July 19, 2010

Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ

This week I am very pleased to bring you special guest Amy Champ to talk about a type of Yoga I could never do justice to, simply because I don’t practice it–Bhakti Yoga, or the Yoga of Ritual Devotion.

Part of the genious of the Gita is that it allows for a wide variety of Yoga practice, as we discussed in Gita Talk #11: Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks.

I am very much a “Jnana” Yoga person. For me Yoga is understanding Yoga philosophy and applying it directly in my everyday life. For others, like Amy, Yoga centers around “Bhakti”, or devotional practice.

I don’t personally practice any devotional rituals at all (probably because I overdosed on them as a very holy little altar boy growing up ultra-traditional Catholic.)  So it’s important to bring in a serious practitioner like Amy to talk about Bhakti Yoga.

Amy Champ is a yoga teacher who is finishing her PhD program in Performance Studies, with a designated emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research, at University of California, Davis. She is currently working on her dissertation about women yoga teachers and their activism.

Amy has been a teaching assistant in the Religious Studies department at UCD for two years. She has a MA in Government and International Relations, and a BA in Anthropology and Literary Studies.

Please  make a point of leaving a comment or question to welcome Amy to Gita Talk.  And now, here’s Amy on Bhakti Yoga:


Knowledge is better than practice; meditation is better than knowledge; and best of all is surrender, which soon brings peace. (Bhagavad Gita 12.12)

Jesus told them: “I assure you, even if you had faith as small as a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible. (Matthew 17:20)

In Chapter 12, Krishna discusses the difference between yogis who approach trying to understand God from an intellectual standpoint, and those who simply surrender to the divine by faith and devotion. If God is limitless, then how can our minds tackle such an unfathomable concept? Since the mind itself is so wild, how can we rely on it? Bhakti suggests that rather than trying to figure out what God is, that we enter into a personal relationship with Krishna.

The first time I read the Bhagavad Gita was 1993 in Durban, South Africa. I was staying in a youthhostel, and had gone to the ISKCON (commonly known as “Hare Krisha” movement) temple. I was reading the version with commentary by Prabhupada, and the main thing I remember thinking at the time was the absolute and total surrender this God called Krishna was asking for. Also, the way that the “Hare Krishnas” refer to Krishna constantly seemed a bit wearying for someone who was less interested in God per se, let alone any “kind of god,” and more focused on finding “the truth.” I found it a bit hard to take, as a recovering fundamentalist Christian who had recently decided to flirt with Buddhism.

Personally, I don’t think the point of bhakti practice is to convert everyone to Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita was written long before such a concept of a Major Religion existed. You can also consider that–from Sivananda to J. Krishnamurti–most of the major gurus of the 20th century acknowledged the significance of multiple paths to the divine.

Having said that, however, there is a certain flavor to the type of devotion discussed in the Gita which will be critical for our discussion online this week. This is all-out devotion. Krishna says at the end in verse 12.20 that he loves devotees “who trust me completely and surrender their lives to me.” I mean, really, who wants to be 38 years old and banging on a tambourine chanting Hare Krishna? Umm, I do, apparently. Although, if you’d asked me that question twenty years ago, I certainly would have laughed out loud.

The exploding counterculture in the 1950s and 60s owed a lot to the Indian gurus, but Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with the concept of devotion as a holistic experience. I used to have a Sri Chinmoy poster in my college dorm room. It said “Love, Devotion, Surrender.” I loved listening to my records of John MacLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Something about the age-old roots of the Sanskrit mantras seemed to override my preconceptions of all kinds. I was tapping into this timelessness at an early age, very intrigued by this holy, rhythmic music that just seemed to wash over me, cleansing everything in its path.

I started to chant the mantras phonetically, while I listened to Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra. This was before I knew what any of the words meant. Repetition makes the vibrations more powerful.

While devotion found its way into popular culture, the collision between East and West has often generated very extreme circumstances when it comes to the idea of “the guru” and the idea of surrender, which is very Eastern. In the mid-1990s, a couple of friends and I were working on a tour bus in India, volunteering for a group of Buddhist practitioners who were devotees of Tibetan teacher Tarthang Tulku. We were traveling on a Buddhist pilgrimage, visiting the major sacred sites in southern Nepal and Northern India. We had been withthem for a few days, forming friendships and learning more about Buddhism. After about a week, their guru arrived from America. When he walked into the room, people were bowing down with their entire bodies and touching their foreheads to the ground. My friends bowed down, but I did not.

