March 20, 2012

Windows into Pure Love: The Art of Bhakti Yoga.

Finger Painting by Gypsy Mama

Sometimes it wakes me up toward the early morning hours when everything is quiet: this dynamic urge to artistically express myself. 

My mother said the first time she found me up at odd hours drawing I was only two years old. From drawings it evolved to poems, then paintings, collages, short stories, crafts, articles. It’s as of something inside of me desperately longs to emerge and enter into dialogue with life. 

Artistic expression is inseparable from human experience. Naturally, it is also inseparable from yoga.

The relationship between art and yoga extends from antiquity. Artistic expression was once that most unique, potent arena in which one reached beyond oneself, by diving within oneself. It was our connection with transcendence: with moving past all those things that keep us stuck and stagnant in our lives.

Making art has always had a soothing effect on me. 

It absorbs my focus and suspends all engagement elsewhere. As a young adolescent, I used art often as a means to move past difficult emotions, or calm restless thoughts. Art became the haven I turned to when seeking peace: a doorway that connected me with my highest potential. I found I could also achieve this feeling when losing myself in the artistic creations of others.

Art transports us to other dimensions, just like yogic meditation does. 

Meditation photography by Alamy

Neurologists have observed that the only times the two hemispheres of our adult brains enter into a perfect dialogue with each other are when we are experiencing art and when we are practicing meditative yoga.

Such harmonious dialogue between the slow, rhythmic alpha and theta waves of the right side of the brain, and the fast beta waves of the left side, creates for the ideal development of awareness, broadening our fields of perception. What we are conscious of increases.

Before crackling fires, in colorful streams of emotional dancing and drama, imaginative storytelling and song, humankind related to art as shared mystical experience. For art opened new dimensions and delivered alternative perspectives of reality: ones that were alluring to others, and potentially available to all.

Just like art, yoga is our link to realms that exist beyond our ordinary sense of perception. 

Yoga reconstructs our beliefs and plays with our experience of the mysterious. Like the creative imagination, yoga asks that we entertain infinite possibilities, beyond rational thought, and exercise new ways of being. Yoga beckons us to posture our consciousness in relation to alternative realities and vistas. Then it moves us to share these new perspectives with others in dialogue.

One of the main ways in which we communicate with others is through art.

Radha Alone painted by Syamarani Dasi

Art is a language that is capable of reaching people across all nations and cultures as it expresses an innate emotional and aesthetic sense we all share.

The word aesthetic is originally rooted in the Greek aisthanomai, meaning: “I perceive, feel, sense.” Art translates our perceptions, feelings and sensorial experiences into presentations we can share with others.

Our artistic creations communicate an angle of vision to others who may not otherwise be in touch with it. And when we enter into the art of another person we also enter into dialogue with parts of our self we may have a hard time accessing otherwise. One of the reasons why art is so powerful is because it holds the potential to engage us emotionally.

 More than any other yoga tradition, bhakti yoga is known for its fond engagement of the arts as an essential part of the practice. 

Drawing from the emotional component in art -from kirtans to dancing, theatrical performances to the decorating of sacred images- bhakti yoga does not negate our natural sensuous artistry, but instead, takes full advantage of its ability to affect our consciousness and absorb us in yoga.

The alluring aesthetics of bhakti colorfully weave music, poetry, the performance arts and fine arts together to give us a most consuming experience of yoga.

Within the realm of our human existence, the most intensely absorbing experiences any of us have had are often those surrounding love. Either longing for love, or being in love, or feeling loved or losing love. Few things consume our heart and mind as powerfully or thoroughly as love does.

Bhakti yoga makes pure love its axis. 

Uncontainable love lends itself to artistic expression. Love is a consistent theme we see in art around the world and across cultures. In bhakti yoga the participants revolve their heart’s artistic outpours around the love exchanged between Radha and Krishna: the female and male aspects of divinity.

"Bhakti Dancing" Photography by Rukmini Priya Poddar

As the ultimate vision of pure love, meditation on Radha and Krishna through art –in songs, or paintings, or dances, etc- has been taking place within yoga traditions since ancient times.

This vision has inspired and deepened the yoga practices of millions over centuries, and decorates some of the oldest architectural structures on our planet.

