Can You Train The Heart?

On October 20th and 21st noted bhakti and kirtan leader Jai Uttal will present a weekend of chanting, devotion and teaching to the students of the Yogamaya as part of their teacher training.

Fortunately for the rest of us, this program will be open to the general public so we all have the opportunity to learn from this bhakti master.

To find out what is in store, YogaCity NYC’s Alex Phelan sat down and had a conversation with Yogamaya founder Bryn Chrisman and Jai Uttal.

Alex Phelan: Describe the idea behind the bhakti segment of your teacher training.

Bryn Chrisman: The immersion into bhakti is one section of our 300 hour training. We call it devotion because not everybody knows what bhakti means. It’s four weekends, based on the first sutra in the second book of Patanjali: Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yoga – Kriya-yoga, the path of action, consists of self-discipline, study, and dedication to the Lord.

The weekend with Jai is the one weekend that we open up to the public.

AP: How is a section with this emphasis on bhakti unique?

BC: Bhakti can be really misunderstood in the commercial yoga world. When it’s put out there in this low common denomintator sort of a way, people miss what the possibilities are of the practice. When you really connect with it or get a proper frame of reference from somebody it opens things up in people.

AP: How do you describe bhakti to those who are unfamiliar with it?

Jai Uttal: The practice of bhakti yoga for me is the attempt or the intention to deepen and intensify my personal relationship with god – whatever aspect of the divine one is drawn towards. It’s a very very personal feeling that is nourished and nurtured by certain practices like mantra and chanting and music and dancing. Even writing, poetry, cooking practices can be part of bhakti if they are enacted within the spirit of offering, surrender and connection to god.

AP: How did you first start down this path?

JU: I was a teenager in New York City and the first exposure I had was hearing the hari krishna folks singing in the street. I was never drawn to join that movement. But then the singing and the rythyms, the drums and repetition of these mantras really connected with me.

I went to India in 1971 and I met my guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Many people have different opinions about who he was and what he taught; he was shrouded in mystery in a sense. But in my case I felt that he bestowed upon me the path of bhakti yoga. We chanted all the time around him and he instructed all of us westerners to chant kirtan.

AP: How did you transition from this as a personal practice to a professional one?

JU: It was a really slow process and I fought it continuously. I always saw myself as a spiritually focused professional musician. But I had this one band that I was so passionate about called the Pagan Love Orchestra. It was a combination of devotional, classical and folk music from India mixed with hip hop, reggae, rock ‘n roll and a little bit of jazz – all very much with a spiritual intention. I loved this band, but finally it slowly crashed and burned.

Meanwhile, I kept getting calls from people saying ‘would you come over and lead us in kirtan and talk a little bit about your experiences?’ My responses were always, ‘I’m not really a singer; I can’t do that; this is just my own private thing; you should find someone else.’ But there really weren’t other people doing this at that time. So I kept getting these calls and I eventually said ok. I’m still insecure about singing but I embrace the insecurity and know that it is my role to sing. But it took a long time and was mostly from the insistence of others, which I indirectly interpret as the insistence of my guru.

AP: Why is it important to have bhakti as a component of a yoga teacher training?

JU: That’s a question that requires an opinion – some would think it’s completely unimportant. But if you look at the ancient phenomena of yoga, asana was never separate from meditation, pranayama, bhakti. It was all a complete package for the ancient sages and yogis. Just as the hip joints need practices, the human heart needs practices. So the idea of including it in a teacher’s training now seems very novel, because when yoga came to the west it primarily came as a physical practice without the deep spiritual component. All these aspects were and are interconnected. So it think it’s really great that some yoga schools and teachers are beginning to realize that all these different practices enhance each other.

AP: How does this segment of your training help to make bhakti or devotion more accessible to your teacher trainees?

BC: I think Jai Uttal is, in a way, the perfect ambassador between yoga people in the western yoga world and the real bhakti. He’s such a sweet generous soul but he’s so relatable to anybody. I remember when I first started teaching I was really confused about how a teacher was supposed to be. I thought that if you were a real teacher you commanded authority in the room, that you held people accountable, that you had to be strict if people did things like walk with shoes in the yoga room. And I remember being in his kirtan camps and people were making themselves comfortable. Kids were running into the temple room with their shoes on, making noise. And it never phased him, he was just open and joyous to all of it. And it was such a teaching for me because he has my respect but he’s not yelling at people or trying to control every move they make.

AP: What does your daily practice look like?

JU: The bulk of my daily practice is taking care of my little boy – he’s 7. Sometimes that’s playing music and singing, sometimes its building legos, sometimes its watching TV, sometimes its just hanging out. That is my main devotional practice right now. There are certain prayers that I say every morning and every night. Sometimes I sing them, sometimes I whisper them; sometimes it’s very fast and brief, and sometimes it’s very full of feeling. But I never skip them.

And I do a lot of public kirtans. Even though I frame that as my job, it’s also my practice. The day it stops being my practice and just becomes a job is the day I can hand in my card and say ‘I’ve gotta start doing something else.’ And once a week I go to my wife’s yoga class, which is just about enough to feel constantly achy.

AP: How does one move more deeply into the practice of bhakti?

JU: I think the best way is to dive into the practice and be consistent. Even if the time is short, every day spend five minutes finding a place in your heart that is a vulnerable feeling place and sing a mantra. Just see what happens; for each person it’s going to be completely different and it won’t happen overnight. Try out these practices without expectation — in the west we are so goal-oriented, and our time clock is ticking all the time. In the east where these practices come from, they think about many many many lifetimes to somehow find one’s self for one moment of one’s life in that real deeply blissful loving presence of god. So it’s not an overnight thing.

I never prosyletize. What do I know about anyone elses journey? I barely know my own. But when people say that they are drawn to this, then I say try 5 minutes a day for two weeks – singing. And they say ‘but I’m not a singer’ and I say ‘what does that mean?’ Everyone is a singer if you open up your mouth. God is not a critic. And then they say ‘but I’m not very spiritual’ and I say ‘neither am I, but you have a heart that is inhabited with feelings’. Then they say ‘but I don’t know any mantras’ and I say ‘try ram’. It’s really easy to find a simple mantra for kirtan. Kirtan mantras are mostly pretty simple, they are just names of gods.

AP: What will your weekend for the teacher training at Yogamaya look like?

JU: I never plan ahead. . I’m just sharing what I do and what I am, for better or for worse. All I can do is share what experiences I’ve had and what prodigiously small knowledge I have of this tradition – share about my guru and my songs and re-tell the great stories from the Ramayana which are part of the tradititon. What I really like when I’m with a group is for people to ask questions because it can steer us towards what people in the group need. We will sing a lot and I’ll do some gentle exercises for people to open up and discover their voices a little bit. We’ll laugh a lot hopefully and maybe cry a little. We’ll try to find ourselves in an open vulnerable, feelingful place with each other which is a vulnerable, open, feelingful place with god.

For more information about or to register for the weekend with Jai Uttal at Yogamaya click here. Cost is $160 before October 12th and $175 after. To come to Uttal’s Kirtan performance alone costs $28.

Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.

Read the original article here.