The new year is quickly creeping upon us, and for a lot of us, saying goodbye to the events of 2016 couldn’t come fast enough. Reflecting over the year-that-has-been is an important practice in terms of establishing where we are currently at, in terms of yoga sadhana/spiritual practice/emotional and physical health/relationships etc. etc. Sometimes this process of reflection can be very emotionally charged – positively and negatively. Personally, 2016 has been truly transformational in almost every aspect of my life. This time last year a vowed to make a dramatic change to my lifestyle. It affected where I lived, who I associated with, what I ate, how I moved my body, and so on. Sometimes the changes were tumultuous and brought up a lot of things I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge over the years, but I had made a decision to tackle these head on and I never wavered from the knowledge that what I was doing was the right thing. So, despite many hardships, both personally and socially (in the world at large), I look back on 2016 with a great deal of pride and gratitude for my spiritual community and my yoga sadhana. After having these meditations, I become a witness to my life and release attachment to the past. It is important to make peace with the year that has been. This might be simple or incredibly difficult, but it is an essential practice to allow yourself to move forward upon your path.
Bringing commitments to the practice into the New Year
As every new year symbolises a step forward in our journey, it is nice to take the time to reaffirm our spiritual commitments. When thinking about how to deepen my practice in the upcoming year, I was repeatedly brought back to H.H. Radhanath Swami’s explaination of the five practices of bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion/love), in his book The Journey Within. To me, these five components of the path of bhakti, are everything one needs to remind oneself of at the start of a new year. These are the practices that we should all be incorporating into our lives, and if anything is lacking, our commitments for the new year should be directed accordingly.
- Living in a sacred space (and tuning into grace)
- Spiritual relationships, spiritual community
- Chanting the holy names of God
- Hearing from sacred literature
- Worshipping the Lord, however you know him, with faith and veneration
*If you are not someone who relates to religious practice or the concept of God, do not be put off by this language. I will go through each of these practices and how they can be incorporated into your life to deepen your yoga sadhana, cultivate a greater sense of peace, awareness, and connection.
Living in a Sacred Space (and tuning into grace)
This space can be both physical and psychological.
The environment in which we live has a huge and immediate effect upon our lifestyles and therefore our constitutions. Your outward environment often indicates your internal condition. For example, if your home is untidy, chaotic and dark, you may be experiencing stress and depression emotionally. While this may seem overly simplistic, maintaining a clean and purified space within your home is conducive to a healthier lifestyle and a more tuned-in relationship with your practice. Create atmosphere that engages the sense – smell, touch, sight, sound etc. Have pictures that reaffirm your faith and love. Burn candles and incense. Use natural, warm materials. Use softer lighting. Play soft music – perhaps devotional mantra – to create positive vibration in your home. Turn your environment into a tranquil haven which is both supportive and nourishing. Be especially mindful of the area where you practice yoga asana. Keep it clean and fragrant using incense or smudging with sage or palo santo.
Setting up an altar in your home is a great way to invite a sacred space into your life. Constructing an area made up of photographs, deities, candles, flowers, or whatever holds important meaning to you and your practice, gives you a space to remember what is most important, to offer gratitude and worship, and provides a space in which to direct your meditation practice.
The psychological space in which we live is of even greater importance than the material and tangible world with which we engage. Creating space within the mind and cultivating a sense of clarity and grace is an essential part of the spiritual path. Of course, it is much easier to rearrange your house than your thoughts, but the practice of meditation is something that you carry with you throughout life. Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah. Patanjali defines yoga as the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. The entire practice of yoga is therefore summed up by this pursuit for a quiet mind, the desire to dwell within a sacred space internally. So, through this practice of bhakti, we search for the things that bring about internal peace, through service to the divine. Perhaps it is the practice of kirtan, mantra chanting, or silent, contemplative meditation. Our practice is to find out what service brings us the greatest connection to grace and keeps us within a sacred space.
Spiritual Relationships, Spiritual Community
When a group has a shared interest in enlightenment, the members help one another focus on living a life of spiritual and moral integrity.
Radhanath Swami – The Journey Within
Just as we are affected by our environment, our constitution is greatly moved by the associations we choose to make. The company we keep is more than entertainment or companionship. The decisions we make and our behavioural responses are often determined by the people we spend time with – friends, colleagues or family. As self-assured as you are about your path, other people inevitably influence certain decisions – whether you have that third glass of wine or not; your political leanings; how you dress…
While you should not judge people for the lifestyle choices they make, you are the captain of your own ship. In other words, you are responsible for your own progression and the people that you surround yourself with have the ability to hinder or progress that development. Sometimes it is important to take an inventory of your current situation and evaluate where your needs for spiritual support are being met and where they are lacking. When I changed my lifestyle, I found I could no longer associate with certain people, not because I didn’t love them, but because the choices they were making were not in line with the life I was striving for.
This is not a call to go out and start cutting people out of your life, but it is a signal that perhaps there is a community that could support you along your spiritual journey – people who have the same principles and a similar outlook on life.
Meeting regularly with like-minded friends allows us to wrap ourselves in spiritual armour.
Radhanath Swami, The Journey Within
Leading a yogic lifestyle is not easy. It is an emotional journey that can leave you vulnerable and sensitive at times. Having a support network makes such a difference to your practice. People who are there to encourage you and support you and sympathise with the hurdles that one faces along the path. Without my spiritual community I would not be where I am today. The work I have done up to this point was greatly dependent upon their support. They have filled the roles of teacher, parent, best friend, and sometimes even doctor!
