Reflections on the Four Paths of Yoga, Part II: Bhakti Yoga

Last fall, I taught an 8-week session on Karma Yoga (yoga of duty or action), one of the four paths of classical yoga. This session was followed by 10 weeks where I read a poem (or two or three) at the beginning of each class. It was not my intention to follow the session on Karma Yoga with one focused on Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion, and the second of the four paths of yoga). However, as I selected poems to read each week, I turned to poems from the Bhakti tradition. Bhakti became popular in 8th and 9th Century India and is a spiritual path rooted in the concept of divine love. Unlike some spiritual traditions (in India and elsewhere) in which access to God is mediated by priests, Bhakti makes God accessible to anyone. A Bhakti yogi directs human emotions like love and friendship toward the divine, creating a direct and personal connection. A Bhakti practice entails absolute devotion and surrender to God (traditionally a specific deity, also often described as “the Beloved”), which is expressed through song, dance, ritual, and poetry.

Bhakti yogis, such as Kabir and Mirabai, were also mystics. Poetry was often the medium of choice for mystics from a variety of spiritual traditions who experienced transitory, spontaneous flashes of enlightenment. Poems by Tagore, Rumi, Rabia al Basri and others attempt to describe the indescribable experience of communion with God. Such poems are often read as “love poems” though the love they describe is not human love, but the touch of the divine. Mystic poets write about wonder in the face of natural beauty, oneness with all creation, bliss in union with the divine and despair at separation from it. These themes are echoed in modern poets like Mary Oliver who writes about Rumi and dedicated one of her books to Kabir.

The practice of Karma Yoga has helped me step onto more even emotional footing, away from highs and lows driven by my perceptions of achievement or failure. While I am grateful for this equanimity, I continue to recover from burn-out and still experience periods where life feels flat, heavy and dull. This is where I turn to the poetry of Bhakti yogis, mystics and modern sages. Steeped in divine love, their poems speak to the heart and provide a counterweight to intellectual analysis and action in the world. When life is a slog, their poems offer inspiration and joy. They help me breathe a bit deeper. They push me to seek out and recognize the beautiful daily details that make life worthwhile – a flock of robins returning in the spring, a cool breeze through the windows after a rainstorm, the feeling of freedom as I peddle my bicycle along open country roads, and even the grudging satisfaction of coming inside to warmth after shoveling the walk in winter.

While teaching the session on poetry, this 2012 article “The Healing Power of Poetry”, came through my inbox, reprinted by the Utne Reader. It describes two women’s experiences with what the author calls “poems of the inner life.” The article speaks to poetry’s potential to move us beyond our small closed off worlds toward connection with the whole. It reminds me that pausing for a moment, to sit and read a poem, can help me rise above the mundane to glimpse something higher than myself. Reading such poems has become a part of my yoga practice. In that spirit, and with gratitude to students who enthusiastically embraced the reading of poems in class, here are links to an old favorite (Yellow Glove by Naomi Shihab Nye) and some new discoveries (poems by Lucille Clifton and David Whyte). Happy reading!