Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ

Via on Jul 19, 2010

This week I am very pleased to bring you special guest Amy Champ to talk about a type of Yoga I could never do justice to, simply because I don’t practice it–Bhakti Yoga, or the Yoga of Ritual Devotion.

Part of the genious of the Gita is that it allows for a wide variety of Yoga practice, as we discussed in Gita Talk #11: Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks.

I am very much a “Jnana” Yoga person. For me Yoga is understanding Yoga philosophy and applying it directly in my everyday life. For others, like Amy, Yoga centers around “Bhakti”, or devotional practice.

I don’t personally practice any devotional rituals at all (probably because I overdosed on them as a very holy little altar boy growing up ultra-traditional Catholic.)  So it’s important to bring in a serious practitioner like Amy to talk about Bhakti Yoga.

Amy Champ is a yoga teacher who is finishing her PhD program in Performance Studies, with a designated emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research, at University of California, Davis. She is currently working on her dissertation about women yoga teachers and their activism.

Amy has been a teaching assistant in the Religious Studies department at UCD for two years. She has a MA in Government and International Relations, and a BA in Anthropology and Literary Studies.

Please  make a point of leaving a comment or question to welcome Amy to Gita Talk.  And now, here’s Amy on Bhakti Yoga:

Devotion

Knowledge is better than practice; meditation is better than knowledge; and best of all is surrender, which soon brings peace. (Bhagavad Gita 12.12)

Jesus told them: “I assure you, even if you had faith as small as a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible. (Matthew 17:20)

In Chapter 12, Krishna discusses the difference between yogis who approach trying to understand God from an intellectual standpoint, and those who simply surrender to the divine by faith and devotion. If God is limitless, then how can our minds tackle such an unfathomable concept? Since the mind itself is so wild, how can we rely on it? Bhakti suggests that rather than trying to figure out what God is, that we enter into a personal relationship with Krishna.

The first time I read the Bhagavad Gita was 1993 in Durban, South Africa. I was staying in a youthhostel, and had gone to the ISKCON (commonly known as “Hare Krisha” movement) temple. I was reading the version with commentary by Prabhupada, and the main thing I remember thinking at the time was the absolute and total surrender this God called Krishna was asking for. Also, the way that the “Hare Krishnas” refer to Krishna constantly seemed a bit wearying for someone who was less interested in God per se, let alone any “kind of god,” and more focused on finding “the truth.” I found it a bit hard to take, as a recovering fundamentalist Christian who had recently decided to flirt with Buddhism.

Personally, I don’t think the point of bhakti practice is to convert everyone to Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita was written long before such a concept of a Major Religion existed. You can also consider that–from Sivananda to J. Krishnamurti–most of the major gurus of the 20th century acknowledged the significance of multiple paths to the divine.

Having said that, however, there is a certain flavor to the type of devotion discussed in the Gita which will be critical for our discussion online this week. This is all-out devotion. Krishna says at the end in verse 12.20 that he loves devotees “who trust me completely and surrender their lives to me.” I mean, really, who wants to be 38 years old and banging on a tambourine chanting Hare Krishna? Umm, I do, apparently. Although, if you’d asked me that question twenty years ago, I certainly would have laughed out loud.

The exploding counterculture in the 1950s and 60s owed a lot to the Indian gurus, but Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with the concept of devotion as a holistic experience. I used to have a Sri Chinmoy poster in my college dorm room. It said “Love, Devotion, Surrender.” I loved listening to my records of John MacLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Something about the age-old roots of the Sanskrit mantras seemed to override my preconceptions of all kinds. I was tapping into this timelessness at an early age, very intrigued by this holy, rhythmic music that just seemed to wash over me, cleansing everything in its path.

I started to chant the mantras phonetically, while I listened to Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra. This was before I knew what any of the words meant. Repetition makes the vibrations more powerful.

While devotion found its way into popular culture, the collision between East and West has often generated very extreme circumstances when it comes to the idea of “the guru” and the idea of surrender, which is very Eastern. In the mid-1990s, a couple of friends and I were working on a tour bus in India, volunteering for a group of Buddhist practitioners who were devotees of Tibetan teacher Tarthang Tulku. We were traveling on a Buddhist pilgrimage, visiting the major sacred sites in southern Nepal and Northern India. We had been withthem for a few days, forming friendships and learning more about Buddhism. After about a week, their guru arrived from America. When he walked into the room, people were bowing down with their entire bodies and touching their foreheads to the ground. My friends bowed down, but I did not.

