Karma, Dharma and Seva

We tend to think of yoga as a physical movement practice. The reality is that description doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Yoga is a whole philosophy and way of life. This can work both ways. Judith Hanson Lasater says: “what i bring to my yoga mat is really my whole life at this moment- mood, thoughts, beliefs are as much a part of yoga practice as your body is.” So yoga practices can include a real sense of our whole being and lives – but also our lives can be enriched with a sense of yoga throughout them. So let me start this blog from that place of seeing yoga in its wondrously big and broadest sense.

I’ve been writing a lot about Bhakti yoga over the last year but this blog links more to Karma yoga. Karma tends to be a misunderstood and rather loaded term in the West – we imagine something coming back to bite us in the bum minutes after doing something bad. Actually it is more nuanced and karma really translates as action. So Karma yoga is the yoga of everyday life, trying to cultivate right actions and doing things with the best intention with zero expectation of reward, or even what the outcome may be.

Whenever I visit Mandala Yoga Ashram I undertake karma yoga. Sometimes i’m chopping veg, sometimes i’m weeding the gravel drive, sometimes i’m cleaning the toilets. It’s an interesting practice – can i do all of these assigned duties with ease, with the same care and attention or do my thoughts and feelings tell me about how much i like or dislike my given task? Do i slip into moaning about the task? Do i pay it just as much care and attention as my meditation or chanting practices? It’s interesting because Karma yoga perhaps has the tools to really change how we see and act in our lives off the mat. These are questions I can easily ask myself in the rest of my life too – am i giving my all to this task (be it work, cleaning or admin) or am i asleep at the wheel of life. 

Swami Nischalanda said this weekend karma and dharma not only sound similar but are really linked ideas. Karma means action, and dharma means to take action that leads us towards liberation. Another similar term is Seva which is selfless service – giving to help an individual or society without expectation.

We build and develop our community through this selfless service. So I’m delighted to be teaching the charity yoga class at Yoga Boat this Sunday raising money for the Welsh Refugee Council. Come join us for some movement, maybe a little mental stretch and a cuppa with cake afterwards. Please book on at Yogaboat.co.uk 



A conversation with Swami Gyandharma…

This is the final interview in the series I have been doing connected to my research on bhakti yoga. It was great to spend time with Swami Gyandharma and if you haven’t come across him, i highly highly recommend the courses he runs at Mandala Yoga Ashram a few times a year. These courses are rare gems of simplicity and wisdom.


I started the conversation asking what Swami Gyandharma’s definition of bhakti is:

“Surrender. That is how i would define it. It means trusting. Trusting that everything is exactly the way it is meant to be. Knowing that is always the case, regardless of how difficult the situation or the circumstances are. It has little to do with any formal kind of approach. That is just decoration but it is not essentially the item.

Bhakti is an expression of love. We all know love from our human love affairs, it is the same thing on a bigger scale. The attraction you feel towards the object, and the belief in the perfection of the object and the goodness of the object. Bhakti yoga is the same but on a bigger scale. In one way or another you begin to relate to all of life that way. We are not worshipping something abstract you understand that god is the decider of everything that happens in your life so you accept it.”


We discussed if it is important to have any kind of religious framework to work with bhakti and Swami Gyandharma explained “I grew up completely without it, in an atheist family. I never went to church and i was never talked to about god. But i grew up in an environment that had strong human values and morality. But not in an overdone way. The basics of be good, do good, be polite and friendly. In my early twenties, one Sunday afternoon i started praying to god out of absolutely nothing. It was completely spontaneous and I was very surprised but it felt like the right things to do. It is quite inexplicable even if i think about it today.”

He clarifies:  “Bhakti yoga is a path where there is a destruction of the little you, but it is done voluntarily. It is an urge to unite with something to become vaster. It comes out of a realisation of this restricted life of littleness and the pain that accompanies that littleness. It is a search for a bigger version of yourself. But in bhakti yoga you just give up the little self, and the result is the bigger self.”

Being present

Swami Gyandharma describes bhakti as being a very mindful almost taoist practice: “What you’re looking for, the object you want to merge with, whatever you call that, is always there right in front of you. It is not some other place or time. It is always right there; even if right there is totally empty, or totally full, or totally silent or totally noisy. So your practice is always right there. Practice is not something very specific for a bhakti yogi. Every time you reject something you are rejecting your loved one. Love and hate are just two of its faces. That is the difficulty with bhakti yoga it is not confined to one thing but it means embracing everything, totally. It is a complete rejection of rejection. Where you accept everything is a gift, from the divine, everything- including your worst moment, including the most painful moments.”

