“What is Bhakti?” Dhanurdhara Swami asked me. We were sitting cross-legged on the floor of a modest room in the MVT ashram in Vrindavan. It was a little after five o’ clock in the morning, and I had just arrived for my daily japa practice.
I replied with what I thought was the “right” answer: “Bhakti is the path of devotion,” I said.
He didn’t look impressed.
“The yoga of devotion.” I clarified, my voice unsure. “It’s practicing devotion to God… to Krishna?”
I have a tendency to keep talking when I feel insecure. Basically, right when I should zip my lip and just listen, is exactly when I can’t stop talking.
He didn’t say anything for awhile. I had an overwhelming impulse to fill the silence, but I resisted. I breathed in slowly. The air in Vrindavan is thick with so many smells – sandalwood incense rising from the temples, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves and ginger bubbling away in the cafe across the green, the exhaust of countless rickshaw drivers idling in countless alleyways. India is an assault on your senses. I closed my eyes and waited.
“Bhakti,” Dhanurdhara Swami began, “Is loving responsiveness.”
I fidgeted with the Tulsi beads in my hands and pondered his definition.
“Can you respond lovingly to whatever happens in your life?” He asked. “This is the practice of Bhakti.”
It was my third trip to India, and I arrived with a heart that was broken, bruised, and (I was sure) irreparable. Three months prior I’d had a miscarriage. A year before that, I’d given birth to a stillborn baby girl. The months in between were filled with grieving, acupuncture, more spin classes than I care to recall, EMDR therapy, invasive tests, procedures and two surgeries to try to figure out why we’d lost our daughter and correct whatever might be causing my infertility. At 32 – almost 33 years old – you could say I was in the midst of a 1/3-life-crisis. I couldn’t figure out why I was going about my days doing the things that made up my life – dropping off dry cleaning, going to Soul Cycle, teaching yoga, making my bed, meeting a friend for a glass of wine, emptying the dishwasher, roasting vegetables. Everything felt meaningless. I wanted to get on a plane and go somewhere very far away… and maybe never come back.
So why Vrindavan?
Ever since I was first introduced to Hindu mythology, I’ve loved the stories of Krishna and Radha frolicking in the forests of Vrindavan. One of my yoga teachers, Bryn Chrisman, had recently returned from India and regaled me with tales of the holy city’s sweetness. So me and my broken heart impulsively booked a flight to Delhi, and Bryn helped me navigate the details of hiring a driver to take me to Vrindavan. She also connected me with Dhanurdhara Swami with whom I was now studying.
Loving responsiveness. I thought. What does that even mean?
I used to think Bhakti meant chanting. Whenever I heard the word used, it was usually in reference to a kirtan or chanting the holy names before an asana practice. A lot of the “bhakti yogis” I knew were devoted to Krishna and Radha. Many of the chants I’d learned celebrated these two lovers, and their names always felt good on my tongue. Like they were dancing there. Courting one another. Flirting. Embracing and then coming apart and then embracing again. My husband bought me a harmonium in Jackson Heights for my birthday one year, and I spent hours in my apartment trying to figure out chords that would support the melodies of the chants I had learned or made up myself.
If someone approached me and said, “I don’t get it. So you worship a blue god now?” I probably would’ve laughed.
I didn’t “worship” Krishna in a religious sense. I barely ever made it to the Radha Govinda temple in Brooklyn, and while I practiced my japa meditation daily with Dhanurdhara Swami in Vrindavan, I never practiced it back in the US. But I liked singing to Krishna and Radha. I couldn’t tell you why, except to say that it just felt good. Like medicine. When I was feeling empty, chanting filled me up. It made me feel closer to something bigger than my lower-case-“s”- self, something that was moving through me all the time (my capital-“S”-self), but that I often couldn’t access. It might sound corny, but singing the holy names brought me home. It was like morphine for the pain and grief I was living with since losing our daughter. Especially the name Radha. Or Radhe. It’s the perfect word to sing. When you put breath behind her name and let it pass through the shape Raaaaaaaaaaaaad haaaaaaaaa, it feels good. Same with Krish naaaaaaa. You should try it.
But Dhanurdhara Swami was defining Bhakti in a way that had little to do with chanting. Loving Responsiveness. Can you respond lovingly to whatever happens in your life? This is the practice of Bhakti.
I ruminated on this definition for a long time, until I kind of forgot about it. Then the most miraculous thing happened. I got pregnant again, and 42 long, terrifying weeks later, I gave birth to the most lovable, wondrous creature imaginable: a son, named John Michael.
Any new mom will tell you that having a brand new baby demands the majority of your time and energy. In the first few months of John’s life, my meditation practice dwindled before becoming nearly extinct, I stopped going to yoga class, I stopped teaching yoga and my harmonium collected a thin film of dust. I was no longer practicing Bhakti. Who has time for Bhakti when you don’t even have time to sleep?
One morning when my son was about 4 weeks old, my husband said, “We need to get you some help.”
I was annoyed. “I don’t need help,” I said. “I’m his mother, and I want to be the one taking care of him.”
“But you sound so frustrated and exhausted in the middle of the night when he wakes you,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I said, growing agitated.
Was he right? Oh my God. He was RIGHT.
I had gotten so caught up in the stresses of early motherhood (Is my baby gaining enough weight? Is he eating enough? How many wet diapers did we get today? Why is his poop green? What if he gets sick? Why did I take him to the la leche league meeting where that toddler coughed near him?) and so wrecked by sleep deprivation, that I was not always responding lovingly to my newborn son. I always picked him up lovingly and cuddled him and nursed him, but my initial response was: OH JEEEEEEEEEEESUS. PLEASE JUST LET ME SLEEP BEFORE I LOSE MY MIND!!! Here I was with this precious little person that I had waited for and prayed for and longed for and worked so hard for… and I’m frustrated because he needs me frequently throughout the night? I was jolted back to the realization that this baby is a miracle and that I have the privilege of being his mother.
Turns out, you don’t need to go to Vrindavan to practice Bhakti. You can practice responding lovingly anywhere.
I haven’t been doing my japa every morning. I haven’t been to a single kirtan since my son’s birth, but I can still practice loving responsiveness. I can still practice Bhakti. In fact, I have more opportunities to practice it now than ever. Babies need their mothers constantly, and each need is a chance for me to respond with love and patience. Dhanurdhara Swami’s definition is starting to make more sense. Bhakti is about service. It’s about serving someone or something other than yourself. It’s about responding lovingly. Even when you’re tired or frustrated or angry or hurt or all of the above.
It’s not always easy; sometimes it feels impossible to respond lovingly – especially when in a conflict. Many of my fellow yogis have remarked that the yoga practice makes them less reactive and more responsive. Rodney Yee often says, “Responsibility is the ability to respond.”
But how are we responding? Can we practice Bhakti daily even if we never touch a harmonium, pick up our mala beads or listen to Jai Uttal? Can we practice responding with love?
UPDATE: After speaking with Dhanurdhara Swami, I wanted to give his more complete definition of Bhakti:
“’Bhakti is best expressed as seva, which means loving responsiveness to the Lord through the faculties of the mind, body and words’. I found it in ancient text called Sri Bhakti Sandarbha, that is considered the foremost treatise on bhakti. After years of study that’s the best definition I found. I liked it because it included both the heart (loving) and the action (responsiveness), both of which are required for bhakti.” -Dhanurdhara Swami
What I took away from this beautiful definition, is that Bhakti is not just an action, but an action based on love and the heart. It’s not just responding – it’s responding lovingly. Thank you, Maharaja!