3 Ways to Explore Devotional Art
If you’ve taken a yoga class lately or wandered through a kirtan festival, you know that the yoga community is brimming with beauty. Painters are splashing Hindu deities onto stages and studio walls; kirtan singers and DJs fill the atmosphere with sacred sounds; people are dancing and hooping to their heart’s content; and yogi-artists are reimagining India’s gods and goddesses on canvases, clothing, garage doors, and even their skin.
When linked with intention, this connection between yoga and beauty is a form of bhakti (devotion). In recent years, there’s been a surge of interest in bhakti yoga, sometimes known as the path of the heart, and the arts can play a key role in the practice. Like other yogic paths, bhakti yoga is designed to help practitioners cultivate awareness of their true nature and experience union with the divine.
"When we create art with the intention of expressing our heart's longing for God, it becomes a bhakti practice," says Grammy-nominated kirtan artist Jai Uttal (pictured above), who notes that in ancient India, painting, sculpture, Indian classical music and dance, and certain forms of architecture were developed as forms of worship and prayer.
What is Bhakti?
The Sanskrit word bhakti comes from the root bhaj, which means “to adore or worship God.” But you don’t have to be a Hindu (or even religious at all) to practice bhakti. You can offer your love and devotion to whatever form of God resonates with you, whether it’s Ganesha, the Divine Mother, Christ, Spirit, Source, or the Great Mystery.
“I like to think of bhakti as spiritual alchemy,” says bhakti teacher and kirtan artist Gaura Vani (pictured below). “Alchemy is transforming base metals into gold, and bhakti is transforming material things into spiritual things. You’re transforming the mundane aspects of life into a beautiful, loving, eternal dance with the Supreme Soul.”
The devotional arts are a powerful way to express the essence of bhakti, he says, because they help us get out of our heads, into our hearts, and "see life as the gift that it is. A true bhakta is like Midas," he explains. "Everything she touches is transformed into Spirit.”
How to Create Art for the Divine
If you’d like to create your own artistic tribute to the divine, here are three ways to get started.
1. Join a Kirtan
According to Uttal, one of the most popular practices of bhakti yoga in the West is kirtan—the call-and-response practice of chanting mantras, “which are just different names for God.” Traditionally, a kirtan wallah, or leader, calls out a series of divine names and everyone responds by singing it back, again and again, over simple melodies and live instrumentation.
As Kundalini Yoga teacher and Sikh songstress Snatam Kaur explains, “These mantras are simple positive affirmations of the love and light of God that is within and around us.”
Participants often find that chanting is a joyful and emotionally moving experience. The kirtan artist Wah! says, “I chant because it starts a flow of infinite love energy that I can feel for the rest of the day.”
Try this: Find a kirtan event at a local yoga studio, retreat center, or concert hall. You can keep your eyes open or closed while you sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor and let the music wash over you. If you’re new to kirtan, see if there’s a handout you can look at so you can learn the words, or watch the singer’s lips and try to follow along. Keep your mind focused on the sound and feeling of the chant—and sing from the heart.
2. Try Devotional Dance
For ages, bhakti yogis have also expressed their devotion to the divine through various forms of classical Indian dance. But with the right intention, any form of meditative movement can serve a similar purpose, from belly dance to Journey DanceTM.
Yoga teacher and Bhakti Nova dance instructor Nubia Teixeira (pictured left) explains that in some forms of dance, “Your body becomes a temple. Your feet are the foundation of the temple, and your hands, head, and eyes become the ornaments.” The key, she says, is to consciously invite the qualities and energies of the divine into your body and let them move through you. “The dance really connects you with Spirit, with the joy inside,” she says. “You feel united in a deep way.”
Try this: Find a sacred space that’s free from distractions and put on some inspiring music. Set an intention to create a close relationship to whichever aspect of the divine you’re dancing for.
As Teixeira explains, “It takes practice, an open mind, and an open heart to truly feel like you are not just simply dancing but praying, celebrating, and perhaps even worshipping the divine.”
3. Explore the Visual Arts
Other bhakti yogis choose to express their devotion through the visual arts. Yoga teacher and fine artist Jennifer Mazzucco offers an interesting perspective on this form of bhakti practice, “The images I create remind me to look toward the divinity within. Each deity I paint has human characteristics such as strength, wisdom, love, devotion, and purity. As I paint them, I am reminded that I have those characteristics, too, and I can access them if I choose to.
“Over and over again, I draw, carve, stamp, and paint images of deities—a bit like repeating the divine names while chanting. The more I come in contact with images of the deities, the more I feel their vibration.”
Try this: Draw, trace, paint, sculpt, or photograph images of the divine, in whichever forms that resonate with you. With practice and devotion, your art can become a form of meditation.