PART ONE: CHRISTIAN BHAKTI YOGA
PART TWO: BHAKTI YOGA FROM INDIA
PART THREE: WHAT LOVE IS?
CHRISTIAN BHAKTI YOGA:
THE PATH OF LOVE
The path of Christian Yoga is a way of following Jesus Christ and using techniques of yoga to assist you. Christian Bhakti Yoga is the expression of love to follow Jesus Christ. However, you may choose to follow Jesus Christ in a very personal way or in a more impersonal way. You may choose to emphasize personal devotion to Jesus, as your spiritual ideal, and primary means of spiritual expression. In this case your selfless dedication, knowledge, meditation, and contemplation can all be expressions of love directed toward Jesus.
Another way of following Jesus is to follow the form of devotion that Jesus Himself followed, which is personal devotion to God as His Father. On the other hand, you may choose to direct most of your forms of spiritual expression toward God in a more impersonal sense, as the Ground of your Being, the source of your spiritual nature.
Whether you choose the personal or impersonal direction, it is recommended that you make an effort to value and appreciate the opposite direction, even if it is not suited to you personally. A third possibility is to allow your devotion to be expressed in both a personal and impersonal way. You can have personal devotion to Jesus and God the Father and at the same time be open to God being the impersonal Ground of Being. Your devotion can also focus on receptivity to the Holy Spirit, as the expression of Divine Love and Light, which again can be felt very personally or impersonally.
Whatever direction you choose, it is recommended that you consider incorporating both personal and impersonal elements in your spiritual practices, since both can be helpful in your growth. The Hindu teacher Ramakrishna spoke of God in a manifested form as an ice sculpture, which is the personal aspect of God that can be worshiped personally. You can cling to this ice sculpture with your heart-felt devotion. But the heat of your passionate love for your Beloved can produce a surprising result: The ice sculpture can melt and become water. However, your devotion does not have to end. The water now under your feet becomes the ground upon which you are standing—the Ground of your Being. You can still worship your Beloved because He has simply changed form. This time the heat of your devotion can cause the water to evaporate, but you have not lost your Beloved. The water becomes part of the very air that you breathe and you can breathe in your Beloved so now there is no separation between you and your Beloved.
In this analogy the ice sculpture can be Jesus, and the water can be God the Father, the Creator or the Ground of Being, but experienced as being separate from yourself. The water that evaporates into the air can be seen in different ways. The evaporated water can be the Holy Spirit or the breath of God’s life that gives you your spirit. Being aware of breathing in the water in the air can be the awakening of the Christ Self as your own true nature united with God or simply what traditional Christianity calls divine union.
When Ramakrishna met any spiritual teacher in India, he would always ask the teacher, “Do you have the divine commission?” Ramakrishna did not think anyone should teach until that person had experienced divine union. Ramakrishna himself experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest form of divine union in classical yoga in which the seeker and God as the Ground of Being are one. This in itself is an experience of the impersonal aspect of God, but it was Ramakrishna’s personal devotion that ultimately led to his impersonal awakening. After this impersonal awakening, he returned to his personal worship. His personal worship produced ecstatic states of samadhi (ecstasy), but within the realm of form, the example of Ramakrishna is used here to emphasize that Christian Bhakti Yoga is best expressed by a broad-minded universal love that is all inclusive. This inclusiveness can lead to a genuine appreciation of other forms of personal or impersonal devotion.
Ramakrishna is a particularly good example of a broad-minded approach to spirituality, because he was open to both personal and impersonal aspects of God and to other forms of spiritual seeking that were not part of his Hindu tradition, such as the spirituality of Buddhism and Christianity. In fact he sought out other forms of personal devotion in order to experience the divine everywhere. Pertinent to Christian Bhakti Yoga is that Ramakrishna came across a picture of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. He opened his heart to the image before him and fell into an ecstasy. He continued in devotion to Mary and Jesus for a few weeks, leaving all other duties. He had many disciples, but during this time was oblivious to his disciples, who were concerned that apparently Ramakrishna had left them. Of course, Ramakrishna eventually returned to his disciples and former worship, but he was only concerned with living a life that was motivated by the divine influence, in whatever way the divine influence presented itself in the moment. Ramakrishna experienced the heart of Bhakti Yoga as an inner loving communion with the divine within and as an awareness of divine love being manifested outwardly through everyone and everything.
