The Journey of Devotion

I never thought I was qualified to talk about devotion. I had seen people (and married someone!) who had gurus and their love, connection and dedication to their guru was breath-takingly beautiful and humbling. These relationships inspired me so much that I went on a “guru-hunting” quest to find my own guru. I dabbled in sitting at the feet of various teachers and gurus, hoping and praying that I’d find “The One” – the person who would guide me in life and connect me to that inner most place within me where God existed. I experienced some local teachers who called themselves guru’s and although I learnt a great deal from them and consider them to be teachers, I did not feel that enduring yearning and connection for and to them.

In 2006, my work for an I.T. company sent me to India on a business trip. I discovered the office wasn’t far from Puttaparthy where the great guru, Sai Baba, lived. I had first encountered this Indian saint 7 years earlier on my first trip in India, when I stayed in a quiet hill-top village where pictures of Sai Baba were plastered all over town. The photos intrigued me. He was a slight man, with a kind face and an impressive afro hair-do that would have been right at home in the 70’s 😊. I’d heard of his miracle of manifesting objects such as gold rings, necklaces and holy ash (Vibhuti) out of thin air, and I wanted to experience this for myself. So, after my business in Bangalore, I trekked down to Puttaparthy and stayed at the ashram for a week. To be honest, I was scared, lonely and homesick and for the first few days, I cried a lot and just tried to get through the days. It was a special Hindu festival at the time and the ashram was overflowing with pilgrims. Each day we went to the large temple for puja/prayers – women on one side and men on the other. We sang, chanted, meditated and breathed, all squished tightly together, crossed legged on the tiled floor. And then he arrived! Sai Baba serenely walked on stage and I waited for my reaction. I must feel something! Come on tears… come on overwhelming-feeling-of-love-and-compassion-for-all-beings…where are you? Where was that never ending peace and gratitude? Where was that feeling that I can’t live without Sai Baba? Surely if Sai Baba was a guru, I would feel something? But no, I didn’t feel that connection. I did feel a great peace in his presence. I did end up having a meaningful and transformative experience at the ashram, but alas, Sai Baba was not MY guru.

So, when I got home, I returned to my yoga mat and moved, breathed, chanted and meditated. My old friend and companion, yoga, was there to soothe and support me.

The closest I’ve felt to having a guru is meeting my beloved teacher, Ram Dass. Having listened to so many CDs of his discourses which had transformed me and helped me see life from a new and more healthy perspective, the first time I saw Ram Dass in person, something happened. Greg and I had ventured to Hawaii for a retreat with him. On the first day, the retreatants were waiting in the spacious, open hall in anticipation of Ram Dass’s arrival. When I turned around and saw him in his wheelchair 30m away from me, it felt like my heart stopped, my breath stopped and the only movement in my body was a tear rolling down my cheek. There was immediate peace and overwhelming gratitude for him being on this earth to share the wisdom of the ages, to help schmucks like me make sense of life and live in the world more gracefully. Ram Dass never called himself a guru. Instead, he wanted to introduce his students to his own guru, Maharaji, as he knew that Maharaji was “fully cooked”, he was enlightened. Ram Dass always admitted that he himself still had his insecurities and indiscretions and still had work to do on himself. Personally though, I believe before Ram Dass died in 2019, he truly had embodied “loving awareness”. So, although my love for Ram Dass is eternal, he was not my guru either.

Again, I arrived home from the retreat and got on my mat and read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and continued to honour the teachings of yoga and vowed to live a yogic life. This is when it began to crystallize that “Yoga” was my guru. But how could a philosophy be my guru? Doesn’t a guru need at least to have had a physical body at some stage, like Jesus, Buddha and Krishna? It felt strange and inadequate, but I began to share, when asked, that yoga was my guru. It is yoga that I turn to in times of need and times of joy. It is yoga which guides me closer to truth, love and wellbeing. It is yoga which provides the tools and techniques and wisdom to steady and calm my mind and to acknowledge my own divinity. Yoga seemed to be playing the role of guru in my life, so why not label it that way?

