“Bhakti yoga can help you transform moments of heartbreak into a romance with life itself.”—By Hillari Dowdle
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!