I had spun giant prayer wheels in the Himalayas. I had circumambulated stupas. I had bowed to many Buddha statues with their heads looming from the tops of many temples. I had clasped my hands together and said “Namaste” and did a little bow when I greeted monks. But–I could not bring myself to bow down to the floor in front of a living person. It went against everything I knew and the admonition in my Christian upbringing that said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For me, that verse was God talking, and all spiritual experimentation aside, my idea about God was important. Important enough to keep my head off the floor, and in the air where I thought it belonged. It was embarrassing to be the only person in the group who did not bow down, but I felt good about it because I was exercising my free will to disagree. I felt like everyone was so concerned about not offending the guru, about honoring the power structure, and it felt so constricting.

Now thinking back on it, I’m sure the teacher didn’t even notice.

It reminds me of a story in the Sivananda yoga tradition, about when Swami Vishnu Devananda went to meet the great master Swami Sivananda. In India, of course, it is very common for people to prostrate themselves on the ground in front of holy men. As the story goes, Swami Sivananda was making his outside rounds and when Vishnu Devananda saw him coming down the stairs, he panicked because he did not want to bow down. And so he hid, by ducking into an alleyway. Swami Sivananda continued to descend the stairs, and when he got to the alleyway opening, he proceeded to openly prostrate on the ground to Vishnu Devananda. And with this great first lesson, began Vishnu Devananda’s lifetime of service to his guru.

Over time, the concept of surrender has become more and more sweet to me. Surrender to the divine, is surrender to the flow, is living in the moment, is total grace. In conclusion, I’d like to reflect on some of the ways in which bhakti has entered my life and continued to sustain my spiritual practice.

Ritual is important for me, because it is the foundation of what yogis call “sadhana,” or practice. The path of yoga called “bhakti” constitutes a whole array of devotional practices with many performative aspects, including song, dance and ceremony. There is also a focused ritual aspect to the more bodily-based practice of yoga. Whether it is a breathing ritual or a movement ritual, the intention is the same. The physical ritual is used as a device in order to get beyond the physical, and realize the cultural conditioning that creates social relations.

I look at bhakti as a form of sustenance for our daily spiritual practice. You may have heard yogis say that bhakti and/or kirtan “is the easiest way to reach God.” The idea here is that through the bodily and sensual wisdom in rituals and the more aesthetic aspects of worshipful practice, we get a “taste” or rasa of bliss, of the intimate experience that comes with connection to God. Bhakti is most certainly total absorption, very similar to love between humans, but this level of merging can only occur if you establish practices and experiences designed to cultivate this feeling.

Daily rituals are important, but I think a lot of people can get hung up on the fact that these are perhaps not as regular as the structured rituals at spiritual communities. What happens is that we get used to a strict schedule of rituals at a retreat, and then get bummed out when we can’t duplicate that process at home.

My personal experience with bhakti is not strict at all, but I do feel that devotion has become a way of life. The most important key for me is probably environmental.

I listen to chanting of all sorts night and day. Studying scripture daily is a requirement for any solid level of practice. I wear my mala fairly regularly, although I don’t do japaasoften as I would like!! Hang devotional pictures, quotes, and charts around your home. Burn incense regularly, and put candles in every room. The point here, I think, is providing an environment that allows Divine Energy to flow in. Bhakti is not something you do, but rather a mode of living. It’s easier to dwell in divine understanding when you’re prompted by your environment. It’s a lot more difficult when the “things” you are surrounded by confound your practice.

It is important to have an altar, a place to meditate, and places to go to express your devotion. Pilgrimages to local events, kirtans, and spiritual centers are good for establishing a devotional frame of mind.

To summarize, devotion is a practice that feeds our heart chakra. All manner of art can be an expression of divine love and devotion. Bhakti is Prasad, food for the mind and body which leads us back to our soul.

I made a little six-minute video called “Devotion” shot at the Sivananda Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, California. You can view it here: http://www.youtube.com/amychamp72.

For more information on developing your bhakti practice, I have put together a suggested reading list on the Gita Talk Facebook page.

I look forward to answering your questions and reading your comments below.

–Amy Champ

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About Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg: Editor, Best of Yoga Philosophy / Former Assoc. Publisher, elephant journal / Author: Yoga Demystified * Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell * Leadership Is Like Tennis, Not Egyptology / Co-editor: Yoga in America (free eBook) / Creator: Gita Talk: Self-paced Online Seminar / Flamenco guitarist: "Live at Don Quijote" & "American Gypsy" (Free CD's) / Follow Bob on facebook, Twitter, or his main site: Wordpress.

