Yoga came to us here in the West from a highly devotional culture of India where the worship of multiple Deities has been part of people’s lives for many centuries on an everyday basis.
I first learned about Yoga in college from a book by Swami Sivananda and then I found the Integral Yoga Institute here in San Francisco just before the turn of the century. I learned Yoga has much more to it than just physical postures and breathing. The complexity of Yoga and the positive influence that it has had on my life keeps me interested as I continue to learn, share with others and awaken. Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga brought teachings of Yoga and its many practices to the United States a long time ago, before I was even born. Path of Bhakti Yoga and its devotional practices were part of it. Bhakti Yoga is considered the Yoga of the Heart.
How does prayer and worship as traditionally practiced in Yoga translate to a non-Hindu society? After more than 50 years, did it take? Is it possible to participate with full authenticity in devotional rituals that call on Hindu Gods and Goddesses? The kirtan practice, call and response chanting is widely popular here in the Bay Area. This singing of holy names is no less ecstatic than praising the Lord with Gospel music. As we call the names of Hindu deities, can we relate to them more than to the Gods and Goddesses of the old Roman mythology?
These are questions we have to ask ourselves and search our hearts. I believe it is through the authentic expression of spirituality and aligning fully with the Truth as we perceive it, we begin to awaken. We are told by teachers of Yogic lineages that one God will come to us in any form we choose if we are genuine in our faith. There can be a deep resonance with the concepts of Divine attributes associated with these figures of Hindu devotion but is that genuine faith?
As a young woman, I was given a mantra for my meditation practice. Repeating sacred sounds, mantras is a technique used by many around the world. This mantra I received had a name of Hindu deity in it and the word namah. Namah represents the devotional part of the mantra, a salutation and a proclamation of surrender. My meditation developed and the mantra became an intimate companion in my life. After about 7 years of practice, I had a meltdown. I couldn't do it anymore. I felt so much inner conflict. I just wasn't feeling connected to this personification of Divine. I asked for help from a trusted swami, a monk in a yogic tradition. In gratitude, I was given an adjustment to my mantra that was more aligned with my beliefs. I could not adopt the Hindu God with authenticity.
Another aspect of devotion in the eastern world is dedication to a teacher. People love following gurus. This was first known to me by hearing of the Beatles and their exploration of the eastern ways. Why is Guru worship so popular? The Guru is in physical form, tangible and relatable. We are attracted to something we feel and see. Teachers inspire us and kindle our aspirations. There are holy men and women in many different traditions, a fact which seems to cross the boundaries of cultures. This type of loving devotion can get dangerous and derail our rationale and even have us vulnerable to manipulation. It has become known that many spiritual teachers, priests or gurus have exploited their communities financially or even sexually. When you mix devotion, love, and sex, you can get a pretty powerful cocktail that can have a lasting imprint on the victims of such abuse of power. I have learned that my primary yoga master Swami Satchidananda has done so as well. Multiple women came forward with reports of their sexual involvement with this supposedly celibate holy man. Now even though Swami Satchidananda’s disciples know, many continue to see him as no less than Divine. Many continue to worship him regardless of his hidden shadow life, regardless of the lies and betrayals. They worship him in recognition of the Light they saw in him and in gratitude for all the gifts they received. Is that ok? There is sweetness in the act of worship itself and any act of truly felt devotion has power.
Opening the heart, loving, expressing affection is undeniably an important part of spiritual life. How can we express that authentically and in harmony with yogic teachings of the east? Let’s find what makes our hearts sing.