What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “love”?
What if you think about it for a few moments more? Do you think of different things? People, places, ideas, emotions, activities, spiritual beliefs, symbols, actions?
Love is lots of things.
In yoga’s mother tongue of Sanskrit, there are about 100 words for love, more than any other language in the world. The attention and nuance a language gives to a concept underscores its importance in the culture (likewise, the Inuit language has many words for “snow”, because it plays such a critical role in daily life). So we might conclude then, that in the world of yoga, “love” is a pretty big deal.
The ancient yogis knew that love takes different forms, serves us in different ways, and evolves over time. They knew that love is complicated. They knew that love can hurt, and they sought to understand why. All these different definitions and descriptions of love were designed to help us practice viveka, or mindful discrimination between truth and illusion, when we look honestly into love’s true nature.
Among the many variations of love outlined in Sanskrit, there is karuna – a deep feeling of compassionate love for others, manyate – the intellectual pondering of love, and mitrasneha – the love shared within a true friendship.
Kama is love laced heavily with desire. It can refer to sexual love, the ambition to achieve greatness, or a desire for wealth. Kama drives the action of the world – without it nothing would happen. But this kind of love is also fraught with attachment and illusion. Kama is powerful, but frequently short lived, leaving us disappointed, heartbroken, grasping for more.
Fortunately, yoga gives us other ways to channel the overwhelming power of kama. Here we can turn to bhakti, which translates rather neatly to devotion.
Bhakti is both an experience and a practice. It is cultivated through intention and repetition, often in the form of rituals or service. Devotion to a helping others, to a higher power, or to a creative pursuit are all forms of bhakti. What makes bhakti so much different from kama? Bhakti asks us to work towards our goals with devotion, but without attachment to the fruits of our labor. It means we follow our own right path even if it doesn’t lead to success, money, or romance. It means we fight the good fight even if we know we are likely to lose. Bhakti requires patience, faith, and continued effort over time. While unchecked kama tends to lead to suffering, a true experience of bhakti has the power to take us into a state of pure bliss and oneness, with no negative side effects.
Kinda like your yoga practice.
So, what kind of love will you cultivate today?