Kirtan practice

We talked about personal practices of chanting/ kirtan. He said: “I sing hanuman chalisa every morning but i would not describe myself as a hanuman devotee. It moves people, even when people don’t know it and can’t sing it, it still moves people. I have chanted it thousands of times and i have seen that. It is about loyalty, surrender, courage, devotion and trust. It’s all hanuman, captured in that sound or that chant. You don’t need to discriminate too much, anything that makes you feel like sitting down every day and chanting it then you should do that. With any sort of practice, the important thing is doing it.”

Ecstatic States

I asked about the dangers of different states that may be created through chanting. Swami Gyandharma responded: “It is a very matter of fact path in some ways. There is the expression of love and the need to experience of union, or to step out of the limitations of littleness. But it also deals with the realities of life. It is not an imaginary thing: it is not about sitting there thinking you love god. Be present, bhakti yoga without awareness will get you nowhere.

It requires great level headedness. But if you express yourself in an ecstatic way for a moment that’s not a bad thing but it’s not essentially what you’re trying to do. You are trying to meet life with both eyes open and acceptance. You are not trying to forget yourself, to drift off on some pleasant cloud into some blissful dimension. It is not somewhere else… but right here. You have to find it here, in the realities of day to day life. You have to find it in everything, in everybody and every situation, otherwise you still remain separate.”

Emotions and chanting

A big area of interest for me is the how chanting can affect our emotions: “We live in society and situation that are very restrictive emotionally and we are not allowed to express ourselves emotionally. Through song emotional expression is possible, without causing any offence to anyone. People sing out their sadness or they sing out their happiness. It is an expression of something that needs to be aired or recognised in yourself or being ok with who you are. The social restrictions around us, makes it not ok to be a lot of things; you can’t be depressed, you can’t be angry, you can’t be jealous. When we sing we can be all those things and it is perfectly ok, everyone accepts it”


Finally I asked Swami Gyandharma to say a few words about trust. “Shraddha has got to do with the external world and your relationship to it. It is the belief that you will find a way through the darkness of your life. That is faith. Knowing that you will find the way through your own darkness. That darkness is always reflected in the world outside and so that is where we meet it. Thats where we learn to let go. We can get depressed and that’s a dark time or we can get sad or grief. But it also has to do with the world outside. It’s like how we relate to that outside world.

Faith is something that arises when we accept that the outside world is not something different to us. Most people live their lives thinking it is. Faith means you stop complaining about things, stop blaming others, stop reacting. You know you’re responsible and you accept that. It’s very empowering that way because it puts the solution to all this in your own hands.”

Fundamentals – dive deeper into your yoga

So those students that started out in January have now been practicing 10 weeks of yoga in the new space – Parkminster United Reform Church. Great work sticking with new years resolutions! But also there are a few spots left for new students to join us next term.

The next block starts on 19th March same time and place – Parkminster Church Sunday 5.30-7pm. This block will be a 5 week one (with a break for Easter Sunday). I am doing this as £30 for 5 weeks or standard £8.50 drop in rate. I’m really excited about the next theme – we are diving deeper to explore yoga fundamentals. That means re-examining what we think we know and looking at movement, breath and relaxation from fresh new angles.

The class will be perfect for those new to yoga but also those wanting to re-invigorate their practice. Also due to requests we will be trialling a longer session once a month with an additional 45 minutes of chanting meditation at the end for anyone interested in trying this- keep an eye out for more information on this.

The class is run from a beautiful intimate setting – so you will need to book on to guarantee your space (and get the significantly reduced cost of block booking). Please contact me on ktbergson@gmail.com to confirm.   

sunday yoga course -4

Bhakti project: interview Raquel Alves


In the second post in this series of interviews on Bhakti I talked with Raquel Alves, sometimes referred to as ‘a teacher’s teacher’ due to her role supporting the development of student yoga teachers through British Wheel of Yoga, Yoga Campus in London and mentoring from her home in Surrey. We talked late into the night but I have pulled out a sprinkling of excerpts here.


