In this article, we’ll look at how to practice Bhakti yoga (Bhakti meditation) properly. Plus, the benefits you will get out of Bhakti.
But first: What is Bhakti yoga?
Bhakti yoga, otherwise called Bhakti Marga, is an ancient meditation technique that stems from Hinduism and Buddhism.
Paul Deussen, the author of Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, states that Bhakti Meditation was first mentioned in the text the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. Hence, it has a very spiritual origin. However, today it is mostly associated with yoga [READ: Best Yoga Meditations].
The practice aims to make the mind one with a deity, object, or person.
In the book The Embodiment of Bhakti [Oxford University Press], Karen Pechelis explains that Bhakti meditation is about showing love and devotion to a personal deity. For instance, Buddhists use the technique to become one with Buddha. However, you can also practice by meditating on a relaxing object, such as a crystal.
How To Practice Bhakti Meditation in the Yoga Tradition
- Sit comfortably in a relaxing space. To follow the traditional Bhakti meditation technique, create a meditation space, altar or shrine dedicated to your deity / subject. Fill this space with images, sculptures, candles, relaxing features, and other items that will help you to relax and to connect to your deity.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Roll your shoulders back and let them open outwards. This will open your heart-space. Lightly lower your chin, which will lengthen your neck. Close your eyes. Breathe mindfully.
- When you are calm, choose a positive subject on which to meditate. For instance, if you would like to feel freer in life, you might like to meditate on a clear blue sky. Remember that the Bhakti yoga practice is a method for oneness, so whatever object you meditate on you will be aiming to become one with.
- Close your eyes and focus on the space between your eyebrows. If you like, you can choose to perform kirtan (singing of your God’s name) or Japa (reciting God’s name as a mantra).
- Ask your deity/subject to become one with you.
- Meditate on your subject in the traditional sense.
- Imagine becoming one with your deity.
- Imagine there is no distance between your consciousness and the subject. You are merging to become one. Spiritual coach Melinda Johnston says that you should “Feel and mentally visualize [the object of meditation] close to you in [its] personal form. Imagine with all your senses how the form you imagine would be with you.”
- Continue to meditate on your subject for 108 breaths.
- Thank your deity/subject for coming to you.
- Open your eyes.
You might also like to try these contemplation exercises.
In Karma Yoga
The Karma Yoga practice is slightly different. Follow these steps for proper Karma Yoga Bhakti practice.
- Create a space dedicated to your deity. Include images, candles, and anything else you find helpful.
- Sit straight with good posture, making sure your spine is in proper alignment so that energy can flow naturally through your body.
- Put your hands in a mudra position. For instance, Gyan Mudra, with the tips of the thumb and forefinger touching.
- Close your eyes and focus on your Third Eye Chakra.
- Ask your deity to be one with you. Welcome the deity into the room, and then into your mind. See them approaching you. Feel them with you.
- Focus on the object of worship. As you focus, imagine the object/deity becoming one with you. Feel your mind merging with them. Your ego, your self, is merging with your deity.
- Meditate on your deity for 108 breaths.
- Express gratitude to your deity.
What to meditate on
When you practice, you are aiming to become one with an object, person, or God. Therefore, the subject of your bhakti meditation practice should reflect the trait you wish to develop in yourself.
If, for instance, you would like to develop your sense of compassion, you might like to meditate on Ghandi or Buddha. For freedom, meditate on water.
In the book Bhakti Traditions, in The Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies, Karen Pechelis explains that the object of meditation is a “personal god that varies with the devotee”. Hence, it is up to you what you choose to meditate on in your practice. But here are a few ideas along with the traits they represent.
Positive objects for Bhakti meditation
Freedom and power
The night sky:
Eternity and wisdom
Freedom and power
Ghandi / Buddha / Mother Theresa / Jesus Christ
Compassion and kindness
Death is a complex subject but generally when you meditate on death you develop your appreciation of time and your humbleness.
Playfulness (not all meditation subjects have to be serious)
Wisdom and patience
Power (I personally like to meditate at Niagara Falls, of which the truly wonderful classical composer Gustav Mahler said “At last, Fortissimo!”. I guess he appreciated the power of the falls as much as I do).
