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What Is Bhakti?

A Deeper Learning Series Gathering

On Friday, November 15th, five Bhakti practitioners, including teachers and scholars, Michael Bühler-Rose, Eddie Stern, Bryn Chrisman, Swami Asokananda and Joshua Greene met at the Integral Yoga to discuss Bhakti Yoga, past and present, devotion, ritual and how it all fits into their practice and their teaching.

Sponsored by YogaCity NYC, the free event marked the fourth in the Deeper Learning Series. Publisher and founder of YogaCity NYC, Brette Popper, moderated the discussion and host Swami Asokananda opened the session with three OM’s and an invocation.

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What Is Bhakti?

Swami Asokananda began saying that it is the natural state of being when the mind is not obstructing the soul’s movement towards the source/devotion. Michael Bühler-Rose agreed with Swami Asokananda that Bhakti itself is a natural state of being, but the process of practicing Bhakti has a different meaning. While Bhakti is in the inherent nature of the self, free of mind, body, and false ego, Bhakti as a process is not passive, but it is a daily practice of creating a life to free oneself of these different coverings to get to our eternal nature as a Bhakti. So while it is our natural state of being it is not a passive one, we have to endeavor to clear ourselves from the entanglements that keep us from that natural state.

Joshua Greene translated Bhakti as the lover/beloved and said the exchange of love is the ultimate purpose of yoga. Pulling from the Bhagavad Gita, he said it’s about connecting our spiritual progress to the community around us. Continuing on the

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theme of Bhakti and its connection to the community, Bryn Chrisman said she’s currently understanding Bhakti as loving responsiveness and a way of seeing the offerings that other people have and appreciating them (instead of being jealous of them or begrudging them).

Eddie Stern summed it up saying it’s not something that we do, but a way of being and participating in the world, the ability to surrender to not knowing what’s coming next.

How Did You Start On This Path?

Both Joshua Greene and Swami Asokananda felt it large part it had to do with being a child of the 60’s, a time when many people were looking for something different than what had been. Another sign of the times was the fact that a government repeal of an act in 1965 allowed teachers from India to come to America and England for the first time in 60 years. Greene jokingly commented that on the one hand he got spirituality and God and on the other he got George Harrison and the Beatles so there was nothing to lose! Swami Asokananda on the other hand was drawn in by the Yoga Sutras, which he sheepishly admitted to swiping when he was 17 and reading while traveling on boxcars from the West Coast to the East Coast. He couldn’t understand some of it but the parts he could blew his mind.

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Michael Bühler-Rose was also drawn in by the philosophy and after being given a copy of the Bhagavad Gita at age 14 he knew within just a few chapters that this was how he wanted to live his life.

Both Eddie Stern and Bryn Chrisman found Bhakti through Kirtan where they experienced a sense of presence and positive energy that was different than their previous yoga relationships or musical experiences.

How Do You Integrate The Artwork And Rituals Often Associated With Bhakti Into Your Work?

Michael Bühler-Rose began saying Bhakti is about being present in every moment so every second of your day offers an opportunity to focus on your spiritual practice. It’s not something that has a separate time or space. For example, you can appreciate mother earth when you walk on the ground. The ritual connects you with everything so you don’t have to compartmentalize time for ritual and time for everything else.

Bryn Chrisman felt that a yoga practice needs asana and Bhakti - some form of purpose, devotion or inspiration. In her classes and studio she tries to tell stories of the deities, chant kirtan, hold satsangs. She has found the people that come to the asana classes are different than those who come to the satsangs and she is working to bridge that divide.

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Eddie Stern said he doesn’t have something as a set devotional or ritual practice but sees Bhakti as a special type of concentration focused on love and surrender. He believes, you might be able to refine it in the temple or at a puja, but it comes to life when you participate in the world.

Joshua Greene teaches a class at Hofstra about the Holocaust. Brette inquired how he explains his belief in Bhakti and God in the wake of such a terrible historical event. He replied simply that when we turn away from our own true nature we can fall very far, but when we turn towards it we can soar very high. Bhakti helps us turn towards it.

Why Is Bhakti Becoming So Popular? Even Krishna Das Has A Radio Station!

Bryn Chrisman began saying, people feel something when they connect with Kirtan. Joshua Greene commented that everyone wants a good place to go with good people and we mistrust institutionalized religion so yoga studios are what churches used to be and Kirtans are what mass used to be. He smiled saying, profound truths go down easier when you have a beat to it.

Bühler-Rose said asana is about preparing the body for something - to go deeper. It is the intrinsic nature of the self to engage in Bhakti. Swami Asokananda related Bhakti to the mind saying, it’s pretty painful to live in your head with that voice going round and round. Bhakti is the next step as it gives you a little respite and vacation from your mind.

Eddie Stern broke it down by saying the asana works on the physical body layer, pranayama works on the breath and chanting/mantra work on the mind, crossing over the intellectual to get to hopes, dreams, etc. He also pointed out that music makes the brain function coherently whereas the mind is usually all over the place. Bryn Chrisman jumped back in and commented that it’s a practice.

Greene wanted to bring up a negative in that in his experience, once you introduce personal divinity into yoga, things get iffy, but he encouraged the audience to stick with it as yoga practice without the philosophy becomes dry and unsatisfying. you get to do while connecting with others.

How Does Someone Start Down This Path?

All the members of the panel agreed that it is a personal journey. Greene encouraged those interested in pursuing a practice to listen to what your heart tells you and find teachers that resonate. Each of us has to find what’s comfortable for us and then stick to it. Bühler-Rose believes it is a triad of the teacher, the practitioner and the text with an equal engagement of all three. Swami Asokananada light-heartedly said everyone loves something so be around those who love what you love. To jokingly drive his point home he said, "You love money? Be with people who love money and can teach you an appreciation of money.”

Photos of individuals as they appear: Swami Asokananda, Michael Bühler-Rose, Joshua Greene, Eddie Stern, Bryn Chrisman

--Allison Richard

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