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Lead With Your Heart

Bhakti yoga can help you transform moments of heartbreak into a romance with life itself.

By Hillari Dowdle

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For Laura Cornell, the collapse of her marriage was like a bolt from the blue—to call it a shock would be an understatement. Then a graduate student pursuing a PhD in religion and philosophy from the California Institute of Integral Studies, Cornell had been traveling for a few weeks, completing research for her dissertation, attending a retreat with her fellow Kripalu Yoga teachers, and then nursing her ailing father back home in Missouri. At the end of her trip, Cornell was eager to return to her love, the separation having indeed made her heart grow fonder.

But back at home, ready to reconnect, Cornell found her partner was one step out the door. "It was awful," she remembers, seven years later. "There was so much emotional pain and a lot of physical sensation—I felt that a piece of me had been ripped away."

Heartbreak wreaked its usual toll, robbing Cornell of sleep and appetite, sporadically filling her mind with "dark, blame-y thoughts." But rather than give up and take to the couch, Cornell, founder of the Green Yoga Association, found succor in her practice. In her rounds of daily Sun Salutations and grounding poses—all offered with gratitude to Mother Earth—she regained a connection to what she thought she had lost forever: love.

"Even in the thick of the first month after the separation, I can remember feeling nearly ecstatic when I practiced," she says. "When I took a mindful walk outdoors afterward, I was able to find comfort in the tides and the stars and the trees. I felt bliss in every cell of my being. I realized that love is all around me, mine to receive and return."

Cornell's experience might sound painfully familiar if you have ever felt heartbroken—and who among us hasn't? It's not just romantic love gone wrong that can leave you feeling bereft, of course. Difficult times, whether due to illness, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, can fill you with sadness and grief. But Cornell's recovery offers hope for being happy again. She transformed her pain by adding an element of bhakti to her yoga practice. You can, too.

Bhakti yoga is classically defined as the path of devotion, and it's often referred to as the yoga of love. Bhakti is one of the three primary paths to enlightenment laid out by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (the two other paths being jnana, the path of knowledge, and karma, the path of action, often interpreted as service to others). David Frawley, the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, calls bhakti "the sweetest of the yoga approaches" in his book Yoga: The Greater Tradition. He describes the practice as one of concentrating one's mind, emotions, and senses on the Divine in order to merge into the reality of divine love.

Essentially, bhakti yoga is the cultivation of unconditional spiritual love. Traditionally it involves devotion to a guru or a deity or deities, though Frawley points out that yoga teaches that there are infinite forms of the Divine: "Yoga gives us the freedom to worship the Divine in whatever form we like, or as formless." Whether you direct your love and devotion to a god, a guru, or the Divine in all things, as you cultivate a sense of love, gratitude, and devotion for something seemingly outside yourself, you essentially fill yourself with love. In the act of giving love, you receive it. The bhakti remedy for when you're suffering a broken heart, in other words, is to fill in the cracks with a love that is more permanent and transcendent. Practice long enough, and the subject-object love relationship (whether with a guru, a deity, or the Divine in some other form) disappears, and you become completely immersed in the love you are giving and receiving.

"Just as we can stretch our bodies with asana and our breath with Pranayama, we can elongate our capacity to feel and expand our ability to love with bhakti yoga," says Sean Johnson, the lead musician of Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band and founder of the Wild Lotus Yoga studio in New Orleans. Johnson found bhakti yoga in his early 20s when his first love ended in disappointment.

"Falling in love for the first time was an epiphany, and it opened incredible possibilities that I hadn't been able to see before," Johnson remembers. "When we broke up, I was devastated. But I thought to myself: I can sit around here and feel sorry for myself, or I can channel the incredible love she awakened in me into the rest of my life."

He chose the latter option and has dedicated his life to teaching bhakti yoga and helping others make the same connection to this larger, more steady sort of love. "Bhakti works with the fuel of our emotions and teaches us how to have a romance with life itself, rather than with just one person," Johnson says. "You simply focus on taking the actions that nurture and nourish the heart."

Appealing as that might sound (who doesn't want more love?), bhakti yoga is not exactly a blissful walk in the park, suggests Douglas Brooks, a scholar of Hinduism and professor of religion at the University of Rochester. "Yes, the Sanskrit word bhakti means intimacy and devotion," he explains. "But it also means separation and partition."

On the surface, the definition is a paradox. Look closer, Brooks suggests, and you'll see the true interconnection of love and loss. "You can't really experience connection if you don't also have the sense of separation," he says. "Heartbreak is part of the human condition—if it comes off the table, so does love itself. Vulnerability is what makes life worth living; without it we'd lack meaning and purpose."