MOTHER MARY AND JESUS
Above, the painting "A Mother and Child" by Stefano Novo depicts Mother Mary, who is a wonderful example of Christian Bhakti Yoga. There is, of course, no better example of Christian Bhakti Yoga than Jesus Himself. Giving His life for the sake of others was His greatest expression of love, but what may go unnoticed is that Jesus lived every day as an expression of love in very little ways. A kind word, a smile, a touch of His hand—these are the ways He used to touch the hearts of those around Him. He did not let any small opportunity to express love pass by. He was able to consistently express love outwardly because He took time to make loving contact in solitude with the Father as His form of inner personal devotion.
Because Jesus is one with the Father, you can turn to Jesus in devotion and be united with the Father or you can turn to the Father in devotion and be united with Jesus. The Jesus Prayer, consisting of repeating the Divine Name of Christ, is one such form of devotion, as is Christian meditation and contemplation in every form. Christian Bhakti Yoga also includes heartfelt prayers of a formal or spontaneous nature to Jesus or God. Your times set aside for personal devotion or group worship can carry over into everyday life as an expression of recollection and prayerfulness. Love is your true nature, but it is clouded over by desires for other things. Like the other aspects of Christian Yoga, Christian Bhakti Yoga includes “looking and overlooking.” The “looking” is the focus on the Beloved, the longing for two to be one. The “overlooking” has to do with the setting aside of the blocks that cloud over your heart’s desire for your Beloved. The love that you receive from your Beloved and your own response of love gives you the strength to overlook all obstacles. You overlook the thoughts of separation, the thoughts of the ego, and you one-pointedly focus on looking toward your Beloved with the intention of divine union.
Your looking is a maintaining of purity of heart and your overlooking is a letting go of any blocks to your purity of heart. Looking and overlooking have an external and an internal component. The external component of looking is the purity of heart that enables you to see your Beloved in the faces of your brothers and sisters. The external component of overlooking is the letting go of any outer blocks, habitual behavior patterns, that would separate you from expressing love to others. The internal component of looking is the purity of heart that enables you to contact your Beloved within. The internal component of your overlooking is the letting go of any thoughts or desires that would disturb your focused inner devotion to your Beloved.
Your practice of Christian Bhakti Yoga can take whatever direction of expression best suits you. If you have a musical inclination, you may want to use singing or chanting to express your devotion. You may want to set up an altar for worship to your Beloved. Of course, you may want to spend time reading the Bible or other inspired writings.
A specific recommendation being made here for inspirational reading is The Poem of the Man-God.(1) In spite of the title, this is not a book of poetry but a set of five volumes of a narrative of the life Jesus. The author was Maria Valtorta, who is an example of Christian devotion. Maria offered herself to her Beloved, Jesus, as a sacrifice for Divine Love. She renewed the offering of herself every day and was elevated to great heights in her love of her Beloved. Jesus appeared in visions to her on a regular basis for several years. In these appearances, Maria was shown visions of the entire life of Mother Mary and Jesus, and she was instructed to record these visions. Maria was not a scholar and asserted that often Jesus dictated to her what to write, but she herself often did not understand what she was writing. She considered Jesus to be the true author. This writing does not change or substitute for the Gospel, but does elaborate upon and illuminate the Gospel. Because Maria was Catholic, there are references to traditional Catholic beliefs, which are very different than the spiritual principles described in this website. However, this book is not recommended here as a way of understanding theology. Rather, this book is recommended because of its very vivid picture of Jesus as a perfect living example of expressing love in the world.
There is no way to prove if this narrative of the life of Jesus is objectively accurate, so it may only be an imaginary depiction. But even so, this close look at the events shows a picture of Jesus that portrays Him as the Master of Love. Of particular interest is how He repeatedly and tirelessly makes every effort to help Judas, who repeatedly gives in to temptation and is lovingly forgiven by Jesus each time. The joys and sorrows of Jesus and His disciples are often expressed in conversations providing the reader with a sense of being a direct witness to the biblical events. But perhaps more important than the events is seeing the humanness of Jesus and His disciples revealed in their actions and relationships. This intimate picture of their lives is helpful for the practice of Christian Bhakti Yoga as an opportunity to internalize the emotions of the times and vicariously experience the life of Jesus and His disciples in your own heart.