Bhakti and asana

We tend to think of bhakti as linked to specific practices such as chanting but Raquel started by discussing how bhakti influences physical practice: “ With asana practice i always feel quite devotional, but that might be my personality. Sometimes I forget to keep the duty of devotion and the special essence of that practice. I find it more challenging if I’m doing somebody else’s class. But if I can get out of the head of being a teacher and just do the class… even bikram yoga can be extremely devotional. I’m looking to feel the infinite or spaciousness. When Pantanjali talks about experience the infinite – that’s the bhakti that happens in asana classes. It can be a little bit more challenging in a fast vinyasa class.”     


We also talked singing and kirtan: “I think there is embarrassment to sing, perhaps difficulty pronouncing the words. But the biggest resistance, is to being heard. I think it is cultural, if we were in Spain perhaps it would be different. It brings up a lot of fear – to be in tune, to do it right. To open your mouth and start making sounds is scary. In our traditions it is more structured and formal in choirs, so someone saying open up and it doesn’t matter if you stay in tune is quite strange for most people.

When I went to a native american reservation years ago, they were playing music of a traditional chant being sung by this woman and it’s very emotional. Kirtan is like this, people are not prepared for that emotional element.”

Attraction and aversion

We talked about what the obstacles to practice and the attraction to it were: “Once I had a woman who covered her ears when there was chanting. It was clearly creating a response but it was unclear why she did this. I often remind people that they may not like it, they have permission to feel that way. But it is still good for them. It’s like when people say ‘i hate this pose’ – why? where does that come from? what has the pose done to you? You literally get people who are like I can’t stand that [chanting].  

People don’t seem to hang around after asana class, but they do after chanting. It does seem to slow people down. Life has so many distractions. So it’s not because people don’t want to connect, they are hungry for the sangha. But there are too many distractions.”

Mantra and kirtan

There are different traditions of using music and reciting the names of god in yoga. “There is mantra and there is kirtan. They are two different things. Mantra is never said out loud, unless you are teaching it. I have never sung Gayatri or Mrityunjai as part of kirtan. It has a different effect.”


Finally as part of my research I am exploring the term Shraddha which is often translated as faith. “My practice is my life. For me shraddha is a knowing. That there is something driving the Leela**. Even when things are not going the way I want them to go. There is a constant awareness of that something bigger than myself. Shraddha is inside yourself.

Sometimes we have a faith that things will go wrong, as that is our faith. That’s a strong faith if you look at it.  

I have had moments of very strong faith. I go through phases when that faith is very much inside me and other times it is expressed externally through ritual. Like when we light a candle.”

Find out more about the chanting groups, retreats and yoga classes Raquel runs on her website here. My final interview is planned with the wonderful teacher Swami Gyandharma and I plan to publish some supporting bhakti practices from my project over the coming months – so keep an eye out for those treats.

* – Transcendental meditation

** – Leela is a sanskrit term that is often translated as the inherent playfulness of life.

Louise on kirtan

louise-2At the end of last year I was fortunate enough to have a long chat with Swansea based yoga teacher Louise Thorndycraft. This blog has excerpts from that interview, which is part of a bigger research project on bhakti yoga. This is the yoga of the heart and devotion which includes kirtan.


I started by asking Louise about her early experiences of kirtan. “I didn’t really connect with the devotional aspect of chanting straight away. Kirtan just immediately felt like coming home for me. The feeling of being in a room full of people, with my eyes closed, just singing – it felt such a natural way to be with people. That’s what hooked me in – that sense of sangha.

There was a bhakti gathering about six years ago – a long weekend festival, which was like an immersion. The friends I went with were really into kirtan too, but I literally couldn’t drag myself away from the chanting. We were all hanging out together as well, but I was pretty much chanting the whole time. My friends were saying, ‘you’ve been in there all day’! surprised at how deeply I dived in. There was a real sense of belonging and being at one with myself. That was probably the turning point when I realised Bhakti had to be a bigger part of my life.”

When we chant often it is directed towards different gods and goddess – this can be a challenge when people first try chanting. They may feel uncertain about what the chants mean or how they feel participating in devotional music. Louise described how she felt drawn to the music and the practice before the idea of devotion.  