That's not to say, of course, that we should go looking for pain. Rather, the practice of bhakti yoga demands the active cultivation of positive emotions like joy and gratitude and a willingness to broaden the parameters of your heart through practice.

The Beatles had it right when they sang "the love you take is equal to the love you make." Bhakti is about making more love—putting it out into the world, not just in principle but also in practice. There is no one "right" way to do that, but bhakti yoga offers a number of tools to point the heart in the right direction.

One of the best known of the traditional practices of bhakti yoga is kirtan—the devotional chanting of the names of God. Other classic Hindu methods focus on prayer, japa (repetition of mantra), and devotion to the Divine—in society, in nature, in the capital-S Self, and in all of creation. The path will look different for every being that walks it, says the singer-songwriter Jai Uttal, who created the bhakti yoga 101 audio program Kirtan! The Art and Practice of Ecstatic Chant.

"It's so individual, and that's what is so beautiful about it," he says. "Each person has a different emotional landscape, and in bhakti yoga we can let our emotions be our internal compass. Nobody can tell us how or whom to worship, but we can draw on techniques that act as keys to open our own hearts."

What's the ultimate bhakti practice for when you've suffered a loss, romantic or otherwise? Brooks has a ready answer: Be willing to do it all over again. "Fall in love again, and never stop. Bhakti is not a zero-sum game. You never run out of love. You must expect that you will find love again, and even if you find more heartache, there will always be more love."

That was certainly the case for Cornell. "I went to India for six weeks after my breakup, and during that time I invited a sense of fullness to fill my aloneness by imagining a life in which I was loved and in love," she says. "I had begun dating, but I somehow knew to hold out for what I really wanted in a partner. Two months after I returned home, I found him."

Married in 2009, Cornell credits her earlier breakup with creating the openness and compassion she needed to find a more lasting relationship. "Believing in love gave a sacred purpose to the pain I was going through," she says.

That's as it should be, Brooks says. Since you can't transcend heartache, you should embrace it. "We were all created out of love but born into separation the moment the cord was cut," he says. "That's what it is to be human. Heartbreak is not the end of love. It's the beginning."

Call for Help

In its most literal translation, bhakti yoga calls for faithful devotion to the Divine. This doesn't mean that you have to worship a specific deity, but simply that you identify a source of spiritual inspiration to revere and call on for comfort and love. "Bhakti is about creating an eternal loving relationship with the divine source," says Gaura Vani, a renowned mantra musician and member of the kirtan band Hanumen.

"No matter what tradition you come from, chanting God's name opens a process of healing and cleansing the heart," Vani says. "The Vedas say that there are as many names for God as there are waves on the ocean. We call him Krishna; Christians call him Jesus; Jews call him Yahweh; the Sufis call him Khuda. Whatever the case, let the beautiful name of the Lord remind you that you are more loved than you can even imagine."

If you happen to already have a spiritual practice centered around a particular divine entity or spiritual guide, chant that name to fill your heart with love and ask for help healing your heart, says Vani. If not, try asking for help from your capital-S higher Self. Either way, call out with intention, focusing on quality over quantity, and on opening your heart to divine love and intervention.

Mean What You Say

Just about everyone who has taken a yoga class is familiar with the class-closing ritual of saying Namaste accompanied by Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) and a small bow of the head. The meaning, which is something along the lines of "the light within me salutes the light within you," is a beautiful way to practice bhakti outside class, too, and to bring more love into your life.

Every time you take leave of a friend, loved one, or acquaintance, choose parting words infused with blessing or connection—"take care," "be well," or "vaya con dios" all work—and say them with genuine intention. Even if you simply say "goodbye," take a moment to fill the word with meaning.

Says Vani, "Namaste means 'I bow and humble myself before you because I recognize myself as a loving servant of the Divine, and I recognize you as a living temple.'" This is something you can do whenever the spirit moves you, even silently, Vani says. "Simply take a second to see that everyone you come in contact with is an expression of divine consciousness," he suggests. You will soon realize the truth: Love is all around you, whether you're checking out at the grocery store, standing in line for a movie, or sitting behind the wheel in traffic.

Love Globally

Practicing bhakti yoga means seeing everyone and everything as a creation of God. Interpersonal relationships (including the romantic kind) are one aspect of this kind of devotion, but a good way to soothe the pangs of heartbreak is to expand your realm of who and what is loved. When you're feeling bereft, try loving everyone, everywhere.