Your own reflection / visage
Hope and compassion
Different gemstones reflect different traits and characteristics
Different colours reflect different mentalities and emotions. Green, for instance, reflect nature and health, where black represents power and authority, and yellow happiness. Meditate on the colour that reflects the trait you’d like to develop.
Your own breath
Meditating on your own breath will calm and centre you.
Detailed Analysis of Bhakti Meditation
Bhakti meditation is a technique in which we become one with the object of meditation.
Traditionally, there are three stages involved in the Bhakti Yoga practice:
- Traditionally, monks would begin by doing Samatha meditation, which creates calmness and focus.
- After Samatha, they’d perform Dhyana meditation, which is the entry point to oneness.
- They would then come to Bhakti yoga practice, which they would use to become one with their deity.
Bhakti meditation is also one of the three types of yoga taught in the Bhagavad Gita according to Michael C. Brannigan, author of Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values.
David Frawley [director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies] calls it “The sweetest of yoga approaches”. Although Hindu scholar Douglas Brooks states that it can be challenging and does involve “separation and partition” (from the ego). And Swami Rama said, “Many follow the path of love and devotion, but it is not as easy as people think.”
Therefore, to practise Bhakti yoga successfully, you need to know how to do it properly.
According to Karen Pechelis, author of The Embodiment of Bhakti by Oxford University Press, Bhakti yoga practices are all about expressing devotion and love for an object, person, or God(s) [Harvard].
The Narada Bhakti Sutras define it as “intense love for God”. However, although it can be a religious exercise, similar to biblical / God meditation, it can also be about love and devotion for non-religious entities.
It is a heart-based practice.
The term itself literally means to “show devotion and love to”. When we practise Bhakti yoga we silence the ego to become one with the object we are meditating on. For instance, we can become one with Buddha, Krishna, Shiva, Jesus, and God.
In the 7th century and 10th century in India, Hindus meditated in devotion to Vishnu and Shiva. They would practice becoming one with these deities.
This gave rise to the Bhakti Movement, led by Saiva Nayanars and the Vaisnava Alvars. The Bhakti movement led to the creation of various Bhakti meditation practices all focused on love and devotion.
The movement led to the creation of poetry and the poetic saints, who wandered from temple to temple singing praises to Vishnu and Shiva . During the 15th and 17th Century CE, Bhakti meditation was heavily influenced by Hindu and Indian culture, and eventually became part of Sufism, Jainism, Sikhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Christianity.
Modern Bhakti Meditation Practices
Today, Bhakti yoga practices can take many forms. And they do not have to be done as devotion or worship, as they traditionally were.
Writing for Yoga Journal, author Nora Isaacs says, “Many Westerners who practice Bhakti yoga tend to connect with a more encompassing idea of the Divine, the Beloved, the Spirit, the Self, or the Source.”
I love to practice it by meditating on the elements. I’ll sit beside a waterfall and meditate on water, or light a candle and meditate on the way the bright amber light shines its energy in all directions without shadow. This makes me aware of how I can be compassionate and loving to all, without the need to take sides or harbour prejudices as many people do.
Today there are also Bhakti festivals and celebrations. For instance, the annual Bhakti Festival at The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California; Bhakti Yoga Sunsplash held by Yoga Tree in San Francisco held; and Bhakti Fest.
The Principles of Bhakti
Practising Bhakti yoga is all about giving yourself to the divine.
In The Journey Within: Exploring The Path Of Bhakti, Radhanath Swami says: “True yogis serve without wanting recognition or praise. They are happy to give credit to others and interested simply in doing their best to give pleasure to the divine and benefit others.”
Benefits of Bhakti Yoga
- Improves your perspective
- Reduces the effects of ego
- Increases humility
- Joyful release. Indeed, the very nature of parabhakti is immortal bliss, according to Yoga International.
- Helps to remove stress and anxiety
- Promotes the production of positive mental states like love and awe.
There are infinite subjects on which to meditate. Ask yourself what trait you’d like to develop. Find a subject that reflects that trait. Then meditate on it.
When you do this, you will feel a profound sense of worship. You will feel closer to your deity than ever before.
If you would like to learn more about Bhakti, book an online meditation lesson with me today.
Paul Harrison is a passionate meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison