal. As a result, you find that your health starts to improve and you get closer to your goal of good health.

It is crucial that you follow the system of principles the role model follows rather than follow the person. If we get caught up in the personality of the role model, we may fall into the trap of following the person; their behaviors, likes, dislikes and that is not conducive for a path to your actual goal. It makes sense that a spiritual seeker finds a capable, righteous teacher if she is to progress on the spiritual path rather than become misled by or attached to the teacher.

The misconceptions of the path of devotion

Bhakti Yoga is not merely singing bhajans, chanting, and reciting mantras. Performing these rituals without the intention of the focus on one’s spiritual goal becomes mechanical and simply, pointless. 

Those who practice Bhakti Yoga may dress or look a certain way. They may be dressed in okra robes or have a shaved head with a tuft of hair referred to as a shikha. In some Hindu cultures, the shikha indicates the worship of a particular deity. These outer representations of spiritual practices cannot, alone, equate to the practice of Bhakti Yoga. To reiterate, as in the path of Jnana Yoga, it is the inner spiritual development that is key and not the outward actions.

How do I practice Bhakti Yoga

There are many types of spiritual seekers. From those that are curious to those who yearn for liberation. The beauty of Bhakti Yoga is that it always aims to keep the seeker on the path of purity. This is what makes Bhakti yoga accessible to all types of seekers. Trying to do the right thing as a principle, although that may be challenging at times, is a bright lighthouse for a seeker to follow:

  1. Mantra chanting: Mantras are positive uplifting phrases or words that when practiced with intention and aim can have an impact on your subconscious. Mantras can also be the name of divine personalities like Ram or Krishna.

  2. Satsang: Satsang is spending your time in the spiritual company and learning about Self-realization. It is the stimulus we choose to take in. For example, what types of television are you watching, what type of music are you listening to? The same way, foods we digest and absorb influence our bodily health so does sensory stimulus impact our spiritual health. 

  3. Japa meditation and mudras: The practice of japa means repeating the mantras as a form of meditation. You can also use a mudra to heighten your practice. This must be done with intention, focus, and aim and not just mechanically chanting a mantra.

Benefits of the yoga of devotion

 Bhakti Yoga has a positive influence when combined with all yoga or if practiced alone. Here are some benefits of Bhakti Yoga:

  1. It helps reduce the ego as we look to perform action beyond our own self-centered desires.
  2. Bhakti Yoga helps steer us to do the right thing, rather than just act on our own likes and dislikes.
  3. It purifies our emotions as our emotions are directed to God, righteous people, or virtuous scripture.
  4. Bhakti Yoga can be combined with Karma Yoga as an action performed with devotion makes for service-oriented action.
  5. The path of devotion can be combined with Jnana Yoga as knowledge gained with devotion to the sages and saints who passed it down, keeps the spiritual aspirant humble.
  6. Bhakti yoga combined with Raja Yoga keeps us focussed on something higher; rather than focussing only on sensory control.

Effects of Bhakti Yoga on well-being

In an interesting study, exploring the use of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in the care of medical and psychiatric patients to cope with illness and other stressful life changes. This study also took into consideration a large volume of other research into this topic. What was found was that people who are more religious or spiritual have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less so. 

The majority of studies show significant relationships between religion and spiritual practices, and better health. The research punts that spirituality should be supported and integrated into patient care. Through religious and spiritual practices, certain emotions and qualities such as well-being, happiness, hope, optimism, and gratefulness are created and increased. These feelings have a positive impact on mental and physical health. 

An example of the positive effect of spiritual practises on mental health, the research states that there are seventy studies that found that participants found a significant increase in their self-esteem. 

The study found that religious and spiritual beliefs may provide a sense of control over stressful situations. If a person believes that God is in control and prayer to God can change things, the person feels a greater sense of internal control.

Conclusion

The  four yogas helps us find peace, happiness and success in our lives. This ancient carefully thought-out system passed down for thousands of years, caters to the human being in a holistic way. Bhakti Yoga is a beautiful practice to incorporate into one’s spiritual development. It engenders purity within the aspirant, helping to smooth the path to reuniting with the ultimate reality.

Resources

Koenig HG. Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. ISRN Psychiatry. 2012;2012:278730. Published 2012 Dec 16. doi:10.5402/2012/278730.

About the author

Ram Jain

Born into a Jain family where yoga has been the way of life for five generations, my formal yoga journey began at age of eight at a Vedic school in India. There I received a solid foundation in ancient scriptures, including Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras (to name a few).

In 2009, I founded Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. I see yoga as a way to master the five senses, so I named our ashrams 'Arhanta Yoga,' the yoga to master the five senses!

In 2017, I also founded Arhanta Yoga Online Academy so that people who can not visit our ashrams can follow our courses remotely.

At Arhanta, we don't just teach yoga. We teach you how to reach your potential, deepen your knowledge, build your confidence, and take charge of your life.

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