Nischala Joy Devi, author of The Secret Power of Yoga, suggests a simple seated practice for sending your love out into the world. "Imagine spreading a fine mist of healing energy over the world," she says. "You can direct your thoughts to the world in general or focus on areas you know are plagued with unrest or war or famine. Hold them in your thoughts, and send them some of your light."

This is the basis of the Buddhist practice of tonglen ("sending") meditation: taking the suffering of others (and yourself) into your heart and then sending back loving compassion to all who suffer. When you send your love out into the world in this way, the effects can be dramatic for both sender and receiver, says Devi. "Victims of the recent earthquake in Central America reported that they felt the prayers from people around the globe and that the prayers eased their suffering," she says. "It also has a big effect on you in that it gets you out of your head and back into your heart."

Pick Yourself Up

In the deepest throes of despair, it can be hard to lavish yourself with love. Your asana practice is a great way to show devotion to your Self, and when you feel immobilized by sadness, it can help bring you back into your body, says Mark Whitwell, author of Yoga of Heart and The Promise of Love, Sex, and Intimacy. "When people are depressed, they stop their asana practice," he says, "but that's when they really need it!"

Whitwell sees asana as a bridge to help you reconnect to a state of wellness that was available to you before your experience of loss. But it's also a way, he says, to realize the ideals of bhakti just as you are here and now—broken heart and all. "Consistent daily practice is your way to reconnect directly with the intimacy that is life," he explains. "It is a whole-body prayer, a celebration of that which beats the heart and moves the breath."

If you don't feel up to doing your usual practice, try a few Cat-Cows and slow Sun Salutations, staying mindful of the body and breath. "When you practice, you connect with a deeper source of love and become part of the context in which all relationships are arising," says Whitwell. From this broader perspective, he adds, "it is easier to accept loss."

If your heart is feeling locked up by sorrow, consider adding an element of bhakti yoga to your daily practice. Here, a few modern bhakti masters offer ways to exercise the muscles of love and fill your heart to overflowing.

Be Nurtured By Nature

Nature is a powerful reflection of divinity, says Sara Ivanhoe, a Los Angeles yoga teacher who recently participated in the making of the film Women of Bhakti. "When we are suffering from heartbreak, we have all this love we're carrying around and an intense longing to put it somewhere," she says. "Giving it to the planet makes sense, especially if you're a yogi."

The ancient yogis offered unconditional love to all that was around them, says Ivanhoe, worshiping and emulating the sun, the moon, the plants, the animals. You can do the same, she says, by simply stepping outdoors and opening your senses and your heart to nature—trees, grass, and plants if you're in the countryside; air, sunlight, and wind if you're in the city. Mountains, blades of grass, and the stars at night work equally well as sources of inspiration and, yes, love. "Yoga was created to help yoke our consciousness to nature, which nourishes us," she says. "When you are able to do that, you have a huge amount of support."

Ivanhoe suggests a simple journaling exercise for reaching out to nature for help in healing your heartbreak. "When you are consumed by grief, ask yourself, 'If nature could console me and talk to me, what would she say?'" she suggests. Go outdoors to do this, if you like, and don't feel that you have to craft an essay; just write down what comes to you. "Nature is full of guidance and support for us," Ivanhoe says. "We only need to ask for it."

Fill Your Heart With Song

In bhakti yoga, says Jai Uttal, music is medicine. And singing—a mantra, a hymn, or the name of your spiritual guide—is another way to treat an aching heart. "You can sing kirtan sweetly, or sing them fiercely with angst, or sing them with yearning or whatever emotions are arising in you," Uttal says. "If you get bored, keep on singing. Sing until the singing itself becomes part of your molecules, and your heart flows into the ocean of divine love."

If you're timid or need inspiration, start by listening to kirtan or gospel albums (or any other devotional music that moves you). Try 10 Million Moons and As Kindred Spirits by Gaura Vani, Grace by Kundalini yogi Snatam Kaur, The Essence by Deva Premal, Devaloka by Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band, or any of Uttal's excellent offerings, including his personal favorites Queen of Hearts and Shiva Station. First listen, and then sing along. Then take it a step further, and sing all by yourself—in the shower, in the car, or in the garden—anytime you want to feel uplifted.

And don't worry about what your voice sounds like—kirtan is about filling your heart with love, not about being a great singer. "No matter our accents, our ability to carry a tune, or our musical aesthetic," says Uttal, "when we sing kirtan, we are awakening our hearts and healing old traumas."

Hillari Dowdle is a longtime Yoga Journal contributor and a newly certified yoga teacher living and writing in Knoxville, Tennessee.

December 2012

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