I suppose, for me, the feeling of love and devotion is as much for the music, the joy of chanting and singing, as it is for guru or deity. What has grown out of my initial love of the process of chanting is a deep connection with goddess Kali, as a representation of mother earth’s never-ending cycle of birth, growth, destruction and rebirth. Kali is the one who has grabbed hold of me because it feels that, in these days, we really need to deepen our connection with the divine feminine. This connection was unexpected for me though, because I wasn’t in it for the devotional aspect originally. Devotion just naturally grew out of my love of the mantras and the practice.”

Often when students approach yoga they have a particular aspiration in mind – to become more flexible, work with back pain or reduce stress levels. Perhaps the same can be said for kirtan. “I don’t chant to achieve anything. I chant just for the sake of chanting – I enjoy the simple process of repeating mantras. Having said that, I always feel better after chanting than I do before. I generally feel more relaxed and open and more energised, so I can certainly feel the positive impacts of kirtan, but that’s not the reason why I do it.”

We discussed the emotional element of the practice – that often people can experience a bubbling up of unexpected emotions during the practice be that tears and sadness or joy. “It happens a lot during my public kirtans and I like to encourage that – the moving through and processing of emotions. I think it’s important to remind people that it’s okay to feel sad and angry – any one of the whole range of human emotions. That’s why I don’t like to emphasis the bliss aspect of Bhakti, because that might not be your experience. It’s more important for us to be with what IS than it is to conform to what we think is expected of us in a given situation.”

I asked Louise about the emotions and how it feels when she is leading the practice. “There is that question of surrender then, the feeling that I am surrendering to this practice, whatever happens. On the other hand, I’m aware that taking off can be another subtle form of dissociation. Particularly now I’ve completed some trauma sensitive yoga training, I realise that a lot of people have some level of emotional trauma and some people dissociate on a regular basis. Aware of my own history, I don’t want to lead kirtan in a dissociated state. I want to make sure I’m in my body: grounded and centred, because I feel a sense of responsibility when leading.”

We also discussed the UK bhakti scene and whether there is growing interest in this form of yoga. Louise suggested that there is a great community who are regularly putting on workshops, events and training which is supporting people to access kirtan – http://www.ukbhakti.org is a great resource for events around the country.

“The interesting thing about bhakti is a lot of people don’t realise that it’s yoga. So I’ve had people come to kirtan a few times, who have then asked me ‘oh is chanting yoga?’. They know they enjoy it and they come and take part without really analyzing what they are doing, which is great. In the west, yoga equals asana in most people’s eyes. The public perception of yoga is that it’s about touching your toes, so I can see why people are confused. I want to be part of the movement that reverses this misunderstanding – to spread awareness that yoga is about much more than just physical postures.”

Louise runs fortnightly kirtan in Swansea and regularly travels to events around the UK to lead Kirtan. Last year she released her first album of kirtan music – find out more on her website here. I will be posting more on kirtan and some of the other elements of bhakti yoga over the next few months.

Upcoming courses

I hope you are enjoying renewed energy and enthusiasm at the start of the year, rather than battling with the cold darkness of this season. After a hectic end to 2016 I’m really enjoying being back teaching yoga in Cardiff.

The new class at Parkminster Church Roath is going really well – it’s a fantastic group of students exploring together breath, movement and mind patterns. These sessions have an increased emphasis on breath work (pranayama) and relaxation/meditation and are therefore particularly well suited for those looking to get stress relief or focus on mental wellbeing in their yoga practice.

With the current block half way through already – I’m pleased to announce the class will continue with the next course running for 6 weeks from the start of February (05/02/17). This is now open for bookings.

Space is limited so if you know you want to sign up let me know ASAP. I am allowing drop in for this course but priority will be given to those booking for the whole term and to honour those committing to that regular practice there is more than a £10 discount over the 6 weeks – with the course costing £40 or £8.50 per session for drop in students.

See you on the mat xx


January Roath Yoga

Happy new year – may you start 2017 with energy and connection.

I am look forward to starting a new yoga class in a beautiful space in Roath, Cardiff. I offer the initial mini course of four sessions in January at a reduced rate of £25 for the set. To book on please contact me for bank details or alternative book and pay via the Meet up group here.

In addition to the new regular classes there will also be a special one off nourishing yoga workshop on Thursday 12th January at the new studio – Yoga Boat (formerly Yoga Fever). Information and booking for that can be found here.

See you on the mat!