Another recommendation for inspiration is seeing the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Spiritual movies often fall flat with hollow acting and uninspired directing, but this movie is an exception. Through the magical direction of Franco Zeffirelli, this movie comes alive as stunning visual poetry. It presents the devotional life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who was a wonderful example of the Christian path of love. As a young man, Saint Francis had wealth, rank, and sensual pleasures at his disposal, yet he set it all aside for the love of God. The painting below by Carlo Saraceni shows one monk who is reading for his inspiration. In contrast to that monk, Saint Francis is depicted opening his heart to divine inspiration.
"VISION OF SAINT FRANCIS"
Anything that opens your heart is an expression of Christian Bhakti Yoga. A good place to start burning the flame of divine love is to focus the awareness during meditation on the physical heart itself or in the center of the chest. Sometimes love is first awakened in the physical heart and then the loving awareness expands and becomes centered primarily in the center of the chest. St. Symeon identified the nous as the spirit located in the center of the heart (the location of the physical heart or center of the chest) and as the point of integration where the divine and human natures of man meet. This is also where you can awaken your awareness of the Atman of yoga and the Christ Self. The heart is essential for growth in Christian Bhakti Yoga. Christian devotion is a matter of developing your feeling side by exploring your heart and then investing in whatever divine inspiration moves your heart. The section below discusses the origin of Christian Bhakti Yoga in the practice of Bhakti Yoga in India.
1. Maria Valtorta, The Poem of the Man-God, Volumes 1–5, Translated from Italian by Nicandro Picozzi, Revised by Patrick McLaughlin (reprinted by Grafiche Dipro, 31056 Roncade TV, Italy, for copyright holder Centro Editoriale Valtortiano sri, 03036 Isola de Liri [Fr], Italy). Can be purchased from Editions Paulines, 250, boul. Saint-Francois Nord, Sherbrooke, QC, J1E 2B9 – Canada.
BHAKTI YOGA FROM INDIA:
THE PATH OF LOVE
In the Hindu tradition, Bhakti Yoga is the path of love. The person who is openhearted by nature will be drawn to Bhakti Yoga. But everyone is nourished by expressions of giving and receiving love. Therefore, everyone can benefit by the practice of Bhakti Yoga, even if it is not one’s chosen path.
In Bhakti Yoga the power of love is directed toward a personal aspect of God. This personal aspect is the Ishta, the chosen form of God. The Ishta may be a deva, a form of God, such as Vishnu or Shiva. The Ishta may also be an avatar, an incarnation of God, such as Krishna or Rama. The bhakti yogi gives his heart to the personal aspect of God that he has chosen, but realizes that there is ultimately only one Brahman, one Reality. However, that ultimate Reality is too impersonal for the bhakti who seeks a personal relationship with the divine.
The bhakti yogi has a choice of how to view his relationship with his chosen Ishta. Some bhakti yogis are attracted to relating to God in a very specific way. The choice of relationship can be similar to any way in which humans express love, as follows:(1)
1. shanti, a seeker of divine peace in relation to God
2. dasya, a servant in relation to a master
3. apatya, a child’s attitude in relation to a parent
4. sakhya, a friend’s relation to a friend
5. vatsalya, a parent’s attitude in relation to a child
6. madhura, a lover’s relation to a lover
The choice of how to relate specifically to the Ishta is a deeply personal matter, and this relationship may change in time. The bhakti yogi is involved in a dualistic relationship in which he sees himself and his personal Ishta as being separate and his devotion as a means of joining with his Ishta to become one. Love is this two becoming one. But as the bhakti yogi succeeds in this loving union and his consciousness becomes totally filled with love, he becomes more aware of his true Self. He increasingly realizes that he is worshipping the Atman (true Self or Christ Self) in his own heart. Therefore, after perhaps many years, the bhakti yogi’s dualism can eventually lead to a nondualistic realization.
