A Seeker’s Guide to Bhakti Yoga

Find out how the path of bhakti yoga can prepare you to receive unconditional love and wisdom, while elevating your everyday life from the mundane to the sacred.

June 13, 2013    BY Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak

“The most ancient traveler in the world is love,” Swami Rama often told his students. “Many follow the path of bhakti yoga, the path of love and devotion, but it is not as easy to follow as most people think. Bhakti yoga is not the path for blind followers.”

"Grease your actions with love," Swamiji always said, whether you are driving your children to school, washing the dishes, working at a stressful job, or doing your practice.

It is not just about chanting and external offerings, he said. Rather it’s having the courage to face ourselves at the deepest levels of our being, and offer everything we are to the Divine, both the good and the bad, without holding anything back. And it is the complete dedication and surrender of everything we do in our daily lives as acts of worship. “Grease your actions with love,” Swamiji always said, whether you are driving your children to school, washing the dishes, working at a stressful job, or doing your practice. By learning to expand our devotional awareness, we can transform our lives so they are filled with peace, love, joy, and harmony.

What is Bhakti Yoga?

According to the Narada Bhakti Sutras, bhakti is intense love for God. It is a deep yearning to experience love in its purest and highest form, to unite with that which is eternal and unchanging. We get a glimpse of this through our worldly relationships, especially with those who have touched our hearts the most. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states, we do not really love others for their own sake but rather for the Divine Self that resides in them.

The path of bhakti yoga allows us to use all of our senses, all of our emotions, and all of our actions to express love in our daily interactions and offer them to whatever form of God suits our individual personalities and cultural upbringing, whether it be Krishna, Christ, Allah, Yahweh, Hanuman, the Divine Mother, or some other aspect. In bhakti yoga, no form of God is superior to another. Each is equally respected as a valid manifestation of the one underlying principle of pure consciousness.

The path of bhakti yoga allows us to use all of our senses, all of our emotions, and all of our actions to express love in our daily interactions and offer them to God.

The Bhakti Sutras explain that bhakti yoga is both the means and the end: aparabhakti, or lower bhakti, is the way to cultivate and deepen devotion, and parabhakti, or higher bhakti, is union with the Divine—the ultimate goal.

The intrinsic nature of parabhakti is immortal bliss. On attaining it, one becomes free from suffering and completely satisfied, having no more desires. St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote: “I have found a joy that is full and more than full. For when heart and mind and soul and all are full of that joy, joy beyond measure will still remain.” After the initial intoxication with bliss, one enjoys the delight of inner silence. In the depths of this silence, one realizes a complete unity with others, and comes to understand that we are all the same—there is no separation.

Lower bhakti, or aparabhakti, is the way we can prepare to receive the grace of higher bhakti. It is a way to channel and transform our powerful emotions into positive, creative expressions of love and devotion to God.

3 Stages of Aparabhakti

There are three stages that a devotee experiences on the path of aparabhakti: the honeymoon phase, the desert phase, and the state of surrender and grace.

1. The Honeymoon

Just as in human love, there is an initial phase of falling in love on the devotional path. This is a time when our relationship to our spiritual practice is new and fresh and filled with hope. We may try to find our way to God on our own, but usually we are drawn to a spiritual teacher to help guide us. In this stage, your teacher may shower you with love and attention, and in your meditation you may feel a new sense of stillness and peace. You may experience sensations of joy and light as you get an initial sweet glimpse of your inner Self, and you may find that you can’t wait to sit in meditation.

The honeymoon stage usually involves some external forms of worship. You can create an altar, placing on it whatever has special meaning to you, such as a statue or a picture of your chosen deity, a candle, and/or something from nature. You may feel inspired to perform rituals with flowers, fruit, incense, and/or ghee lamps. Your teacher may give you a practice to do with a yantra.

The beauty of this path is that we can also offer whatever we feel to the Divine. There is no need to suppress any of our emotions. The sage Vivekananda said, “Only strive to intensify them and direct them to God.”