Over the recent Christmas break, I participated in an online course on Devotion with my teachers, Mr and Mrs Mohan and Ganesh. I wanted to understand devotion further, to see if I could be “more devotional”. Deep down, I still felt that devotion had to be to a guru or a deity, especially having seen many Hindu rituals performed so magnificently with tender loving care and affection. Admittedly I thought the course was going to lead me down that track. But to my delight, the Mohans’ endorsed my theory that you can be devoted to yoga and we can do that through honouring the source of all knowledge (Ishvara/God), as well as honouring the great teachers who shared yoga on earth.

As many of you have experienced, I am now beginning each yoga class with a devotional invocation which does precisely that. The meaning of the mantras is:

We are grateful to the yogis, gurus, teachers and sages who have shared the wisdom of yoga throughout the ages. We bow deeply to them. We connect our minds to their essence of peace, steadiness and clarity so that we too may follow in their footsteps towards freedom.

The exact mantras and their meaning are:

MAHESHWARAYA NAMAHA   (I bow to Ishvara, the source of all knowledge)
KAPILAYA NAMAHA   (I bow to Kapila, the first guru on earth)
PATANJALAYE NAMAHA   (I bow to Patanjali, the creator of The Yoga Sutras)
VYASAYA NAMAHA   (I bow to Vyasa, who expanded the commentary on The Yoga Sutras)
ANANTA RISHIBHYO NAMAHA   (I bow to all teachers who impart wisdom)
NAMO NAMAHA   (I honour, I bow)
OM   (Vibration of the divine)

I’ve added some mudras to this invocation, as I find the movement keeps my mind focused and links me to these divine teachers with humility and gratitude. If you’d like to join in and learn this invocation, follow along with this video:

You don’t need to be from a particular religion to practice devotion. In Australia, there seems to be a downturn in our population going to church, temple or mosque, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be spiritual beings. Our spiritual evolution means that we begin to be ‘self-realized’, knowing that we are divine entities living a human incarnation, that we are made in the image of God. We are not our habits, our personality, our roles, our life experiences. We are beings of light, peace and clarity.

But how do we ‘do’ devotion and ‘be’ devotional? One method suggested by the Mohan’s and Patanjali is to focus on the qualities of a great Soul, a person who has already achieved enlightenment. Think of Jesus and his compassionate nature. Buddha and his mindfulness and peace. Shiva and his discipline and power. Gandhi and his truth and determination. If we begin to connect our minds with their characteristics, we have a role model, someone to mimic, so that eventually we embody these qualities too and that we can be devoted to a similar path too.

I often hear students and friends suggest that nature is their religion. Sitting out in nature certainly brings a sense of peace, openness and wellbeing. Nature can invoke a sense of awe, for the incredible creation that it is. We could potentially honour a tree and acknowledge and try to mimic its qualities. For example, a tree is strong and stable, enduring winds, rain and harsh sun. A tree’s branches provides home to birds, insects, possums, koalas and the width of the canopy provides shelter and shade for those beneath it. Yes, the tree’s qualities of strength, stability and support are inspiring qualities we could aim to emulate.

However, a tree isn’t human. It doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t live in the human world nor navigate the roller coaster of suffering and joys. Therefore, being devoted to nature is a good starting point, but eventually finding a person, deity or enlightened human to offer our love and gratitude, will push us further along the spiritual path. Acknowledging someone who has overcome the grasp of the world and has put the divine path first, will help us more easily follow a similar route. Connecting our minds to a being who has achieved greatness will allow us, give us permission and realization that we can do the same.

My invitation for you today is to learn these devotional chants and recite them each day, either when you wake, when you go to sleep or before  your sadhana (spiritual practice), and feel the effects within. For me, reciting these mantras has brought deeper meaning to my practice and my life. Try it and let me know.

See you on the mat soon, yogis.

In loving awareness

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