The goal of Bhakti Yoga is to love the personal God and to be aware of God’s loving embrace. In order to express his devotion, the bhakti yogi wants to constantly remember his personal God. To fill his consciousness with the awareness of God he practices another specific form of yoga, Japa Yoga, which is the repeating of an affirmation. The most common form of Japa Yoga for a bhakti yogi is repeating the Name of God, which would be the Name of the chosen Ishta. Constant recollection of the divine through Japa Yoga assists in cleansing the mind of lower impulses and directs the emotional nature toward the expression of devotion.
Prayer is an important form of devotional expression for the bhakti yogi. Of course, formal prayers are helpful, but perhaps spontaneous prayers are even more helpful because they are a means of directing all of the emotions toward the divine. Just as you can talk with a friend about your fear, grief, anger, or pain, you can talk with your personal aspect of God and express every thought and emotion in order to relieve the human heart of any burdens. Prayers that are packed with deeply felt emotions are wholehearted expressions. This wholeheartedness helps to produce an inner integration of the heart, mind, and will because all of one’s being is involved with these expressions.
Prayers for others help to turn the consciousness away from self-centered motivations and toward divine inclinations. There is a Hindu awareness of the significance of praying for the benefit of all mankind. Prayers are a form of asking for divine assistance. When these are directed toward seeking virtues that would lead toward God, these prayers are consistently answered by God. The more fervent the prayer is the more likely it is that the prayer will be answered. It is a Hindu understanding that God reveals Himself by divine grace, but that a seeker who consistently prays with great longing for his Beloved will not be disappointed.
Just as the karma yogi views all action as worship, so too the bhakti yogi is very focused on worship. Unlike the asking nature of prayer, worship represents giving to God. Love needs to be expressed and the giving that occurs in worship is one way to tangibly express love for one’s Beloved. Because prayer is asking it can be focused upon the needs of the self, but the nature of worship changes the focus from self-receiving to self-giving. The self is the giver of the worship and what is given is a gift, which, for example, can be a fruit or a flower. Yet the material gift is actually only a symbol of the giving of oneself to God. It is purity of intention that is important in the act of worship.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of worship is internalization. All outer actions of worship are performed with an understanding that the outer expression is to be experienced internally. For instance, the bhakti devotee may have a personal altar in his home devoted to his personal Ishta. In an act of worship, he may lovingly place a flower on his altar, but in doing so he is internalizing this act. He will feel and inwardly experience that he is simultaneously placing his love, symbolized by the flower, on the altar of his human heart within his body where he can meet his Beloved.
This internalization is central to the expression of ritual, which is a specific form of worship that symbolically represents the holy relationship between the worshiper and God. Without internalization ritual worship becomes merely religious convention without conviction. Through the physical gestures and actions of ritual a sacred bond between the devotee and God is expressed in a way that words fail to convey.
The devotee uses all forms of communication to express his holy and loving divine relationship. These would include music, singing, especially chanting, reading scripture, company with others of like mind, and travel to holy places on pilgrimage. All these forms of communication are intended to produce deeper communion—divine intimacy. God is great, powerful, and incomprehensible, but the devotee is unconcerned about the many different attributes of God. The devotee is single-mindedly focused upon his heart reaching out to God and the divine love he feels coming from God to him. Just as the highest form of human intimacy can be found in the relationship between two lovers, the highest from of divine intimacy can be found in the devotee who gives himself in love totally to God.
1. Pravrajika Vrajaprana, Regaining the Lost Kingdom, an article included in Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions, edited by Bruno Barnhart and Joseph Wong (New York, New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 30–31.
WHAT IS LOVE?
There is one inherent danger in the practice of Christian Bhakti Yoga. The kind of person who is attracted to this path is guided by his feelings more than his intellect. This kind of seeker is emotional and greatly values love. But the question arises: “What is love?” If your definition of love is narrow-minded, your practice of love in Christian Bhakti Yoga will be just as narrow-minded. Certainly divine love is broad-minded as the example above of Ramakrishna exemplified. However, human love can enter into Christian Bhakti Yoga and bring in negative aspects. A narrow-minded love will focus only on the Beloved and can create a mental exclusiveness toward others. This kind of exclusiveness is seen in groups that are so devoted to Jesus or some other personal aspect of their religious denomination that they are not tolerant of others. In subtle or not so subtle ways, their intolerance manifests toward others who do not worship in the same way as they do.
