What Is Bhakti Yoga? An Introduction To The Yoga Of Devotion

Bhakti means ‘devotion’ and yoga means to ‘yoke’ or ‘unite’. Therefore, the Bhakti Yoga definition is the process of selfless devotion to become one, or to yoke, with the self and collective consciousness.

It is one of the four paths of yoga: Bhakti, Karma, Rāja and Jñāna.

In this article, we are going to cover:

  • What Bhakti Yoga Is
  • The History of Bhakti Yoga
  • Features Of Bhakti Yoga
  • Ways To Cultivate Bhakti
a woman practicing bhakti yoga and praying up to the sun in front of a lake

What is Bhakti Yoga?

Bhakti Yoga is the practice of wholly unselfish love and devotion towards the divine or God.

This unselfish devotion means that we are not merely praying for material items, a promotion or a solution to a problem, but completely surrendering to the divine and trusting that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.

The practice is unconditional. There is simply no expectation with Bhakti Yoga and every circumstance is accepted as the will of divine grace. This is considered the highest form of love as we do not desire anything more than this single moment of devotion to God.

This does not necessarily mean the monotheistic God that we think of in religions such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam, but the various Gods and Goddesses that are worshipped in Hinduism.

The aspect of divinity that is worshipped varies with the devotee. The point of devotion may be Shiva, Shakti, Lakshmi, Durga, Vishnu, Ganesha or Surya, for example.

Bhakti doesn’t just mean devotion to this particular deity, but also to all aspects of their creation. This means the practice is adoration for everybody and everything on the planet since we are all part of the same consciousness.

This form of yoga helps us to tune into the love that already exists around us and to become conscious of the divinity that is within everything and everyone.

This love and devotion is something we can rely on when times get hard, allowing us to be safe in the knowledge that we can fall back on the support of the divine, and something that brings even more joy to the wonderful experiences that life offers us.

a woman practicing bhakti yoga by meditating with her hands in a mudra

The 2 Types Of Bhakti Yoga

According to the Bhagavad Gita, there are two types of Bhakti:

#1: Apara Bhakti

This is considered egoistic, material love and the path of lower devotion. It is the beginning stage of Bhakti and every devotee must start from this position.

During this practice, a yogi may worship an external figure of God through rituals, images, statues or other objects and offerings.

#2: Para Bhakti

This is a universal love that transcends the material realm and is what Apara Bhakti could lead to.

The need for rituals and ceremonies becomes redundant here, as the devotion transcends the material realm.

Their love does not need to be expressed through practices used in Apara because they embody their love through their actions and the way they live, devotion is not exclusive to an external God figure.

It is the highest form of Bhakti; the yogi can recognize the sacred in everything they encounter and the divine in every experience.

sunlight streaming through a cave in a forest

History of Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti has its roots in the Vedas and is therefore one of the oldest forms of yoga; it emerged as a distinct form of yoga around 500 BCE, following the Bhagavad Gita, and was popularised more widely from 800 BCE onwards with the Bhakti Marga movement.

The Bhagavad Gita, however, was solely focused on devotion to Lord Krishna. Therefore, others cite the Puranas, sacred Hindu literature written between the 3rd and 10th century CE, as another critical text in the development of Bhakti Yoga.

9 Features of bhakti Yoga

Within the Bhakti Yoga definition, there are many different practices to foster Bhakti. The Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu lays out nine principles:

#1: Svarana – Listening

This is something that is done when we join together with other devotees. It may be listening to kirtan, scriptures, stories or poems. It is especially powerful if we listen to these from a Saint.

#2: Kirtana – Singing

Singing or chanting devotional mantras and praises to the divine. Kirtan, as it is often called in the West, is probably one of the most popular forms of Bhakti with many Kirtan groups forming across the whole world.

a group of people singing together with instruments in a living room

#3: Smarana – Remembering

Remembering the divine by keeping it as your focus at all times. This may be through meditating on the divine in spirit or form, for example.

#4: Padasevana – Service

Serving those around you as they are an incarnation of the divine. This can incorporate the practice of Karma Yoga and is a means of honoring the divine through your selfless actions. This could be volunteering or serving your community.

#5: Archana – Ritual Worship

External, ritual worship of the divine through practices such as puja (ceremonial worship) or homa (fire ritual).

#6: Vandana – Prayer

This is a devotional prostration – a bow on the floor in front of a representation of a deity – as a mark of respect and reverence. This humbles the devotee in order to eradicate the ego.

