Yoga for Lovers: Tantra-love or Oprah-love?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Nov 19, 2010
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The ecstatic poetry of Mirabai and Kabir have been sung in India since the Middle Ages. Even long before their contemporaries, St. Theresa in Europe and Rumi in the Middle East, mystic lovers have known that their Divine affair with the Beloved comes and goes.

Still, they can’t stop loving the Divine, even when no one seems to be listening. Because, to paraphrase Rumi: the longing for the Beloved is in itself God’s response.  There is no need for any other sign from God than That.

But for some yogi and mystic lovers, enlightenment becomes a steady, inner blossom: small love sees through the effulgent eyes of Big Love. Lover and Beloved become One.

Once, while living on the banks of the Bagmati river in Nepal, I was walking down to the river to take my daily bath. After crossing one sand dune after another, I suddenly saw a flock of a hundred swans in the distant sands. When I got closer, however, I realized the swans were people dressed in white. Sitting crosslegged, these hundred or so wandering ascetics were reciting the poetry of Kabir.

After finishing my bath and my meditation on the river banks, I started to walk back to the small ashram where I was living. The swans of Kabir, these lovers of spiritual poetry had mysteriously lifted and moved away, their limber legs still visible in the sands.

Kabir says to all breathing, loving yogis:

When you really look for me, you will see me


You will find me in the tiniest house of time.

Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?

He is the breath inside the breath.

And, to those who only thinks their aching heart has only lived and loved once:

If you make love with the divine now, in the next life

you will have the face of satisfied desire.

Kabir says: When the Guest is being searched for,

It is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that

does all the work.

Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

In other words, if you feel you have done these practices, sung these songs of devotion in some other life time; it’s because you have. And if meditation comes really easy to you, and you can’t seem to wipe that satisfied glow off your face; it’s because you have lived it again and again.

American poet Jane Hirshfield writes of the mystic, female yogi and poet Mirabai:

“She…offers two central teachings of liberation, each grounded in her fierce and unwavering passion. One is the consummate freedom passion calls up in us, and the other is the surrender of self that passion’s fulfillment requires. In these two ways, Mira demonstrates over and over, that the lover meets fully and intimately the energies of awakening. And through reading her poems, we begin to discover that these two teachings are not separate.”

Mirabai knew already 500 years ago that owning the latest yoga water bottle, burning incense for statues of Krishna and Buddha, and eating nothing but organic vegetables from Whole Foods can’t possibly buy us enlightenment. Forget it, she says, only the deep passions of Bhakti Yoga can bring us closer to our Beloved’s arms.

Mirabai sings:

“If we could reach him by munching lettuce and dry


Then the goats would surely get the Holy One

Before us!

If stone statues could bring us all the way,

I would have adored a granite mountain years ago.

Mirabai says: The heat of midnight tears will bring you

to God!

Listen, my friend, this road is the heart opening….

She is not saying we should leave our organic vegetables behind, of course. She is simply reminding us that the yogi worship of the inner Beloved is fierce and non-compromising. Mirabai gave up a comfortable life and a husband and became a dancing wanderer. Kabir gave up religious security and dogmas and gave us iconoclastic teachings that speak to the hearts of mystics from all traditions.

Are we ready for this kind of wild abandon, or are we too timidly attached to our Prius’ and our cappuccinos? Can we only stomach the self-help love handed to us by Oprah or Dr. Phil?

Robert Bly writes: “Kabir mocks passivity toward holy texts, toward popular gurus, and the passive practice of Yoga, but we must understand that he himself is firmly in the guru tradition and that he followed an intricate path, with fierce meditative practices….”

In other words, this kind of passionate love for Spirit is not found on the cover of Yoga Journal. It is rare, even in Boulder.

Kabir’s poetry also tells us, we don’t quite get it by singing kirtan once a month in a yoga studio, or by chanting Om once a week at the beginning and end of yoga class.