Like the Sufi whirling dervishes who perform their dance as a dhikr, a remembrance of God, you can offer your love through dance, heart-opening asana, or some other form of movement. You can also express your intense longing to know God through writing devotional poetry or creating spiritual works of art. Or you can find inspiration and guidance by reading and sharing the spiritual writings of saints and sages, such as Kabir, Tagore, Rumi, and Mirabai.

Even if feelings of devotion don’t sweep you off your feet, keep making effort. Everything you do—prayer, chanting, reading scriptures, meditation—is taking you a step closer to being aware of the Divinity residing in your inner heart.

Prayer is a simple but very effective way to connect with the Divine. Swami Rama said there are two kinds of prayer: ego-centered prayer and genuine prayer. In ego-centered prayer we approach God to petition for favors. Genuine prayer, on the other hand, comes from within.

In this inner sacred prayer, Swamiji said, we do not pray to an external divine principle, “but to the highest principle within ourselves—not for any external favors or gifts but rather only for the strength to face and resolve with serenity all of the many problems that fill our lives. Such prayers, which are completely selfless and pure, are always answered.”

Give thanks for a new day, for all you have—even the simplest things, like clean water, sunlight, laughter.

Genuine prayer includes gratitude. As Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” Upon waking up, before you get out of bed, give thanks for a new day and for all you have—even the simplest things, like clean water, sunlight, laughter.

Chanting is a powerful way to channel the emotions. Singing the praise and glory of the many names of the Divine lifts and purifies our spirits, whether we do it alone or with others. Gospel singers and kirtan artists electrify packed concert halls with sacred sound, opening minds and hearts to a higher reality.

Contemplation is an important companion practice to devotion. Knowledge helps us discriminate between that which is eternal and unchanging and that which is fleeting and impermanent. Without a solid philosophical foundation (jnana yoga), a devotee can get lost in mere emotionalism, with no clear direction and goal.

Start by studying an inspiring scripture, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhakti Sutras, the Bible, or the Koran. You can reflect on just the verses alone, or choose a commentary and read a chapter a day. Contemplate how these teachings create a philosophical framework for viewing your life in a larger spiritual context, and how you can put the teachings into practice. You can also form a discussion group for deeper study.

Japa, or recitation of a mantra, creates a deep positive impression or groove in our unconscious mind. By strengthening the habit of saying our mantra daily, both in seated meditation and throughout our daily activities, our negative thought patterns start to weaken. Mantra gives our minds a one-pointed focus in our meditation, allowing us to deepen our connection to the Divine. To cultivate bhakti while you are doing your japa, you can rest your awareness at your heart center (unless your teacher has instructed you otherwise).

At the end of your practice, take time to sit quietly for a few moments or longer to enjoy the stillness. Open yourself to receiving divine love and wisdom. Practice releasing all your worries and concerns to the Divine and let yourself be nurtured and guided. Then, when you come out of your meditation, bring this spiritual awareness and sense of compassion to every activity in your daily life.

2. The Desert

None of us want the honeymoon phase to end, but if you are serious about your spiritual path, you will start to go deeper and find yourself in the desert phase, or what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” This is where you do the real work, just as a seed has to grow its roots in the dark soil before it can blossom into the light.

The desert phase is a time of great effort and spiritual dryness, a time when you may doubt your faith and wonder why you are spending time sitting in meditation. It is a time of deep longing and despair. At this stage, a genuine teacher may push you away so that you are forced to go inward. At the same time, your inner teacher will be drawing you deep into the cave of your heart. In this phase, you are caught in a no-man’s-land—neither fully outward nor fully inward.

This is a part of the journey that every seeker must pass through, often many times. The sage Ramakrishna used to say that we cry for everything except God. When we truly cry for God, he said, in the same way that a drowning man gasps for his next breath, then we will know God.

