by Ella Ben-Zvi
It was a midsummer’s day, the sun was hanging high in the sky, and the train was late as usual. I was on my way to a meeting, knowing that there’s no way I’ll ever make it on time. My bag was heavy on my shoulders and there was no shade to hide in. But something unusual happened – none of that bothered me at that moment. I was not annoyed, anxious or angry at all. For some reason, for no reason, or perhaps for every reason, I was just happy.
Everyone at the train station was frustrated with the delay, sweating and suffering in the humid heat of August. One guy was shouting at the conductor, blaming him for everything that is wrong with the world. Another guy was pacing back and forth aimlessly, trying to pass the time. A mother was complaining over the phone, while her kids were complaining to her for refusing to buy them ice cream. As I was looking around me at all those people, a sudden wave of joy had washed over me. They were all surrounded by a beautiful glowing aura, and I was in love with each and every one of them. It felt as if my heart had expanded with love that was pure and unexplainable. It was a glorious feeling.
Finally, the train had arrived and we all moved on to our different destinations. The moment had passed and I was left feeling enchanted without truly understanding what just happened. But it was absolutely clear to me that I must find my way back to this place, to this exploding sense of love that had burst my heart wide open.
Have you ever had an experience like that, even just for a second? Feeling in love with everybody, without knowing who they are, without knowing their names, and without knowing if you’ll ever see them again? “Once you have drunk from the water of unconditional love, no other well can satisfy your thirst”, said Ram Dass in his book Be Love Now. This is neither romantic nor caring love, but a spiritual love that comes from the “Spiritual Heart”, as Ram Dass calls it. A kind of love that has no cause and carries no result. A kind of love that doesn’t depend on what you get in return, and doesn’t stem from something you have already received. It is unconditional because it has no because.
So how do we get there? And where is this Spiritual Love? Well, I looked everywhere… From Spain to Nicaragua, back to my home in Israel and all the way to California, and it was nowhere to be found. I had begun to accept the fact that it must have been a one time thing and I will never feel this love again, until I stumbled upon the path of Bhakti Yoga – the yoga of love and devotion.
When my friends first invited me to come with them to Kirtan, one of the main practices of Bhakti Yoga, I must admit I was really skeptical and even cynical. I remember thinking to myself that there is no way I am ever going to sing mantras for the Hindu gods in this ancient Sanskrit language… But they promised me we’ll eat at Gracias Madre before, so I had to say yes.
Kirtan or Kirtanam is one of the nine devotional activities of Bhakti. It translates to “praising through sound”, which simply means to use your voice to chant mantras, but also to use your ears and listen to the sounds. This is why Kirtan has two elements – call and response. “Music has a unique ability to convey emotion”, says Ram Dass, “and when it combines with the vibrational quality of a mantra, there is nothing like it to bypass the mind and open a direct route to the heart”.
Exactly as Ram Dass promised, the mantras, the repetition and the vibrations of the sounds had opened a pathway to my heart. And when the heart is open, love can flow freely. In spite of all the skepticism, I had finally found my way back to the place I discovered during that scorching summer’s day at the train station. A wave of joy had again filled my heart, and I fell in love with everyone around me. It was not only the singing and the songs, but the energy of the people in the room – that is what makes Kirtan so powerful. The coming together, being together, is what took me back to the train station. I was truly amazed. All my doubts were gone and I was completely hooked! Kirtan was my express train to Spiritual Love!
The simplicity of it all
Another wonderful aspect of Kirtan is its simplicity. You don’t need to know Sanskrit, don’t need to memorize the mantras and their meanings, and you don’t even need a good singing voice. All you need to do is just be there! It’s as simple as that. Bhakti is a direct route – there are no complications and it is accessible to anyone at anytime!
I was thrilled to find my non-stop ticket and started going to Kirtan as often as I could. I had not expected any more bumps in my road, but there they were. Walking the streets with a heart wide open is not easy. It exposes you not only to love, but also to the suffering of everyone around you. I found myself drifting away from love back to worry and anger. The clouds of doubt had covered my vision again, and I needed to find some answers.
So I took a turn from the path of Bhakti and hopped on another train – Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge and wisdom. There was nothing simple about that! Jnana yoga is complicated and intricate with its main goal finding liberation. I was ready to engage all my time and energy in order to get there! I started spending more time reading and meditating by myself. The warmth of Bhakti was replaced by the cold intellectualization of philosophical ideas. This train was slow and grueling, but I was committed to reach my destination!
My mind and ego were satisfied with this decision to achieve freedom, but my heart was quietly whispering the word love. I could barely hear it, as my mind was set on its resolution. I was focused on freeing myself from suffering, freeing myself from desires, and freeing myself from fears. But then it hit me, the inevitable question – what will I do with all this freedom?