The reason why narrow-minded love can happen is the fact that many seekers use a human perspective to understand what love is. Thus they limit the true meaning of love. A limited love makes it seem perfectly acceptable to give your love to some and withhold your love from others. This is a serious handicap to the practice of Christian Bhakti Yoga, in spite of the fact that this belief is very common. If you want to eventually accept the divine love that is within you and that comes from God, you must start with learning to love everyone. Most important of all, you must not leave anyone outside the acceptance of your forgiving and loving eyes.
You cannot enter into real relationships with any of God’s Sons unless you love them all and equally. Love is not special. If you single out part of the Sonship for your love, you are imposing guilt on all your relationships and making them unreal. You can love only as God loves. Seek not to love unlike Him, for there is no love apart from His.(1)
To truly practice Christian Bhakti Yoga requires that your idea of love remains very lofty. This website draws upon A Course in Miracles for its definition of love, which is identified in the above quotation that calls every seeker to “love only as God loves.” The remainder of this section is taken from the book Christian Meditation Inspired by Yoga and “A Course in Miracles.” The excerpt below, which includes two Course quotations, leaves no doubt about the attitude necessary to truly understand what love is. This excerpt clarifies God’s Love for you and your love for Him. It is this understanding that is necessary to successfully practice Christian Bhakti Yoga with passion:
To wake up [in Heaven] you will need to overcome a paradox: Love is our true nature, yet you do not currently know what love is. “You do not know the meaning of love, and that is your handicap.”(2) Yet God’s Love will awaken you because of “…the powerful attraction of the Father for His Son. There is no other love that can satisfy you, because there is no other love. This is the only love that is fully given and fully returned. Being complete, it asks nothing. Being wholly pure, everyone joined in it has everything.”(3) There is a temptation to define love, even God’s Love, by limiting its meaning. In this changing world of form, it seems there are many types of love. But the Course refutes the idea there are different kinds of love.
Perhaps you think that different kinds of love are possible. Perhaps you think there is a kind of love for this, a kind for that; a way of loving one, another way of loving still another. Love is one. It has no separate parts and no degrees; no kinds nor levels, no divergencies and no distinctions. It is like itself, unchanged throughout. It never alters with a person or a circumstance. It is the Heart of God, and also of His Son.
Love’s meaning is obscure to anyone who thinks that love can change. He does not see that changing love must be impossible. And thus he thinks that he can love at times, and hate at other times. He also thinks that love can be bestowed on one, and yet remain itself although it is withheld from others. To believe these things of love is not to understand it. If it could make such distinctions, it would have to judge between the righteous and the sinner, and perceive the Son of God in separate parts.
Love cannot judge. As it is one itself, it looks on all as one. Its meaning lies in oneness. And it must elude the mind that thinks of it as partial or in part. There is no love but God’s, and all of love is His. There is no other principle that rules where love is not. Love is a law without an opposite. Its wholeness is the power holding everything as one, the link between the Father and the Son which holds Them both forever as the same.
No course whose purpose is to teach you to remember what you really are could fail to emphasize that there can never be a difference in what you really are and what love is. Love’s meaning is your own, and shared by God Himself. For what you are is what He is. There is no love but His, and what He is, is everything there is. There is no limit placed upon Himself, and so are you unlimited as well.(4)
Of all the ideas I have shared in this meditation manual, the most important one is that God’s Love for you is the source of your true nature: “…you are love. Love is your power, which the ego must deny.”(5) When the ego is successful in denying the love within you, you will not have faith in yourself. “You have so little faith in yourself because you are unwilling to accept the fact that perfect love is in you.”(6) Since the ego denies the love God gives to you, you need to find ways to remind yourself of the truth that His Love is within you as your true nature.