Sometimes we have glitches. Sometimes things go wrong and we wonder why we chose this path. Make sure you have people in your life who can remind you and pick you back up and set you on your way again. Not everyone will understand the yogic path. In fact, some people are very resistant to it. But when you have your spiritual community, you can allow the disillusion of others to slip straight off your back.
It can seem daunting to find a community, but by participating in yoga workshops, retreats, kirtan events and so on, you will find hundreds of like-minded friends out there. Online communities and forums are also great opportunities for meeting people and finding your support network.
Chanting the Holy Names of God
No matter what your faith or denomination, chanting the sacred names is a beautiful practice through which you can achieve a sense of greater universal connection, create peace, and find integrity through repetition. Mantra has been used for thousands of years as a means of focusing yogic sadhana – a form of sound meditation.
The word mantra comes from two Sanskrit root words: manas means ‘mind’, and trayate means to ‘free’, ‘liberate’, or ‘deliver’. Therefore, mantra literally means ‘to free the mind’. As said earlier, when looking at Patanjali’s definition of yoga, freeing the mind from stress, anxiety and distraction from the spiritual path is the goal of the yoga practice. Chanting mantra clears the webs of illusion and supports a committed and stable devotional life.
Chanting can provide comfort at times of great hardship. The repetition of mantra and the recitation of the holy names are soothing to the soul and cultivate a closer relationship with the divine, bringing harmony out of anguish. Chanting can also be done at times of joy, an expression of celebration.
The two basic ways of chanting are japa and kirtan. Japa is private mantra meditation using mala beads. It is the intimate recitation of the holy names that one can practice throughout the day to maintain a connection to the Supreme. Kirtan usually refers to the group singing of devotional mantra, although kirtan can also be performed alone. Kirtan inspires transcendental sound vibrations as a result of full absorption in the mantra.
What to chant?
Anything. If the traditional Sanskrit mantras don’t inspire you, then use English ones. You can write your own positive affirmations to repeat as mantra. However, as we are currently living in Kali Yuga (the age of discord), the Vedic texts and the Upanishads state that the maha-mantra, or “great mantra”, is the most suitable for our time as it contains all powers and benefits of all other mantras combined. The mantra is:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Hare invokes the Supreme Feminine – Radha (Hara); Krishna is one name of the Supreme – it translates as “the all-attractive one”; Rama is another name of the Supreme, meaning “reservoir of all pleasure”
Chanting the maha-mantra is a process for reviving original pure consciousness. By chanting this transcendental vibration, we can cleanse away all misgivings in our hearts. The basic principle of all such misgivings is the false consciousness that I am the lord of all I survey.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada – The Topmost Yoga System
Hearing from Sacred Literature
What is sacred literature for you? This practice is not prescriptive. There are no set texts applicable for everyone. Depending on what faith you hold, your idea of what constitutes sacred literature will be different. In fact, as your practice develops, your choice of literature may shift. If you hold particular religious’ values, your selection will most likely be guided by this – perhaps the Bible/Torah/Quran/Upanishads… Or, perhaps this is totally not for you and you don’t feel affiliation with any definitive faith. In this case, perhaps your sacred literature is poetry, or autobiographical lessons from a teacher you admire, or teachings on mindfulness, etc.
Sacred literature, is literature that teaches us to progress upon our path. It is the wisdom of our teachers and our teacher’s teachers. Through the reading of sacred literature, we become an active part of a lineage of knowledge being passed through the generations. Whoever your teachers are, or whatever your personal relationship with God/the Divine/Universal Consciousness is, the reading of sacred literature brings you into a deeper communion.
Om ajnana timirandhasya
Chakshur unmilitam yena
Tasmai sri gurave namah
I was born in the darkness of ignorance and my spiritual guide (guru) opened my eyes with the torchlight of knowledge. I offer him my respects and gratitude.
(Srimad Bhagavatam 8.1.11, 8.3.25)
In my personal practice, the reading of sacred literature is an integral part of my day. Every morning, before I have any other engagement with the outside world (phone securely on airplane mode) I read from the Bhagavad Gita for at least half an hour. This allows me to settle into my day with peace, clarity, and a sense of perspective. In the afternoon I try to make the time to read from Srimad Bhagavatam. It is easy, as the activities of the day take over, to lose oneself in a frenzy of activity. The sacred texts are a gentle reminder of the practice and an encouragement for progression along your path. Radhanath Swami writes that shravana (the hearing of bhakti scripture) ‘refocuses our priorities, purifies the heart, and attracts divine grace.’
Underline things. I never pick up a book unless I’m armed with a pencil. Anytime I come across a piece of text that moves me in some way, I will underline. This way, on busy days when doing an hour of reading isn’t an option, or at times of stress or anxiety, I can pick up any of my books and flip through to an underlined portion and see what wisdom awaits me.
Worshipping the Lord, However You Know Him, With Faith and Veneration
For me, this practice is really one of true commitment and is inherently personal. No matter what you do, do it with love, trust and reverence. Having respect for the Supreme is integral to the development of a close relationship with the Divine, however that concept manifests for you. In all that you do, give thanks and be in the knowledge of your position as a humble servant.
So, this year, rather than writing lists of advanced asanas you want to have down by summer, of making illusive promises to yourself, take some time to consider your relationship to the yoga of bhakti. Make the most of the upcoming year by committing to your practice in the best way you can. Reside in peace, joy, and reverence.
Happy New Year!