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32 Responses to “Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ”

  1. [...] Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ [...]

  2. Great article Amy! For me, Bhakti yoga and practicing devotional rituals is a way to tap into the wisdom energy of all those that came before me and all who will come after. I believe the ritual in itself has a specific energy to it. I add to the collective energy of that through my own way of practicing it.

    What I also think is important to realize is all day, every day, we practice rituals. We may not think of them like that. But the way in which we move through the world always allows us direct access to the divine. It's up to us whether we make that contact via fear or intuition. And whether or not we choose to view life in this way.

    Specific devotional practices buoy us up and help connect us firmly to our intuition, the divine within and around us. It's a great gift that those before us have left us in the form of ritual. I believe it's an honor to continue that legacy.

    • Amy Champ says:

      Thank you Coach Vanessa. You are on the ball as our first commentator! I love that you tailor your rituals. I like how you siad we practice rituals, even when we are unaware of it. How can we make bhakti more a part of that? There is an interesting book called The Path of Practice, in which Ayurvedic rituals are used to invigorate our realtionship with food and what we put into our bodies. For example, moving your hands slowly through a bowl of grain, feeling the textures and saying prayers over them. On another point–Swami Sivananda Radha was a Canadian guru who studied with Master Sivananda early on. She came back to her country and taught for many years. Her ashram is near Vancouver. She created something called the Rose Ceremony, which looks so lovely. I really want to do one soon. "For the well-examined life… The Rose Ceremony contains a powerful ritual that leads to self-acceptance, trust and freedom." — Hardeep Dhaliwal, 2004 Here is the link to the book about the Rose Ceremony ~> http://www.amazon.com/Rose-Ceremony-Swami-Sivanan… Many blessings to your practice, my dear friend. Om.

  3. paramsangat says:

    Thanks for the lovely and down-to-earth article :)
    I love being bhakti-full, surrender to something greater, singing, doing yoga and having my heart open. The importance of an altar or "special place" for mediation has faded as my altar is always with me, inside. Remembering that, every and any place is a special place enough for meditation. Every and anything can be considered a temporary altar. When its a way of life, no "outside" props are needed. Of course I love having my yoga/meditation-room at home, creating a shakti and shanti-filled space. But what I mean is that… my home is like that for pleasure – I dont have an altar as such at home, nor wearing a mala… nothing "outside" hinders me from being bhakti-filled in an airport, an airplane, where there is lotsa noice or if finding myself in a extreamly-cluttery/dirty space… :)

    • Amy Champ says:

      Thank you Paramsangat. When bhakti lives in our heart, we have a deep connection to humanity and bring a radiant joy with us wherever we go. EVERY place is indeed good for meditation. Everything can be a temporary altar. HOw wonderful. It reminds me of when you come across a stone tower at the beach or up int he mountains. These are like little altars made in nature, and seem to be universal, although I ahve mostly seen them on the Indian sub-continent. Blessings to you on your bhakti path!

  4. Ramesh says:

    Amy, thanks for this beautiful article on Bhakti Yoga. I share your love of kirtan and bhakti yoga. When traveling from the US to Norway recently, I listened to Jai Uttal's latest CD, Bhakti Bazaar for hours and chanted along. It is his best CD so far, I think.
    Tomorrow I am going to an ashram in Denmark for four days to meditate and chant. I love the ecstatic energy nurtured in a group when kirtan is sung and danced for hours on end. It is truly mind altering and transformational. And meditation is always so enchantingly deep afterward. Walking the path of Bhakti is indeed the sweetest way to encounter the Divine. No need to kill the Buddha on the road when you meet him for Bhaktas. We just embrace him and give him a big fat KISS! Thanks again for this sweet waft of love-intoxicated incense!

    • Amy Champ says:

      Wonderful Ramesh, I'm happy for your upcoming trip. It appears that you are a deep bhakta. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Namaste!

  5. Tobye Hillier tobye says:

    Thanks Amy!
    I find that devotional practises are private for me and even my yogasana practice feels weird if I'm not in a class but think someone could be watching ie; the beach!

    And your talk has made me realise that I need ritual in my life…. not routine, but ritual.

    • Amy Champ says:

      I like how you put that — not routine, but ritual. So that we're not feeling inadequate, but letting the devotional activities float in with guidance.