Kabir says:

Breathe in that word out of which the Whole Milky

Way has come!

That word is your Teacher; I heard that sound, and I am its disciple.

How many are there alive who has taken in its


But there’s hope. If we have known the intensity of human love, we have also experienced the intensity of the spiritual love Kabir speaks of.

When we want That, which is deep inside, as much as we desire water when we are really thirsty, or as much as we intensely love our partner during the honeymoon period, then we know the kind of spiritual devotion Kabir and Mirabai speaks of.

In Tantra, that kind of longing becomes the fuel on the fire of Bhakti Love. It becomes part of the Ishvara Pranidhana the Yoga Sutras speak of; part of our wholehearted dedication to spiritual practice. And we taste that everything we do can become part of the practice, can become madhuvidya,  worldly experience laced with spiritual honey.

Filled with this kind of fierce Love, our heart and mind unites in the pranendrya, the seat of intuition, where our longing and seeing embrace in the stillness of peace.

Then we know that the Yoga of Love still sits deep inside our heart, like a bee inside a flower.

Note: All translations of Kabir and Mirabai by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield.


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


12 Responses to “Yoga for Lovers: Tantra-love or Oprah-love?”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Provocateur!!!! Nice reading.

  2. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Padma. Glad you liked it and picked up on the spirit of Kabir and Mirabai.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Not seperate, in words, to the Yogi tradition in the Nyingma school of Buddhism. Some would argue with me regarding the references to God not being inkeeping with Buddhist view…but who cares? Not me. These are Tantric insights and therefore true. Some of this I can hear Dzongsar Khyentse saying witha smile on his face. Some of this is of the "old school"…Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche.

  4. Beautiful and inspiring article, Ramesh.

    Could you recommend some good collections and commentary for Kabir and Mirabai?

    Bob W.

  5. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Bob. I am glad you liked it!

    The poems above are from two books, which also are the only ones I have read of and about Kabir and Mirabai. So I am not an expert on their poetry, by any means. But most of the translations into English by Indians are pretty hopeless, to use Bly's expression. I have tried to read a couple…. But to hear these poems sung in Hindi is wonderful, even though I hardly understand any of it.

    1. Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, versions by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, with a scholarly afterword by John Stratton Hawley.
    This is the original Bly translation from the early 70s, which marks a milestone in his work in introducing the great poets of the world to US readers, including Kabir, Mirabai, Rumi (Bly was the one who inspired Coleman Barks to translate Rumi), Neruda, Jimenez, Trakl, Lorca, and many many others.

    2. Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, versions by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield, afterword by John Stratton Hawley, Beacon Press

  6. Thanks a million, Ramesh. That first one sounds ideal, because I'm interested in some of those others, too.

    Thanks again for the article.

    Bob W.

  7. Ramesh says:

    Oh, sorry Bob. Did not mean to imply that the Kabir book also includes work by the other poets. Only Kabir.

  8. Totally my mistake, not yours, Ramesh. It's clear as day. I simply read it way too fast!

  9. Ramesh says:

    Thanks again, Padma for your wonderful Buddhist insights on this…

  10. Ramesh says:

    Lindsay, yes, I also love that quote by Hirshfield and your connecting it to the words of Krishna is perfect. Krishna was, of course, Mirabai's spiritual consort, the Dark One, as she often called him, and most of her poems are written for Him.

    You perception about the Russian and Sanskrit connection is right on target as well. I will dig up some information about that and let you know what I find.

  11. Anandi says:

    Namaste Ramesh, thank you for sharing these two mystical poets! And for the sources so I can read more of their works. I have been enraptured by Rumi & Hafiz to until I have exhausted them. Now I have more delicious reading. Yum!

  12. Ramesh says:

    Anandi, I love Rumi and Hafez, too… Have you read Robert Bly's recent translations of Hafez, The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door? Check it out at a bookstore, you might find it yummy too!