I had spun giant prayer wheels in the Himalayas. I had circumambulated stupas. I had bowed to many Buddha statues with their heads looming from the tops of many temples. I had clasped my hands together and said “Namaste” and did a little bow when I greeted monks. But–I could not bring myself to bow down to the floor in front of a living person. It went against everything I knew and the admonition in my Christian upbringing that said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For me, that verse was God talking, and all spiritual experimentation aside, my idea about God was important. Important enough to keep my head off the floor, and in the air where I thought it belonged. It was embarrassing to be the only person in the group who did not bow down, but I felt good about it because I was exercising my free will to disagree. I felt like everyone was so concerned about not offending the guru, about honoring the power structure, and it felt so constricting.

Now thinking back on it, I’m sure the teacher didn’t even notice.

It reminds me of a story in the Sivananda yoga tradition, about when Swami Vishnu Devananda went to meet the great master Swami Sivananda. In India, of course, it is very common for people to prostrate themselves on the ground in front of holy men. As the story goes, Swami Sivananda was making his outside rounds and when Vishnu Devananda saw him coming down the stairs, he panicked because he did not want to bow down. And so he hid, by ducking into an alleyway. Swami Sivananda continued to descend the stairs, and when he got to the alleyway opening, he proceeded to openly prostrate on the ground to Vishnu Devananda. And with this great first lesson, began Vishnu Devananda’s lifetime of service to his guru.

Over time, the concept of surrender has become more and more sweet to me. Surrender to the divine, is surrender to the flow, is living in the moment, is total grace. In conclusion, I’d like to reflect on some of the ways in which bhakti has entered my life and continued to sustain my spiritual practice.

Ritual is important for me, because it is the foundation of what yogis call “sadhana,” or practice. The path of yoga called “bhakti” constitutes a whole array of devotional practices with many performative aspects, including song, dance and ceremony. There is also a focused ritual aspect to the more bodily-based practice of yoga. Whether it is a breathing ritual or a movement ritual, the intention is the same. The physical ritual is used as a device in order to get beyond the physical, and realize the cultural conditioning that creates social relations.

I look at bhakti as a form of sustenance for our daily spiritual practice. You may have heard yogis say that bhakti and/or kirtan “is the easiest way to reach God.” The idea here is that through the bodily and sensual wisdom in rituals and the more aesthetic aspects of worshipful practice, we get a “taste” or rasa of bliss, of the intimate experience that comes with connection to God. Bhakti is most certainly total absorption, very similar to love between humans, but this level of merging can only occur if you establish practices and experiences designed to cultivate this feeling.

Daily rituals are important, but I think a lot of people can get hung up on the fact that these are perhaps not as regular as the structured rituals at spiritual communities. What happens is that we get used to a strict schedule of rituals at a retreat, and then get bummed out when we can’t duplicate that process at home.

My personal experience with bhakti is not strict at all, but I do feel that devotion has become a way of life. The most important key for me is probably environmental.

I listen to chanting of all sorts night and day. Studying scripture daily is a requirement for any solid level of practice. I wear my mala fairly regularly, although I don’t do japaasoften as I would like!! Hang devotional pictures, quotes, and charts around your home. Burn incense regularly, and put candles in every room. The point here, I think, is providing an environment that allows Divine Energy to flow in. Bhakti is not something you do, but rather a mode of living. It’s easier to dwell in divine understanding when you’re prompted by your environment. It’s a lot more difficult when the “things” you are surrounded by confound your practice.

It is important to have an altar, a place to meditate, and places to go to express your devotion. Pilgrimages to local events, kirtans, and spiritual centers are good for establishing a devotional frame of mind.

To summarize, devotion is a practice that feeds our heart chakra. All manner of art can be an expression of divine love and devotion. Bhakti is Prasad, food for the mind and body which leads us back to our soul.

I made a little six-minute video called “Devotion” shot at the Sivananda Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California. You can view it here: http://www.youtube.com/amychamp72.

For more information on developing your bhakti practice, I have put together a suggested reading list on the Gita Talk Facebook page.

I look forward to answering your questions and reading your comments below.

–Amy Champ

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