  6. Martin Dickinson says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this. Very good video and givew you a real sense. The one word that stood out like a beacon of light was the word "gratitutde." I have a thing for "gratitude," and believe that gratitude is a form of love (has many forms doesn't it?) from which everything flows. The statement of gratitude in your video is perfect.

    • Amy Champ says:

      Wow Martin, that's really interesting. I didn't even pick up on that. Gratitude is a form of devotion, because we are acknowledging the abundance that is truly the divine reality.

  7. Rosetta says:

    For someone like me — who has taught herself to chant Hanuman Chalisa, Mahisura Mardini Stotram, and other Sanskrit prayers by listening to CDs and .mp3s and downloading English transliterations — it's wonderful to read accounts like Amy's and know that I'm not the only one doing these things. I'm a closet bhakti yogini, sharing a little bit of these things in the yoga classes I teach, but trying not to frighten my students too much ;-) .

    I feel that the murthis that live at my house are very lenient and generous. Even though I don't keep to a rigorous puja schedule, they seem happy that I have their darshan, talk with them in my own language, and acknowledge them. Identifying with the rich and multilayered stories of the lives of Shiva, Hanuman, Rama, Durga, etc. gives me powerful examples to follow in my own life. This feels much more loving a relationship with God than the punitive, guilt-based religion I grew up with.

    Pranams!

    • Amy Champ says:

      Great Rosetta, I recently heard Hanuman Chalisa for the first time chanting with the Neem Karoli Baba devotees. It is such a beautiful piece of music. All of these vehicles are availabel for us. I love that you're a "closet bhakti yogini." Me too! Except I'm open to other traditions now, too. For a while I was very strict on Hindu-based practices, because I felt that I had wandered around so much, that I needed to pick a guru and a path. Now I'm primarily what I like to call "yoga-based." Practicing Yoga in the global reality allows us so much more freedom to incorporate teachings from others. Yoga is limitless. I love that your murthis are "lenient." That made me crack up out loud!! I think talking to them is a good idea. I should try that. The stories are powerful teachers, you are right about that. Pranams and prem absolute, dear yogini.

  8. Hi, Amy. Thanks for doing such an enthusiastic and skillful job of taking over Gita Talk this week. Your love for you subject is contagious!

    Reading all these passionate comments makes me wonder again why I'm not into Bhakti Yoga.

    What I said in the introduction about overdosing on devotional ritual "as a very holy little altar boy growing up ultra-traditional Catholic" is undoubtedly true.

    But as I read what people get from Bhakti, I realized that there is another factor as well.

    I get a lot of what of what people get from Bhakti from flamenco guitar and from listening to Mozart, both of which have been lifelong passions of mine. I would even go so far as to say they have been my Gods for most of my life–the two spiritual things, involving deep meditation, I could always depend on no matter what other trauma I was going through in my life, and made me feel one with the world.

    At first this seems like verbal overreach. But then, upon reflection, it starts to make sense. If Bhakti devotees can reach God through Bhakti "performing arts", then it stands to reason that flamenco guitar and Mozart could bring me to a similar place of spiritual joy. It's all Brahman, right?

    Yoga and Mozart

    I’ve decided to dispense with Yoga
    And just listen to Mozart all the time.

    It gives me the same sense of wonder.
    It fills me with the same infinite cosmic joy.

    It collapses my entire being into the present moment
    Where the music is divine
    I am divine
    You are divine
    The whole world is one and divine.

    I’ve decided to dispense with Yoga
    And just listen to Mozart all the time.

    But then again
    Why not have both?
    For are they not one and the same?

    (See also Flamenco Guitar as Yoga Philosophy.)

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

  9. Amy Champ says:

    Nice poem, Bob! The bhakta is enthralled with God. Joshua Greene in his version, translates the last stanza as "those who have taken me into their hearts." So there is a crossover with the heart chakra, and the idea of love within connection to the divine. If Mozart takes you there, then by all means, travel swiftly! For me, reggae also works, but specifically for the references to the Lord. ;-)

    Look forward to catching up with Gita Talk as the week moves on.

    • Thanks, Amy.

      I have that Joshua Greene version. I got a lot of good insights from it, all the more interesting because the chapters Mitchell considers to be the heart, climax and high point of the Gita, 10 and 11, Greene treats as kind of an aberrational exposure of a terrifying uncaring God, which is well dispensed with when Krishna returns to his loving form for Chapter 12.

      Fascinating that the Gita can evoke such diverse reactions to the same material.

