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.

Definition

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.”

Religion

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”

Trust

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.”

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Bhakti project: interview Raquel Alves

raq

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.”     

Kirtan

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.”

Faith

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.

Is singing part of yoga?

copyright tempo de florescer kirtan

Copyright Tempo de florescer- kirtan  (creative common licence)

 

As I take a step away from teaching again, I allow a bit more space to practice and explore yoga. A pause is always a useful space to look back on what has happened and perhaps start to imagine some different possibilities for the future.

 

In my personal practice, my idea of yoga has broadened over the last nine months or so. I am currently studying a course at Mandala ashram in Carmarthen. Every weekend spent there involves physical yoga poses, the bread and butter of what most people think of as modern yoga. But there is also time spent working on meditation, philosophy, karma yoga (selfless service) and chanting. Chanting has become a really cherished part of my daily practice, so I thought I’d offer a few words about this for those less familiar with it.

What is it all about?

Mantra is the singing of sacred chants passed down through generations and typically, but not exclusively, sung in Sanskrit. Often it involve repeating the same short phrase over and over. Sometimes a mala is used to count out 108 repetitions of a verse. Other times groups come together for kirtan and chants can increase in speed raising to a crescendo, before dropping back into a slow rhythm again. Have you ever lost yourself singing, perhaps in your car when you think no-one is watching, or at a gig lost amongst the swelling energy of the crowd singing? When we chant we harness that feeling and embed in it the energy sacred phrases which are designed to do things like promote peace.

Meaning

When we’re new to chanting there is a difficulty as some want to fully know and understand the meaning of the chants before singing them. It is possible to track down translations for many of the chants but Sanskrit is a unique language that often has many levels of meaning within a single word so it can be difficult to truly express those subtleties in translations. Ideally chanting is done without intellectualising. For me I find when I become absorbed in it, my mind almost turns off and it’s much more a process of working from my heart sense of feeling the chant, rather than knowing it. We can also get caught worrying about mispronouncing the sounds that are unfamiliar to our western minds and tongues – but Krishna Das describes in this article how intention is more vital than precision in kirtan.

Religious beliefs

Many chants are directed towards traditional Hindu gods and goddesses. So you might feel  it is irrelevant to you if you don’t hold these religious beliefs. But many esoteric thinkers argue that we can work with these ideas as archetypes of characteristics we would like to embody. Such as the power to remove obstacles or grow through our challenges (Ganesh), playful energy (Krishna) or fierce protective energy of the ultimate mother (Kali). I thoroughly recommend Sally kemptom book ‘Awakening Shakti’ for an exploration of the characteristics of some of the goddesses in Hindu mythology.

Fear

Chanting can bring up a lot of fear and anticipation. I vividly remember the first teacher who ever introduced it to me and feeling this huge contraction, it felt like as I looked around the room other students had the same sense of mild panic and desire to slip out post haste. I wonder if some of that is a cultural thing. British people certainly have a reputation for being a bit repressed. Excuse the generalisation, but in my experience we don’t always like to express ourselves. Chanting isn’t just a whisper either, it is singing with gusto and intense passion, which some may feel uncomfortable with, particularly when you are new to it. Perhaps many of us feel we don’t have the best voice to sing and fear is about imperfection or embarrassing ourselves. Lastly I have found that chanting can be incredibly powerful and often brings up emotions, which may be another reason why they can make people fearful.

Where to start

If you’re intrigued by chanting and mantra -it’s good to start practicing with a good teacher and we are fortunate in the UK to have some brilliant kirtan leaders. You may find your regular teacher uses Om and/or other simple mantra, this is a good place to start.

In South Wales Louise Thorndycraft runs fortnightly kirtan and regular workshops. She has also just released a really beautiful album which I can’t stop listening to! In Cardiff there is the option to go to the Hare Krishna cafe on Friday evenings. A little further afield  Nikki Slade, Tabla Tom, Bhavana all appear to run regular workshops. Just across the bridge, you’ll also find Tim Chalice running regular events in Bristol and Bath. There is also a course coming up at Mandala Ashram in November from sound to silence, with the wonderful Swarmi GyanDharma.

But if you’re not feeling brave enough to go along and sing just yet you can always start by listening to Krishna Das, perhaps the best known kirtan singer in the world. As well as variety of music available online, he also posts regular podcasts discussing chanting.

Right now I’m off to take my own advice, pick up my neglected guitar and literally sing until my hearts content.