In contrast to meditation that relies only on one’s restless mind, bhakti art offers the yoga practitioner a tangible focus that effortlessly absorbs their senses.

How many of you have been so enchanted by the sweetness of a kirtan and the happy dancing of the participants that you wished it would never stop?

About six years ago, I was privileged enough to host an accomplished bhakti yogini artist in my home. When she settled into my guest room Syamarani Dasi had already devoted over thirty years of her life to translating her spiritual fathers’ yogic visions into stunning visual imagery. The process was intriguing! My curiosity peaked.

How do you see all this? I wanted to know. “They do not come from my imagination”, she assured me timidly. Then Syamarani spoke about a relationship with her heart, and with her teachers, and with an expansive vision of love that gives us views (or darshans) into places that we connect with through yoga.

Syamarani’s teachers had this clear view of love, she told me, and they asked her to open windows into it for others to peer through.

When we are in love the whole universe looks different to us! 

  In bhakti yoga, practitioners aspire to view everything through the eyes of love, or prema netra.

True to every true love-mystic tradition, bhakti yoga seeks to make the practitioner an instrument in the hands of pure love. In fact this is what Syamarani considered herself: a paintbrush in the hands of her teacher.

Reminiscent of Frances of Assisi’s poem to become an instrument in the hands of peace, I watched with awe as this amazing yogini let her whole being be swept away by the feelings in the ancient yoga texts she sought to illustrate. These informed, in part, the direction of her artwork.

Syamarani Dasi painting "Radha Alone"

Over the course of her ripe yoga practice, Syamarani has produced over 200 paintings under the guidance of the Sanskrit texts themselves, her beloved teachers, and her own devotional heart. Her works of art adorn books, temples and yoga studios around the world.

 Unlike the isolating practices of ascetic mystics, tucked away in caves, artistic inspirations in yoga always move one into expression, or sharing.

Artistic expression is generous by nature. It asks to interact with community. It benefits both the artist and the lovers of art. It does not isolate. It does not reject the world, but rather enters into dialogue with it as part of the yoga process.

Though Syamarani Dasi’s nomadic lifestyle and simple white sari reflected the renunciation vows she lived by, in bhakti yoga, her artistic talent didn’t need to be discarded. In fact, it flourished under the love of her teachers, and contributes significantly to the yoga practices of many today, animating their spirits.

In which ways do you artistically express your heart most naturally? Is it through playing a musical instrument? Or is it through sewing? Perhaps you also like to paint, or dance, or sing? Maybe you make jewelry? Bhakti yoga invites you to connect with that art, and weave it into your yoga practice.

Art in yoga engages one’s senses to enter into a relationship with everything we encounter beyond our limited senses. 

It has the power to grip spiritual sentiments and pour them into musical instruments, or splash them onto canvases or release them in dance. Artistic expression engages the ingredients of this world to communicate spiritual substance. It does not entirely discard the constituents and relationships of the temporal realm, but rather, weaves them into portraits of eternity. Then it moves us into sharing these portraits, as Syamarani does.

The most ancient of all symbols of sharing is the circle. 

The circle is also a symbol for consciousness and eternity, and we find it at the center of yoga texts as the rasa-mandala: bhakti yoga’s climactic vision of heartfelt, artistic expression in love.

The rasa circle of dancers makes revolutions around a dancing Radha and Krishna, as the ultimate lovers, the way bhaktins and bhaktas (or female and male practitioners of bhakti yoga) revolve their life around pure love.

According to yoga texts, the rasa-mandala is meditated upon as the source of all music, and dance, and song, and yes, even asana! 

And it represents the ultimate aesthetic yoga community. Full of dynamic energy and beauty, the dancers in the rasa circle express their unique and individual artistry in unlimited ways, while making purest love their axis.

"Seva Kunja" by Syamarani Dasi

Wherever yoga practitioners are able to share their artistic talents with one another in the same spirit as that in the rasa-mandala, we find a thriving yoga community, or sangha.  The secret to cultivating an inspiring yoga practice is to seek out an inspiring sangha.

Syamarani Dasi pictured with the author

Artistic expression within sangha is the nourishment that feeds our yoga practice in the most unique ways, for it absorbs us with a joy unlike anything else! 

 ~To view more of Syamarani’s beautiful bhakti-artwork, please click here~

Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Ghosh. All rights reserved.

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