      Bob

      • Tobye Hillier tobye says:

        I'm with ya there Bob, I play guitar as well (not flamenco, easier stuff for me thanks!) and most of the time just strumming a particular chord and listening to the way it sounds, brings me into the now and gives me an amazing sense of peace…. I get the same feeling after 90 mins of hardcore yoga!!

  10. Cynthia says:

    Ahh devotion, ahhh Amy, you've come at EXACTLY the right time. I've been blowing off my study of the Gita here with Bob the past few weeks because I'm busy completing a book report for Rod Stryker's teacher training program. In that training however, Rod told the students that they needed a devotional practice.

    I've had trouble finding the right devotional niche. I've been to kirtans and even did a few days with Jai Uttal and Ram Das, but I never got that "ecstatic" sensation that people talk about. I don't feel inclined to spin around with arms flung wide, even though I do love the music and appreciate the chanting. It just doesn't light my fire. That said, I was delighted to read someone's statement about gratitude, because I DO feel THAT deeply and daily. Perhaps I shall just start there and build on that gratitude. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Deeply grateful for your presence here. :-)

    • Hi, Cynthia. Please tell us what Rod's training is like, if you have a minute. I've never met Rod, but he's been one of my biggest influences just from the writing and book recommendations on his website. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the modern interpretation of Yoga/Tantra philosophy.

      Oh, and don't worry about getting behind on Gita Talk. I figured that would happen to a lot of people, so I've tried to structure it so it works as a self-paced Webinar as well. Please let me know if it works that way for you.

      Bob Weisenberg
      YogaDemystified.com

      • Amy Champ says:

        I love it Cynthia. I know, sometimes, I don't feel the vibes on kirtan, too. Part of it may have to do with the fact that I get a little weirded out by a bunch of white people doing "Indian stuff" in their own weird and funky ways, but I know that Yoga is timeless and divinity is sufficient, so this is really too judgmental. However, in light of that experience of mine, I have found other ways into the bhakti flow. I have been with shamans of all kinds, and guided meditation journeys. Four years ago, I opened my heart to a Goddess Circle, which was a huge step for me because I had gotten so strict on my Hindu/Yoga path. It has brought me together with a powerful group of women, and I am able to circle with them and their path, even as I maintain my own.

        What I would recommend is ~ #1 Build an altar. Mine is in my entryway near the kitchen, and establishes an acknowledgment of the divine in my home space.

        In fact, I need to clean mine. It gets piled up with so many things. And it's been about a year since I cleaned it off and started over. Maybe I will build a second one!?

        I recommend A Book of Women's Altars http://www.amazon.com/Book-Womens-Altars-Worship-

        God bless you in your journey with Rod Stryker. And always remember~ yoga teachers come in all stripes and forms.

        • Cynthia says:

          This is awesome Amy! Thanks so much for your suggestions. I am all over that altar! I'll check out the book too.

      • Cynthia says:

        Rod's training was transformative for me. He fires off a lot of information at you but I've found it all to be relevant, not just in my own teaching methodology but for my personal practice. The formal teacher training, called ParaYoga, is pretty comprehensive. I would also recommend him for those seeking a thorough transmission of the traditional yoga practices.

        I look forward to getting back to the wonder of the Gita! Thanks for doing this Bob.

  11. [...] Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ [...]

  12. Rafael Kiker says:

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  13. Sung Kogut says:

    There’s definately a great deal to find out about this issue. I really like all of the points you made.

  14. Thanks for the note, YogiOne. That sounds like a great experience for you.

    I'm much more hermity in my spiritual practice. Blogging is the only thing I do in a group, although just recently I've been meeting some of my blogging friends in person.

    One interesting thing I'm doing now is listening to music with Yoga Sutra like one-pointed concentration. Tonight it was Bach Art of the Fugue on organ. Even though listening to music has always been meditative for me, applying explicit Yoga techniques to it is still a deepening sort of experience for me.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

  15. Actually I don't, YogiOne. My asana practice is light and solitary. I would do a lot more asana if I wasn't already playing tennis four times a week and doing near daily tennis-specific training, like weight-training. Not much capacity for more physical stuff. So for me, asana is gentle meditation. I do try to compensate for this by treating tennis as Yoga, however.

    I've made a couple of exceptions to take classes from my blogging friends Linda and Brooks in Chicago. But that and the Lake Geneva Yoga Journal Conference last year are the extent of my group activity in recent years.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

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