What arises for you when you hear the word devotion? Is it the relationship you hold with your romantic partner? Your family? Maybe it holds religious connotations for you? In the context of yoga, there is a strand within the vast plethora of practices known as 'Bhakti Yoga'; the 'yoga of devotion'. This type of yoga is much more about singing kirtans (devotional music) and reciting mantras; usually to one of the many Hindu deities, but it can also be expressed as 'nirguna-bhakti', meaning to be in devotion of spirituality beyond form, i.e. the universe, nature and/or all of creation.
Whilst Bhakti is rarely expressed through asana (postures) and more likely in chanting through kirtan, or silently in mantra meditation, there is so much evidence of the devotional element that permeates yoga.
Devotion through asana
Consider the postures named after deities, such as Natarājāsana (dancer pose or pose dedicated to Lord Natarāja), Hanumanāsana (front splits or pose dedicated to Lord Hanuman), Matsyendrāsana (seated twist or pose dedicated to Lord Matsyendra) and so on. Of the three listed, I'm going to focus on Hanumanāsana, mainly because I find the story behind it completely changes my relationship with the pose itself.
The front splits requires a lot of flexibility and mobility in both hips and hamstrings, something the wider population doesn't readily have at their disposal without a lot of practice. Sinking into the hamstrings and hip joints, even as a kid during after-school gymnastics, made me wince, and the same might be true for you when the teacher calls out 'Hanumanāsana' in a yoga class.
When you know the story behind the posture, however, that might change. This pose gets its name from Lord Hanuman, a consort of Rama, within the epic fable 'The Ramayana', who, in a devotional act for his lord Rama, takes a giant leap across the channel between southern-most India and Lanka (now Sri-Lanka) to try and rescue Rama's missing love, Sita. Learning that this pose is inspired by a (split) leap of faith as opposed to a heavy and punishing hamstring stretch changes the embodiment of it entirely for me. Instead of worrying about how low I can get to the ground, I imagine this tremendous leap and the strength and energy that requires. This changed the pose completely for me.
Whilst Hanumanāsana is not the most accessible pose physically, it is a good example of how this devotion might show up in your asana practice. It's tempting to execute yoga poses for the delight of the ego and the approval of others, and we all fall prey to that from time to time, but it is good to remember that, at its heart, yoga is a practice of devotion and offering of your practice.
Hanuman tearing open his chest to show Sita and Rama re-united within his heart; an extension of his devotion. Photo by Rishu Bhosale
Devotion to your body
If devotion is expressed through our spirit, that spirit can only work within the body it presently resides in. This gives a whole new meaning to, 'The Body is a Temple'. As a teacher I see a lot of my students straining their bodies to get into a pose, I also see myself doing this from time to time. This is normal and very human, but yoga is a practice of longevity and what you try to rush tends to come back to bite you further down the line. The unlimited and expansive experience you look for in yoga is about the freedom of spirit and consciousness, and at the same time you want to maintain the body's healthy boundaries.
We are all made with a different temple and you might not even like yours all the time, or, you might worship in certain corners of it, whilst neglecting others. Loving your body all the time, especially in a world that shows us a very narrow body ideal that has somehow become synonymous with worth, isn't easy. This is why I tend to focus on body acceptance over anything else.
In many cases, listening to the body can be challenging because when we are operating at a high level of stress (as many of us are these days), we can often miss the signals the body sends us, usually because we are unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, numbing ourselves.
If in doubt, the best advice I can give you is to slow down in your practice. As a teacher in a busy city like London, I see people come into class straight from work, visibly wired and still moving at the frantic pace their working day has been moving at. Slowing down can be very frustrating because if you're a busy and high achieving person, you might feel anxious that you aren't doing enough, but yoga is not about doing, it's about being. If you can, allow yourself to be still for at least 5 minutes before you start your yoga practice, and observe your breath. Notice how slow the breath becomes after even a minute of sitting like this, then how slower still it becomes after 5. This pace is your baseline for practice, there's no need to exceed it, you will be doing enough.
Photo by Yoga and Photo.
Devotion to breath
This leads me into my final exploration for now on how devotion might show up in a yoga practice. At the beginning, I mentioned that devotion could be to that which is beyond form. As someone without religion in my life, but with a deep sense of spiritual connection to something bigger, that is the focus of my devotional practice. Sometimes I call it nature, the universe, the primordial pulse of everything, the divine creative principal etc. and how I express it in my practice is through breath.
This sounds almost too simple, but breath is huge when considering devotion. When you breathe in your oxygen to nourish your body, what your body then expels as a waste product is CO2, but that CO2 is, of course, food for plants, which themselves expel oxygen for us to be able to breathe. There's an incredible reciprocity here, and it goes way beyond what I can fathom, which is why breath has become such an inherent part of my devotional practice. Just by breathing, you are in a co-creation with all living things; you are devoting your life force to life itself.
You might have heard a teacher at one time say something along the lines of 'breathe in the good, exhale the bad', which is a great concept, but I think the breath is about so much more than the experience of the individual. Your exhale is an offering, not just a chance to get rid of natural waste product. When we observe this sentiment, paired with the natural slowness of the breath, we are effectively syncing with the universal rhythm, breathing along with the natural world, synchronising with all sentient beings, attuning to one wavelength, or however you want to word it. That's the beauty of these concepts that are beyond form and therefore, beyond words.
There's a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist practice that inspires my understanding of this reciprocal, universal breath, known as Tonglen, which translates from Tibetan to mean 'giving and taking' or 'sending and receiving'. Tonglen asks the practitioner to, on the inhale, consider and then breathe in suffering. This could be the suffering of someone you know personally, or people suffering in general. And then on the exhale, you should offer out love and healing; healing for those going through pain, food and water for those in famine, love for those who are lonely, shelter for those who are homeless. So, rather than to inhale what you need and exhale what you don't, you inhale perhaps what you might not think you need, but then what you exhale is for the good of all.
In this way, your breath can become something of a prayer, and it's a prayer that continues to happen even without you being aware of it all the time. This is the kind of breath awareness I invite you to work with in class when you practice poses. It will transform your practice, perhaps not in the way you might think.
Photo by Yoga and Photo.