The Indian princess Mirabai left her kingdom and spent years wandering in search of Lord Krishna, writing songs of love and anguish: “Lost am I save for love of Thee. / None can know the depth of my despair, my moments of weariness. / Unless Thou stretchest forth Thy helping hand, / How can I reach the further shore?”

Separation can be more powerful than being with the one you love: when you are totally focused on the Beloved and your deep yearning for him, your mind and heart become purified with your tears of longing and your meditation becomes one-pointed.

During this stage, try envisioning yourself being carried in the palm of God. Trust that the Divine One will bring you out of this dark night of separation, no matter how long it takes.

Faith

It took St. Teresa of Avila almost 20 years to make her breakthrough. Her problem, she wrote in her autobiography, was that she couldn’t stop flirting with men. She finally came to realize that such attachments are actually the expression of an inner yearning for the Divine. When we take care of the deeper inner need, the outer attachments drop away by themselves. Swami Prabhavananda wrote that when we put the Divine first, it is like having a powerful magnet pulling us upward, away from the lesser pull of our lower urges.

It is important to remember that the inner work continues on the subtle level as long as we continue to make effort, even if we see no outer signs of progress. A student who once complained to his teacher that his mantra was not working was told, “How do you know?” “Nothing is happening,” replied the student. “You do your work,” the teacher said, “and let the mantra do its work. You can’t see it but much is happening on the subtle level.”

Acceptance

In the desert stage we need to allow the unspoken parts of ourselves to rise into conscious awareness. In recognizing and acknowledging these parts, we can learn how to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. To do this, make a commitment to sit with whatever is troubling you—create a space for healing. Accept and offer your whole heart, both good and bad, without hiding from your emotional wounds, anger, fear, grief, shame, and unfulfilled longings and desires. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” We cannot run from our issues. Our issues are our spiritual practice.

3. Surrender and Grace

In the last stage of aparabhakti, worship is mainly internal. There comes a moment when you have exhausted all your efforts and realize you can do no more. In that moment, something in you will finally break open and let go. Then you become the final offering as your lower self humbly surrenders to the higher Self within. In this act of internal surrender, you open yourself to receiving grace. The light of the Divine descends and manifests, and the lower self rushes upward to embrace it. There is a sense of unutterable joy as waves of divine light flood your being, breaking through inner barriers, purifying your mind and heart.

Except in rare cases, we go in and out of these stages repeatedly. As we continue doing our practice we go through them at progressively deeper levels. Each time we pass through the darkness and emerge into the light, our capacity to receive grace further expands. And this, in turn, gives us the strength to go even deeper into our practice.

In the beginning stages of practice, there is usually a sense of ego-identification present in our acts of worship—“we” are making the effort and taking the credit for it. But at this stage, we surrender the fruits of our actions and let go of our identification as the doer. The more we are able to surrender, the more we can open ourselves to being a channel for Divine Light to manifest through our thoughts, speech, and action. This becomes true karma yoga, or selfless service.

The sages and scriptures extol the path of service and surrendering the fruits of our actions as the highest path. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (12.12): “For concentration is better than mere practice, and meditation is better than concentration; but higher than meditation is surrender in love of the fruit of one’s actions, for on surrender follows peace.”

In this stage, we experience the sweetness of the honeymoon stage again, but now it is grounded in knowledge, because we have faced our inner darkness and have gained wisdom, strength, and compassion. This allows us to act in the world from a deeper place of inner stillness, with more clarity and love.

The three stages of aparabhakti are a preparation for the unfolding of parabhakti, higher love, when we are fully ready for it. Those who have attained parabhakti say that in this state, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga are one and the same—we go beyond all forms and merge into oneness with pure consciousness, the Absolute Reality.

Until that time, however, keep offering everything you do to the Divinity residing in your inner heart, whether it’s your formal practice, your daily activities, or your relationships with others.

How to Cultivate Bhakti in Daily Life

One of the easiest ways to understand the path of bhakti and expand our devotional attitude is to treat others the way we would like to be treated.