#7: Dasya – Unquestioning

Possessing a servant-like mentality in relation to God. It is about tending to the will of the divine instead of one’s own ego. This might be helping to sweep temples or caring for the sick who are, of course, human manifestations of the divine.

hands being held up to the sky in prayer at sunset

#8: Sakhya – Friendship

Cultivating a friend-like relationship with God. Importantly, it is to love the divine as oneself, to treat everyone in accordance with their own sacred nature, and to be with God at all times.

#9: Atma-Nivedana – Self-Offering

In other words, complete self-surrender to the divine. This is an absolute love, to trust in the divine so much that you surrender everything: your ego, pleasure, pain, desires, and anxieties.

3 Powerful Ways to Cultivate Bhakti

#1: Mantra

There are so many different mantras that you can repeat as a Japa or Kirtan practice. You could chant or sing these alone, with friends, alongside a Spotify playlist like this, or find a local Kirtan group. These are just a few suggestions for mantras that may be easier to start with.

The purpose of these mantras is to symbolize the essence of both the divine itself as well as your love for the divine. If you get confused about the pronunciation of any of these, you can find lots of examples of people singing them with a simple Google or Youtube search!

  • Om Namah Shivaya

This may be one of the most common mantras, it is a salutation to Shiva or the ‘auspicious one’. It is a bow to Lord Shiva as well as the godliness of our own consciousness.

  • Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha

A salutation to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, to aid physical, emotional and spiritual transformation.

  • Radhe, Radhe, Radhe Govinda

Radha, who is an incarnation of Lakshmi, is also the chief consort of Krishna. She is the manifestation of divine love, worshipped for her compassion and devotion. When we chant this mantra, we embody of all these qualities that are central to Bhakti

  • Hey Ma Durga

Durga is the mother Goddess of the universe and an incarnation of Shakti. There are also many other incarnations of Durga, such as Kali and Bhavani.

We can invoke Durga for her strength, protection and power among many things. We can also use it to honor the manifestations of Shakti in all its forms.

  • Om Guru Om

A powerful mantra that is used to invite the assistance of a Guru – a spiritual teacher that can show up as a person, principle or experience. Guru can also be translated as the ‘remover of darkness’.

This could be for matters such as healing, asking for direction, or to honor the teachings of a past Guru.

  • Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

This is another common one that you may have heard in a yoga class before. It is an invocation of peace. The three repetitions of ‘Shanti’ could be taken to mean peace in the body, mind and spirit or for a representation of past, present and future.

It can also mean peace from the three disturbances: adhi-daivikam (mental disturbances from God & things beyond our control, e.g. natural disasters), adhi-bhautikam (disturbances that come from the world, e.g. noise, pollution, angry people) and adhyatmikam (disturbances of the self, e.g. negative thoughts or attachment to the ego).

This is not just peace for yourself, but for all of creation both living and non-living.

#2: Satsang

A Satsang is a gathering during which you share spiritual discussion, reflections, stories, debates or practices like meditation. For many of us, it’s not possible to go to an ashram every time we need to reflect on or share spiritual practices with others.

A great way to cultivate Bhakti is to attend or host your own Satsang. It will not only help through sharing your devotion with others, but it will start to dissolve the illusion of separation from one another and the world. Satsang is a powerful way to bring connection and unity into our devotional practice.

#3: Practice Forgiveness And Compassion

This is something that we don’t necessarily need any other people or resources to practice with. Accept people’s flaws and celebrate their strengths. Do the same with yourself!

Learn to open your heart to all people equally, which can be extremely hard given the divisive nature of society at this time. Here, I find it most helpful to apply the teachings of Ram Dass:

I love everybody and they, in turn, love everybody, and that’s spreading love heart to heart to heart

Ram Dass

I once heard him describe this as ‘heart-to-heart resuscitation’. When we hold the people that we dislike, or maybe even hate, in our hearts, we are gifting them with the ability to know love and therefore to change.

No matter how we might feel, we must know that compassion is always available to us at any moment; this is what we could consider true Bhakti.

two people chatting by a waterfall

Conclusion

Bhakti Yoga calls on us to do something radical that many of us have forgotten to do; to extend the entirety of our love and compassion across the globe, surrender to the awareness and divinity of the universal forces, and devote ourselves to recognizing the sacred in everything and everyone.

Above all, heart-felt love is the central component of Bhakti Yoga.

More about bhakti

If you want to dive deeper into the path of Bhakti, you can look at Swami Vivekananda’s Bhakti-Yoga: The Yoga of Love and Devotion.

Photo of author
Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves.

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