Celebration of Love – Bhakti Yoga & Heart Openers

Celebration of Love – Bhakti Yoga & Heart Openers

  • Posted by Kaleigh
  • On February 8, 2018
  • Comments

As we close in on Valentine's day, the holiday for the celebration of love, let us look into the yoga of love and devotion; Bhakti Yoga and also a common heart opening family of asanas; backbends.

Bhakti Yoga

The Sanskrit word bhakti comes from the root bhaj, which means "divide, share, partake, participate, to belong to." The word also means "attachment, devotion to, fondness for, homage, faith or love, worship, piety to something as a spiritual, religious principle or means of salvation."

Yoga is part of a spiritual system that we can not separate it from. This doesn't mean we need to be religious to practice it, but we do need to look at the practice's roots and the substrate from which this tradition springs. There has been recent talk about cultural assimilation that goes on with yoga the way we know it outside of India. To avoid trying to turn yoga into another soulless slick and trendy exercise, we ought to learn at least a bit about what it really is. When there is talk of the beloved or of "God," the nonreligious of us can put this into context for ourselves by thinking of our truest, deepest selves, a beloved one, or a virtue such a truth or loving kindness.

The term yoga literally means "union, yoke," and in this context connotes a path or practice for "salvation, liberation." The yoga referred to here is the "joining together, union" of one's Atman (true self) with the concept of Brahman (true reality). Bhakti yoga is an Indian tradition of "divine love mysticism," a spiritual path of oneness and harmony of the individual with the divine (the universal Being) and all creatures. The concept includes a sense of deep affection, attachment, but not wish because "wish is selfish, affection is unselfish," according to Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar Sanath Nanayakkara.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhakti is one of the yoga paths taught by Krishna to Arjuna. It is a story of love, devotion, and learning. Philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were very devout fans of this book. Emerson mentioned the Gita in his journals often with passages such as this: "It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age & climate had pondered & thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us." Thoreau says the following of Bhagavad Gita: "The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a higher, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagvat-Geeta...Beside [it], even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green and practical merely."

Here is a passage from the Gita:

Krishna says,
"Rely on my basic teaching:
act always without attachment,
surrendering your action's fruits.
Knowledge is better than practice;
meditation is better
than knowledge; and best of all
is surrender, which soon brings peace.
He who has let go of hatred,
who treats all beings with kindness
and compassion, who is always serene,
unmoved by pain or pleasure.
free of the "I" and "mine,"
self-controlled, firm and patient,
his whole mind focused on me-
that man is the one I love best."

We don't even need to step foot on a yoga mat to practice this type of yoga, it is something we can do anytime, anywhere.

Heart Openers

This is also a good time of year to think about heart opening through asana practice which we find in backbending. Something about the physical practice of backbending tends to make many of us feel things. It brings up deep emotions that can sometimes trigger crying or anxiety. This act of softening and lifting the heart area sometimes makes us feel extremely vulnerable. But strength comes from backbending, it strengthens the spine, shoulders, legs and core, and also our faith in our bodies. There are many different backbends in yoga, the most common being the upward facing dog or Ūrdhva mukha śvānāsana (ऊर्ध्वमुखश्वानासन). Make sure you are doing it correctly so that you can benefit from it. If done incorrectly, some backbends can put undue pressure on the vertebral discs, leading to pain and damage.

This is easily avoided by paying attention to these essential pointers for upward facing dog:

1. Straighten your arms yet do not hyperextend through the elbows. As Richard Freeman says, keep a "microbend" in the elbows. Act as though you are trying to drag yourself forward across the room. Rather than pushing forward into the heels of your hands, pull back through the hands and forearms.
2. Open your chest and draw your shoulders back and down, breathing deeply and evenly through the nose.
3. Contract your quadriceps muscles, straightening the legs and keep the legs actively lifted off the floor if possible.
4. Point your feet, so that the tops of the feet rest on the floor like brakes and your upper body "pulls forward."
5. Lean your head back last, looking down the nose, even though you may be seeing the ceiling.

Since we are often bent forward over computers, phones books, and meals throughout much of our days, backbending is extremely balancing for spinal health. As we begin to improve our openness and strength through upward dog and cobra posture, we can begin to work into deeper and deeper backbends over time.

One of my favorite things when going to a yoga class is working one on one with the teacher in the backbending part of a Mysore Ashtanga practice, which comes at the peak of flexibility, where heat has been built through sun salutations and many asanas which become deeper and deeper throughout the course of the practice. My body feels a little different every day so it is very nice to have the support and outside perspective of a mindful and experienced teacher when it gets to that point. Brian was super helpful when I attended his morning Mysore class today. I was feeling tired and my sciatic nerve was acting up, and he was so kind as to notice and give me a helping hand.

Sarah Jane practicing with Sharath Jois in 2016

Always feel free to ask any of us yoga instructors at The Front for help with your backbends, we love it and we love you all and want to support you in your yoga journeys!