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a world renowned guru from the Jnana yoga tradition, answered this question with the claim “I am free to love!”. Nisargadatta was a liberated man, who realized himself through devotion to his guru and to the mantra given to him. He was a Jnani yogi, but he found it as a Bhakta. His love took him to freedom, and his freedom allowed him to love.
Enjoy the Ride
“The devotional path isn’t necessarily a straight line to enlightenment. There is a lot of back and forth”, explains Ram Dass, “You look around at all aspects of suffering, and you watch your heart close with judgment. Then you practice opening it again and loving this too… Your heart keeps expanding until you see the whole universe as the beloved, even the suffering”.
So how do we get there? Which path should we take? All paths of yoga will take you there, but on the Bhakti train, “there” is not the destination, but the road itself. Instead of closing down, I chose to open up and to take it all in. It might not be a smooth ride, but as Frederick Lenz said, “The path of love is its own reward”.
“When you say something like (“I love you”) with your whole being, not just with your mouth or your intellect, it can transform the world.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and said I love you? I don’t mean checking to see if your makeup is in place or if you feel you look the part for the day. I mean to truly look into the depths of your own soul and emanate love for your own being and to marvel at the essence of your soul. When I first heard one of my teachers suggest this as a daily practice I felt my ego say, I don’t need to do that , that is so vain and sometimes I don’t feel the love. Then I heard my higher self say, what a different way to see and activate love. This is my Bhakti practice I want to share with you. This is my act of love and compassion towards the Beloved that lives in all of us.
The essence of Bhakti yoga is showing up and loving in every moment in all that one does. Loving the Divine within and the Divine all around, Bhakti yoga is the path of spiritual devotion to love. It is realizing the connection between the self and omnipresent love, also known as God, Goodness, Higher Self, Breath, Spirit, Atman, Beloved, Buddha, Mystery, Universal Life Force, Divinity, Supreme Love or Source. The Sanskrit root of bhakti is bhaj, “to engage with affection”. There are nine different forms in Bhakti that one can use to practice devotion:
1.) Sravanam- hearing stories of gods/goddess and vibrational sounds
2.) Kirtanam- chanting or singing
3.) Visnu smaranam- remembering God
4.) Pada sevana- serves at the feet of God
5.) Arcanam- deity worship
6.) Bandanam- prayer
7.) Dasyam- executing order, doing your duty
8.) Sakham- serving as a friend with God
9.) Atma Nivedanam- complete surrender, releasing the concept that we are separate from anything I believe that one of the greatest acts of love is moving inside and deeply loving all the different aspects of ourselves. We deserve love even when we let down our friend, even when we show up late for work, even when our relationships fails, even on the worst day of our lives. There is true essence of goodness in all of us and we don’t come any closer to finding it if we don’t love ourselves. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. That is Bhakti yoga, connecting to the supreme love within everything.
In Narada’s translation of the Bhakti sutras he states, “Supreme love is love for everything and everyone at all times. It is a love that gives without limit and receives without limit. One sees God everywhere and loves what he sees, and one feels himself a part of God and accepts the love of the Divine. It is activating our ability to be the Lover and Beloved.”
When we tap into our willingness to love ourselves, with active awareness, we are serving as a friend to God (Sakham). I say, I love you three times to myself in the morning. As I look in a mirror, standing before myself in vulnerability to see through my ego’s judgments, I actively engage that day, I allow an act of presence with myself. Saying those three words, I love you, I love you, I love you, causes a ripple effect of gratitude for the wonder of my life. It allows me to open the floodgates of love into my world as the day starts. I feel the sweetness of this gift to myself. At first, this practice of love felt pretty awkward. Some days I may not feel as well as other days, some days feel like nothing is going right, but I still enter into this daily practice giving conscious love. This discipline and commitment to loving oneself, despite the trials of life, have contributed to my stability, perseverance and gratitude. That is my act of devotion to self. Now I can engage with the lover in me, the mother in me, the father in me, the child in me, the beloved in me as I allow myself to be present with devoting conscious love. Next time you look into the mirror, look deep into your own eyes and say I love you three times. See what comes up for you. Then everyday for the rest of your life, give this sweet, fun, deep act of love to your Self.
When you realize that you are the light of the world, you will also realize that you are the love of it; that to know is to love and to love is to know.
-Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
I love you, I love you, I love you!