Your meditation time can be a helpful reminder of God’s Love within you. Your brothers can also remind you of God’s Love. “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter.”(7) You can send God’s Love to your brothers and receive love from them in miracles of love. To perform miracles of love requires that you accept the Atonement for yourself, which is the same as accepting perfect love. “Perfect love is the Atonement.”(8)
Every morning, when my alarm clock rings, the first words out of my mouth are: “Father, thank you for loving me. Let your love flow through me to bless all my brothers and sisters.” This is one way I remind myself of God’s Love. In addition, before my afternoon sitting meditation, I spend about twenty minutes lying down and listening to instrumental music while feeling God’s Love. The vast majority of people all over the world spend their lives searching for love and not finding it without ever realizing that God’s Love permeates them from within and is their own true nature. Nevertheless, I can in no way be self-satisfied about my own understanding since there is a natural limit to human understanding in regard to answering the question: “How much does God love you?”
You cannot understand how much your Father loves you, for there is no parallel in your experience of the world to help you understand it. There is nothing on earth with which it can compare, and nothing you have ever felt apart from Him resembles it ever so faintly.(9)
You and I will truly understanding the depth of God’s Love only after we wake up in our true Home in Heaven. Although our worldly perception and human understanding are limited now, we can still open ourselves to the experience of divine love. At this point in my own life, I live mostly as a hermit. Although I do not have much of an outer social life, the Course repeatedly reminds me that I am never alone. Meditation is normally thought of as a solitary practice, but it is in reality always a communion. I practice meditation four times every day, yet I do not perceive this as a self-imposed discipline. Instead, these times of apparent aloneness are actually my true social life and my joy. In these periods of silence, I find my true connection with all my brothers and sisters in Christ and with my Father, Who loves me. I hope this book will serve to help you to meditate at a deeper level and to find spiritual nourishment by joining in communion with God and with your brothers and sisters in Christ. This time of rest in the Arms of the Father is the best gift you can give to others and to yourself.
T-13.X.11:1-5, p. 265
2. T-12.V.6:1, p. 226
3. T-15.VII.1:1-5, p. 317
4. W-50.1:1-7, 2:1-6, 3:1-8, 4:1-5, p. 230
5. T-7.VI.4:6-7, p. 174
6. T-15.VI.2:1, p. 314
7. T-8.III.4:1, p. 142
8. T-2.VI.7:8, p. 30
9. T-14.IV.8:4-5, p. 281
Christian Karma Yoga : Service
Christian Raja Yoga : Meditation
Christian Jnana Yoga : Understanding
INSPIRED BY YOGA AND
The excerpt in the section above is from the book Christian Meditation Inspired by Yoga and “A Course in Miracles” by Donald James Giacobbe. Below is a description of this book:
Christian Meditation is a sacred activity nourishing your faith that "the Kingdom of God is within you." This comprehensive instruction manual presents unique meditation techniques inspired by yoga that include coordinating the breathing and focusing on different parts of the body. These meditation methods are integrated into an entirely Christian context in which the number one priority is reliance on the action and grace of the Holy Spirit.
This book is divided into four parts: Part one describes clear and structured practices of Christian meditation, including the option of a 28-day meditation schedule for beginners to make a specific commitment to their inner spiritual growth. Part two provides guidelines for how intermediate meditators can deepen their meditation experience. Part three focuses on meditation related to overall spiritual growth. Part four shows how to practice meditation as a way of inwardly forgiving yourself as it is described in the philosophy of A Course in Miracles. Although the word "yoga" is usually translated as "union," it can also be interpreted as "integration." The overall effect of combining traditional Christian attunement methods and nontraditional meditation techniques inspired by yoga is to bring about an integration and unification of the various levels of your being and to deepen your meditation experience.
However, these methods are only the beginning of this integration and unification process. The purpose of these meditation techniques is to prepare you for entering wordless contemplation, which is an experience of resting in the embrace of divine love. During contemplation there is an overshadowing of the Holy Spirit in which the mind becomes still without needing a specific focusing object. Through contemplation the Holy Spirit can lead you to a greater degree of integration and unification that will transform you and lead toward your ultimate destiny of awakening to divine union with God. f you are serious about learning how to meditate, I recommend that you conduct a twenty-eight day demonstration of your willingness to increase your awareness of the divine presence within. Outlined below are a set of procedures for your consideration. I recommend meditating for twenty-eight consecutive days because it takes that long to break the habit patterns of the mind. These procedures are not rigid rules, but only optional guidelines so feel free to make any adjustments in them that would be appropriate to your needs.
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