As American yoga matures, interest in bhakti yoga has exploded. In his book, Yoga: The Greater Tradition, Yoga scholar David Frawley writes that the ultimate expression of bhakti yoga is surrender to the Divine as one’s inner self. The path, he says, consists of concentrating one’s mind, emotions, and senses on the Divine.
“Bhakti is the yoga of a personal relationship with God,” says musician Jai Uttal, who learned the art of devotion from his guru, the late Neem Karoli Baba. At the heart of bhakti is surrender, says Uttal, who lives in California but travels the globe leading kirtans and chanting workshops.
The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, holds an annual bhakti festival, and Yoga Tree in San Francisco hosts the Bhakti Yoga Sunsplash, a celebration with music. Today’s Western yogis don’t necessarily practice devotion to a Hindu deity, a guru, or “God” as a patriarchal figure in white robes (although some do). Many Westerners who practice bhakti yoga tend to connect with a more encompassing idea of the Divine, the Beloved, the Spirit, the Self, or the Source. As Uttal says, “Everyone has their own idea or feeling of what ‘God’ is.”
Bhakti yoga is one of six systems of yoga revered throughout history as paths that can lead you to full awareness of your true nature. Other paths to self-realization are hatha yoga (transformation of the individual consciousness through a practice that begins in the body); jnana yoga (inner knowledge and insight); karma yoga (skill in action); kriya yoga (ritual action); and raja yoga (the eight-limbed path also known as the classical yoga of Patanjali). These paths aren’t mutually exclusive, although, for many, one path will resonate more deeply.
Many modern bhakti yogis believe that “the guru” (teacher) can be found in all things, primarily within oneself. Bhakti, then, becomes a state of mind, a consciousness that involves embracing the Beloved—in whatever form that takes. San Francisco yoga teacher Rusty Wells calls his style of yoga “Bhakti Flow.” To him, the definition of bhakti yoga can get unnecessarily complicated: “What I’ve always understood is that it’s a simple way to embrace the Beloved, the Divine, God, or the connection to other sentient beings on this planet,” he says. He often begins class by encouraging students to offer their effort, compassion, and sense of devotion to someone in their life who is struggling or suffering.
One way to find that place inside yourself is by singing, especially singing hymns to God. Kirtan, or call-and-response chanting, is one of the traditional forms of bhakti yoga; the word means “praise.” In India people worship specific deities by singing songs of praise to them. Today you can find kirtan gatherings at many yoga studios, concert halls, and retreat centers around the country.
Uttal says that kirtan can help channel emotions in a healing way. “We as a culture need to heal the heart, share the heart, express the heart. Ultimately, we need to use the heart to heal the world and connect us to God. The two things happen together.”
Uttal sees the surge of interest in bhakti yoga in the form of kirtan as a wonderful thing for the collective consciousness: “The approach to spirituality in the West hasn’t taken into account all of that stuff in our heart. It’s been physical asanas and rigorous meditation techniques that, unless understood deeply, can put the emotional self off to the side.” Singing your praise for God, on the other hand, tends to open your heart and can create a direct connection to the Divine, or at the very least create a positive feeling in your heart.