Genevieve is committed to serving and helping others come into their wholeness. She is a compassionate teacher that invites all her students to live their truth and celebrate who they are as they are. She is a passionate Reiki Master/Teacher. Genevieve teaches Restorative Yoga with Reiki at Laughing Lotus on Friday from 6:45-8:00pm and Sunday from 6:15-7:30. Her website is www.InLightandSoul.com
by Robin Wilner
“There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known / Nothing you can see that isn’t shown / There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. It’s easy / All you need is love, all you need is love / All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.” – The Beatles
I’ve always adored these lyrics, simple in their phrasing yet so profound in their meaning. Imagine if life really was that simple? What if every thought, deed, or action we experienced was fully surrendered to the extraordinary power of Love? How would we interact in our most intimate relationships if we regarded every being with a tender heart? This is the essence of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, or the pathway of the heart.
The Sanskrit word bhakti comes from the root bhaj, which means to “engage with affection.” Bhakti yoga has been called “pure love” or “devotional service.” While the word yoga means “union,” Bhakti yoga thus refers to engaging in a union with the Divine through a chosen path of love and devotion. Like the other paths of yoga – Jnana (the path of knowledge and introspection), Karma (the path of action and service to others) Raja (the path of transcending the mind) and Hatha (the path of the physical body) – Bhakti Yoga is a gateway to self-realization and the experience of Oneness with every aspect of the universe.
You can call it the Beloved, the Divine, God, or more simply, the deep connection to all other conscious beings on this earth; no matter the chosen words, the language is universal. With bhakti, we are inviting compassion and empathy into our relationships, using acts of love and service to help others, and in essence practicing our connection to the universal concept of yoga.
I used to be terrified of saying the word God out loud. Somehow, it seemed so inappropriate, as though the reference instantly invited more vulnerability into a conversation than I was willing to let in. And yet, I never had trouble SINGING the word. In Hebrew prayers growing up I hummed Adonai; in choral groups in college, we harmonized to Deus or Dio in Latin and Italian hymns; then I found myself vacationing at an ashram in the Bahamas and chanting to Ganesha, Krishna, Saraswati and numerous other Hindu deities. Somehow the power of song had been guiding my heart all along towards a universal idea – all worship in the form of love (no matter the chosen words) ultimately leads to the same Truth.
My first real exposure to Bhakti as a practice came on my first night at that ashram in Nassau. Each morning and evening, the residents and guests would come together for satsang (a spiritual gathering) under a great dome. After thirty minutes of meditation, someone would begin to play the harmonium and lead this beautiful call-and-response chanting. I remember the hundred or so voices in the room coming together so harmoniously and passionately that it took my breath away. I had absolutely no idea what the words meant, but I followed along in my manual and soon got carried away clapping and swaying and singing at the top of my lungs, as other yogis took to various instruments laying about the room. It was the most joyful experience to have with a community of people I’d never met before; I felt an overwhelming connection as my heart started to burst open towards this unknown pull. These morning and evening satsangs became my favorite aspect of ashram life. Then on my return trip, I had the incredible opportunity to attend several Kirtans with Krishna Das. As we belted out the various names of God together in a series of Sanskrit chants, our group of voices merged together to become One Voice. I was hooked.
Mantras – these short phrases packed with energy and intention – were my way to find the Source with words, as dance had for years been my way to find God without words. My love for chanting grew as I continued to practice at Laughing Lotus, where I knew that each class would begin with a devotional mantra and an opportunity to generate unity with my fellow yogis through sound. I learned to play the harmonium while immersed in an advanced Bhakti training module, and soon discovered an infinite array of Sanskrit mantras designed to promote healing, insight, creativity, and spiritual growth.
Ever since I bought my own harmonium, the floodgates of creativity have been unleashed, and I now write music almost every day! Never did I dream that I would have the ability (or even the desire) to compose music…but when I chant, I feel passionate but peaceful, joyful but meditative, withdrawn from my troubles but powerfully connected to the Source.
There are many layers to this path of devotion – whether through the simple acts of showing kindness to a fellow being, saying a prayer of gratitude before a meal, chanting a mantra for peace on your way to work, reading or writing poetry about Love, or devoting your yoga practice to someone in need of healing energy. All of these acts have the power to enhance your relationship with God / the Beloved / the Divine / your true Self. Choose your language, but know that it all leads down the same path to the same truth. And all you need is love, love…Love is all you need.
Join us all month long at Laughing Lotus as we bathe in this yoga of devotion through movement, mantra, and the joy of being together on the path of Love!
Robin is a passionate dancer/singer and yogi who loves to explore the power of expression through creative movement and mantra. She also happily speaks, writes, and sings the word God with pride. Catch a class with her at Laughing Lotus on Monday/Friday at Noon, Tuesday/Thursday at 9am, or Sunday at 10am.