Bhakti Yoga is one of the four main yogic paths to enlightenment. Bhakti means “devotion” or “love” and this path contains various practices to unite the bhakta (Bhakti Yoga practitioner) with the Divine. Bhakti Yoga is considered the easiest yogic path to master and the most direct method to experience the unity of mind, body, and spirit. While Hatha Yoga requires a strong and flexible body, Raja Yoga requires a disciplined and concentrated mind, and Jnana Yoga requires a keen intellect, the only requirement for Bhakti Yoga is an open, loving heart. But Bhakti Yoga complements other paths of yoga well, and it is said that jnana (knowledge or wisdom) will dawn by itself when you engage in the devotional practices of Bhakti Yoga.
This deeply spiritual practice draws heavily on the Hindu pantheon of deities. Each of these deities is seen as representing a humanized aspect of the single Godhead or Brahman – much the same way the Christian saints represent specific attributes and qualities of God. The use of Hindu deities in Bhakti Yoga can be a large obstacle for Western practitioners, especially for those with a deeply religious background. But the use of the Hindu deities is not required for this practice – in fact, finding your own object(s) of devotion will be all the more effective in achieving yoga (union) with the Divine.
There are nine main practices of Bhakti Yoga that can be practiced independently or together. Each of these limbs creates a specific bhava (feeling) that appeals to different inner constitutions of practitioners.
The Nine Limbs of Devotion
1. Shravana – “listening” to the ancient scriptures, especially potent if told by a saint or genuine bhakta.
2. Kirtana – “singing” devotional songs, usually practiced in a call-and-response group format.
3. Smarana – “remembering” the Divine by constantly meditating upon its name and form.
4. Padasevana – “service at the feet” of the Divine, which incorporates the practice of karma yoga (selfless service) with bhakti (devotion).
5. Archana – the “ritual worship” of the Divine through practices such as puja (deity worship), and havan or homa (fire offering).
6. Vandana – the “prostration” before the image of one’s chosen image or representation of the Divine.
7. Dasya – the “unquestioning” devotion of the Divine involving the cultivation of serving the will of God instead of one’s own ego.
8. Sakhya – the “friendship” and relationship established between the Divine and the devotee.
9. Atmanivedana – the “self-offering” and complete surrender of the self to the Divine.
The most popular limb of Bhakti Yoga in the West is Kirtana (usually called Kirtan), with national and local Kirtan walas performing weekly in small to large cities. Bhakti Yoga can be practiced by itself or be integrated into other types of yoga or spiritual practices.
The benefits of Bhakti Yoga are immense, as Swami Sivananda writes, “Bhakti softens the heart and removes jealousy, hatred, lust, anger, egoism, pride, and arrogance. It infuses joy, divine ecstasy, bliss, peace, and knowledge. All cares, worries and anxieties, fears, mental torments, and tribulations entirely vanish. The devotee is freed from the Samsaric wheel of births and deaths. He attains the immortal abode of everlasting peace, bliss, and knowledge”.
The ultimate goal in the practice of Bhakti yoga is to reach the state of rasa (essence), a feeling of pure bliss achieved in the devotional surrender to the Divine.
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