Divine love is often described through the analogy of human love to make it more easily accessible. But, whereas human love tends to be grasping and self-serving, divine love is selfless and giving. We can transform the relationships in our lives—even the most difficult ones—by offering what we do as service (karma yoga) to the Divine Light within them. In this way, we deepen our connection to our own inner light. The Bhakti Sutras say that by cultivating and deepening virtues, such as non-harming, truthfulness, purity, compassion, faith, and humility, in our worldly relationships, we refine them and make them more harmonious, so they become a clearer reflection of the Divine.

One of the easiest ways to understand the path of bhakti and expand our devotional attitude is to treat others the way we would like to be treated. The Jewish sage Philo said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” When you see that someone is having a hard day, offer to help, say a prayer, or just listen with an open and compassionate heart.

Heal and nurture your relationships. If someone has wronged you, try to see the situation through his or her eyes. By being able to accept your own faults, you will be able to more easily accept and forgive the faults of others. “There is always grace in love,” Swami Rama said, “That grace is called forgiveness.”

Imbue all your actions with an attitude of love, reverence, and devotion.

You do not have to do great things to practice bhakti yoga. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, French Carmelite nun St. Thérèse of Lisieux (also known as the “Little Flower of Jesus”) described her path as being the “Little Way.” She writes: “I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

Find ways to serve your family, friends, and community in whatever way comes to your heart naturally and spontaneously—whether it’s cooking nutritious meals, babysitting so your friend can go to hatha class, rallying for animal rights, or being faithful to your partner. Imbue all your actions with an attitude of love, reverence, and devotion.

Transformation Through Love

The timeless path of divine love is as alive and relevant today as it was in the days of the ancient sages. Through this path, we can transform our everyday life from the mundane to the sacred, from the trivial to the profound. By cultivating the principles of love, compassion, gratitude, surrender, and selfless service, we can prepare our hearts and minds to receive the grace of unconditional love and wisdom. Then we become the instruments of the Divine, and everything we do is an expression of love and devotion. Our lives become a joyful celebration.

12 Ways to Practice Bhakti

Whichever form or aspect of God you are drawn to, here are 12 bhakti ways to help you cultivate devotion and open your heart to grace.

  • Chant songs of praise to the Divine, either in a group or alone.
  • Set up an altar with a favorite image or representation of the Divine and offer flowers, fruit, or incense; or do mental worship.
  • Meditate on your chosen image of God. Visualize the image—either the face or the feet or the whole image—in your heart or the space between the two eyebrows, and concentrate on it.
  • Choose a relationship with God that feels natural. The Bhakti Sutras say that we can worship the Divine as a faithful servant, a loyal friend, a loving parent, or a devoted lover.
  • Appreciate the wonder and beauty of nature, seeing it as a manifestation of the Divine.
  • Say grace and offer your food to the Divine before eating or sharing a meal.
  • Give something up, either temporarily as in a practice for Lent or Ramadan, or permanently as in the Native American Giveaway practice or Locks of Love.
  • Purify your thoughts and actions by practicing the yamas and niyamas.
  • Practice forgiveness and compassion. Accept your faults and the faults of others.
  • Be humble. Do something that no one else likes to do, and make that your offering.
  • Stretch yourself a little beyond your comfort zone to help someone else.
  • Keep a journal to observe the pattern of your mind, emotions, practice. Channel your emotions through positive creative means.
  • Practice the “examen of conscience” developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Consciously reflect on the events of the past 12 or 24 hours, and notice where in the day you sensed the presence of God.
  • Pray throughout the day, especially prayers of gratitude. Be thankful for the difficult aspects of your life as well as the pleasant ones.

Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak
Formerly a senior editor of Yoga International magazine, Irene Petryszak served as the Chairman of the Himalayan Institute from 1996 to 2008. She holds a master’s degree in Eastern studies and has studied and practiced yoga for 30 years in the United States and India under the guidance of Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. She teaches meditation and yoga philosophy at HI.