Asana and Bhakti-What does love have to do with it?

by Sharon Gannon |
September, 2013
Asana and Bhakti-What does love have to do with it?
sarva-bhutastham atmanam
sarva-bhutani ca-atmani
iksate yogayukta-atma
sarvatra sama-darsanah

Through the practice of yoga, the yogi sees the Divine Self in all beings and things.

Bhagavad Gita VI.29

I think when you look at the Yoga Sutra deeply enough you discover that Patanjali’s yoga is bhakti yoga. Patanjali suggests that the most direct way to attain God-realization is to surrender your self, body, breath, heart, mind and soul to God. Sutra 23 of the first chapter states, Isvara pranidhanad va, which means, “by giving your life and identity to God you attain the identity of God.” Surrendering to God is bhakti, the path of devotion. Patanjali gives this directive as the most direct means to yoga—to samadhi, to the attainment of eternal happiness. We could refer to it as the one-step path. When you can unabashedly surrender all to God, your small, conditioned self with all of its negative emotions, frustrations, sadnesses and disappointments is left behind, and you become an instrument for God’s will. This is expressed in the prayer, “Make me an instrument for Thy will; not mine but Thine be done; free me from anger jealousy and fear; fill my heart with joy and compassion.” The nature of God is unconditional Love.

So why is it so difficult for us to surrender to this eternal love? Avidya is the cause of our reluctance. Avidya means ignorance of who we really are. Instead of remembering our true nature as eternal joy, we instead insist on a mistaken identity, one that revolves around our body, emotions and minds, as well as the unresolved issues with others, frustrated ambitions, complaints and blame that are housed in our mortal bodies. Our bodies are the storehouses for our unresolved karmas—all of our unfinished business with others — all of our small self concerns make up our individual self or jiva, whereas our true Self, the atman is eternal, bliss-filled — free from all suffering.

All great beings have eventually realized that only through surrendering to love is anything of real and lasting importance attained. The inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., come to mind: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is just too big of a burden to bear.” It is difficult to have love for God when you are filled with hate, anger, disappointment and blame towards others. Our negative karmas are intertwined with our relationships. For example, we get angry with someone and it is our anger that disallows our experience of happiness, joy or love. If we can’t resolve our relationships with others in the material world we have no chance of happiness and certainly no chance of relating to God. But how do we let go of hate and all the other negative emotions that afflict our souls so that we can surrender to love, to God?

Someone recently asked me if asana practice could be a bhakti practice. Asana practice must be a bhakti practice; it must be done with love and devotion to God if the ultimate aim is to be reached. The ultimate purpose of asana practice is to purify the body, to purify one’s negative karmas so that you can open up to Love, which is God. You cannot love God and hate God’s creation. When we can love all beings and things, the veil of ignorance will be lifted and we will be able to see clearly the Truth—the omnipresence of God. When we can let go of negativity, we can let God love us.

Each asana is connected to a chakra and to specific karmic relationships. Asana practice can be a magical practice that can shift one’s perception of self and other. By practicing asanas you can resolve the negative karmas involved in your relationships. Asanas are a very exacting science in this respect: standing asanas provide us with opportunities to purify our body by resolving our issues with our parents, home and money; forward bending with romantic, sexual and creative partners; twists with those we have hurt; backbends with those we feel have hurt us; the shoulderstand series with your relationship to yourself; child’s seat with your teachers; and headstand provides you with access to the sahasrara chakra and your relationship to God. If you practice asana to purify your body of the negative emotions associated with your relationships and release your soul of the burden of ignorance, the gateway to true love and happiness will be available to you. As you practice asana remember to think of those whom you have unresolved issues with and send them love. Through regular practice this love will become more and more sincere. Love is the only power strong enough to resolve negative emotions. It is only through the act of love that we come to the realization of Love—the goal of bhakti yoga. Practice asana so that you will be able to love God more. There is no greater goal to strive for in this lifetime.

I am sure you will come up with many creative and ingenious ways this month of your own to present this exciting teaching, but here are a few suggestions you may want to explore:

Teaching Tips

I would highly advise that teachers review the Chakra Balancing Yoga DVD that I made with the Acacia company, in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the connection between asana, chakras and relationships. And/or review your notes from Teacher Training on the subject of chakras. These source materials directly describe the practice of asana as a bhakti practice and as a practice that can be used to therapeutically heal psychological and emotional issues and release blockages.  Teachers should be reminded that this teaching, which presents asana as a path to God Realization (enlightenment) is quite unique to the Jivamukti Yoga tradition, and Bhakti forms one of the main foundation teachings to our method.

During this month you could focus on teaching how specific asanas can help to resolve relationship issues and open one to the possibility of letting go of negative emotions and letting God. You could go through all the asanas according to the chakras or you could spend time in one class in the in-depth investigation of one asana.

I would suggest chanting in the classroom the sloka and sutra that are referenced in the essay from the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutra.

I would suggest playing devotional music, chanting the names of God and the bija mantras will be very helpful this month.

I would also suggest reading Lovers Life, by Shyamdas where he gives teachings from the great Vedantic acharya Vallabhacharya. This book will provide much inspiration on the bhakti path. There is also an audio book of the same title, available on CD, on which you can hear Shyamdas himself speaking ( Everything on this CD is good, but track #8 (Endurance), track #10 (Refuge) and track #14 (Union with the Beloved) are especially appropriate for this FOM.

I would also suggest investigating the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he describes the path of love as the only meaningful way to annihilate, violence, and prejudice—the afflictions of the soul.