Sometimes I warn my students: Yoga can destroy your life.
A few years ago I was working on a PhD, living with my (now ex-) boyfriend in a great apartment, visiting museums, enjoying the best restaurants and was completely content. Then I became addicted to yoga.
Warning: If your personal life is falling apart; you must be advancing in your yoga practice.
In addition to my regular practice on the mat, I began hanging out with Bhakti Yogis. Bhakti Yoga is more commonly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement. Bhakti means love, and Bhakti Yoga teaches that we are unique spiritual beings engaged in a loving devotional relationship with Lord Krishna.
When I began hanging out with the Hare Krishna crowd I began to question certain parts of my life. My boyfriend and I began arguing about the existence of God, what to eat for Thanksgiving, and whether or not it was OK to drink. I started asking myself if graduate school was a distraction from a more fulfilling devotional life. I even questioned if it was OK to have sex.
It didn't take long to go from casual Bhagavad Gita reading groups to wearing a sari and cooking Prasadam in the temple kitchen for Sunday services. Soon after the sex ended, the relationship ended. I found myself alone in a new apartment with an altar.
The devotional practice of Bhakti Yoga is the practice of remembering our relationship to the Supreme Being. In order to become an initiated devotee you have to obey the four regulations: No drinking (or any other substances), no gambling, no sex, and you have to chant 16 rounds of the Maha Mantra every day.
So I did it, for as long as could, to the best of my ability.
And despite the fact I "destroyed" my life as it was, Bhakti taught me how to transform the life I was living into the life I wanted. Even though I've since shied away from becoming an initiated devotee, and no longer follow the four regulations, practicing Bhakti Yoga has taught me some important life lessons that will always remain in my heart.
1. Meditation WILL change your life.
There are many different ways to meditate. My meditation practice began as an intense religious exercise. When I began chanting Japa, my head was clearer. I had an easier time focusing on my work and I generally felt happier.
If you want to try chanting one-round of mantra meditation you'll need a traditional Japa Mala with 108 beads. You make your way around the garland from right to left, chanting the mantra one time on each bead. When you get to the end, flip it around and go backwards, so you don't cross the bigger "Godhead bead" in the middle.
But since then, I've learned that there is more than one way to meditate. You don't have to chant a mantra. If you're feeling overwhelmed, or just need to hit the reset button after work, find a quiet space and set a five-minute alarm on your phone. Turn your mind off, inhaling and exhaling as you let go. When the alarm sounds you'll wish you had five more minutes.
2. A vegetarian diet is a more compassionate way of living.
I grew up a meat-eating Midwestern girl. But there was always a little part of me that was never comfortable with eating animals.
When I stopped eating meat, I felt like I was finally being honest with myself. Bhakti Yoga teaches us that a vegetarian diet is the first step towards God-consciousness. It also teaches that if you eat baby cows, you'll come back as a baby cow that will be slaughtered.
For me though, it's a way to cause less violence in the world. It's a way of sustaining my body without violence and I'm appreciative that I have the freedom to make that decision. And even if you don't think it's for you, there's literally no harm in trying it out.
3. Community is important to your yoga practice and your faith.
Even though I grew up Christian, I never felt a sense of community. Going to my Hindu temple in NYC made me feel like I had a home. Sadhana is an important part of developing a spiritual life, but without community to support that practice, you'll find yourself struggling.
Community should make you feel nourished, not drained. It should be a safe place where you can grow.
4. Practicing moderation is key.
When I began practicing Bhakti Yoga, I went to an extreme. I radically changed what I ate, what I wore, how I spent my time and who I spent time with. It was an overwhelming and enlightening experience, but I took on too much too fast. Finding moderation in my devotional life has taught me how to find moderation in my yoga practice.
Do yoga, but give yourself some time off so you can come back to your practice feeling refreshed. Enjoy a cleanse, but don't obsess over how you eat. Practice meditation, but don't put yourself down if you can't find the time every single day. Each of these practices will affect your life, but above all you have to be compassionate toward yourself.
Every day presents new challenges, and a large part of yoga is about going with the flow.
5. You have to be your own life editor.
Sometimes at temple I felt pressured to conform to a stricter yogic lifestyle — no glass of champagne on New Year's, no day without two hours of meditation — but I realized I had to listen to myself.
Push yourself beyond your comfort zone, but don't forget to listen to your gut. Other people will always offer input when you're trying out something new. They will tell you what to do, criticize you, tell you how to act differently, tell you what to change and how to be happy. There are many different ways to practice yoga, so it's always worth exploring and finding out what works best for you.