Have you ever heard of the term “Bhav” or “Bhava” or “Bhāva”?
Even if you have, but you don’t know how intentionally cultivating Bhāvas (emotional disposition/attitude/sentiment) can empower your spiritual practice, expand your creative range, and enrich your understanding of India’s rich culture, then read on. Seriously, if you aren’t utilizing Bhāva while doing your postural yoga āsanas, you’re missing out!
Many folks still don’t understand power of sacred art and what a fundamental tool it is for most spiritual traditions, not just in India but throughout human history. This is a glaring gap in understanding by folks who are interested in postural yoga. Which is why I’ve spent a couple of decades teaching, writing, publishing and posting on the topic.
Art can be utilized as a tool for liberation, to direct our awareness toward the divine, and in rare cases has transmission power (presence). A powerful piece of art made in a ritual manner turbo-charges rituals. Installing one respectfully in your home is understood improve your luck and provide protection.
Art invokes joy and appreciation for the beauty of our world. Art makes life juicier! Art inspires and gives meaning to life. Art helps us to anticipate and prepare for major life challenges, making us emotionally stronger and more adaptable. Art saves lives. This is in part because it helps shift our emotional disposition.
There seems to be more awareness of the topic today in the mainstream postural Yoga scene, and the ways in which sacred art and performance compliments yogic practice. Kīrtana, for example, has become much more popular (AKA Kirtan, literally “Praising” in the form of call-and-response devotional singing). Most yoga studios have a maṇḍala mural or a Hindu or Buddhist statue and carefully decorate the space to invoke a reverent atmosphere.
Of course, I personally tend to focus on visual art and sculpture, though I also spent many years as a professional poet. Perhaps I have neglected to address other classical ritual arts, but only because I wasn’t trained in them. None of my art teachers taught about Bhāva and Rasas, though ALL Hindu and Buddhist deities have a specific “bhav” that they are depicted in. When I wrote my Bhakti Coloring Book, I was reminded of this gap in my own understanding because the invocation of Bhāva and Rasas is so fundamental to all devotional (Bhakti) practices (Sādhanā).
Because of this basic lack of awareness in most students of sacred art and yoga, I have learned how important it is for me to emphasize to students and readers that the ritual tools, talismans, icons, altars and ornaments that we use in ceremony are usually empowered by power-words (mantra), ornament (alaṃkāra), and accompanied by poetry, song, percussion, teaching tales, and dance. ART! Art is how we bring divine power (śakti) into physical form and cultural relevance.
Visual art exists in context, and that context is BEAUTIFUL, rich, and saturated with emotions! Emotions ARE śakti, they are ‘energy in motion’ (e-motion). They can be intentionally invoked, concentrated, and utilized to focus and direct our awareness. Focused emotion makes rituals more potent and thereby accelerates spiritual development.
The classical and ceremonial art traditions of India are built upon an entire philosophy of aesthetics (which relate directly to specific emotions) that is largely unknown to Modern Postural Yoga practitioners and many modern Hindus.
Why does this matter to all artists? Artists and writers get mired in dull habits and stuck in boring ruts, like everyone else. They tend focus on expressing just one or two emotions in their work. Even when depicting or describing other emotions in their work, THE ARTISTS THEMSELVES are not shifting their OWN temperaments during the creation process to reflect the emotions depicted. Understanding Bhāvas and Rasas is like adding colors to your palette, keys on your keyboard, words to your vocabulary, spices to your dishes. Being able to recognize and shift your Bhāva will literally expand your creative potential and make your work richer and more impactful.
Why does this matter and can benefit all Yoga āsana fans? Every yoga posture (āsana) has a Bhāva (disposition) that is meant to be invoked while holding the position. Warrior Posture (Vīrabhadrāsana), for example, is meant to be performed with a heroic (Vīra) disposition (Bhāva). There are a specific set of generally recognized Bhāvas. In this case, Utsāha Bhāva (Courage) evokes Vīra Rasa (Heroic Valor).
Rasa (“juice”), is the juicy experience we have as the distilled experience of the Bhāva that induced it. So if we do Warrior Posture with courage, we are juicified by the experience and feel Valorous. This is extremely beneficial! It’s nourishing, revelatory, and highly motivational.
The juiciness of the Rasas arising from full expression of postural yoga helps to antidote the drying quality of yogic discipline and austerity that can show up as dogmatism, stubbornness, and humorlessness. In other words, our minds/emotions become stronger and more flexible, too! We’re getting an emotional workout, not just a physical workout. This is why traditional āsana yoga is far more than just a gym workout, and why invoking Bhāvas (and Rasas) is essential to practice.
Regularly and intentionally cultivating Bhāvas and invoking Rasas makes us more emotionally resilient, adaptive, and responsive. We literally have more capacity to experience the wonder, astonishment, joy, and rapture that spiritual practice unlocks. This capacity helps to save us from the emotional upheaval that inevitably accompanies the ego-shattering result of successful meditation practice (or any other spiritual discipline for enlightenment).
So much so that one of the Tantric tradition’s greatest sages, Abhinavagupta, wrote and entire treatise on aesthetics and remains influential today. In fact, he’s better known today for his views on aesthetics than that he was an enlightened rainbow-body master who wrote the seminal scripture Tantrāloka!
We know from recent research that postural yoga is Tantric in origin (or at the very least deeply informed and shaped by the Tantric tradition). We can be certain that classical tantric yogis were familiar with the philosophical structure of the Bhāvas and Rasas, and serious Hindu mystics even today understand their importance to spiritual practice. We also know that Śri Kṛṣṇa dances the Ras Lila (that’s the ‘Rasa Dance’). He is the central figure of a core Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad-Gītā.
In short, it’s just not possible to enjoy the full benefits of yogic practice or Hindu Sādhanā without some familiarity and invocation of Bhāva and Rasa. Why they are neglected in Modern Postural Yoga studios is a topic for another essay.
For now, I simply wish to conclude with an entreaty to anyone reading to dive deeper into this topic. You can find info online (especially on sites dedicated to classical Indian dance), in my Bhakti Coloring Book, or join me for a weekend dedicated to the topic – either in-person or online.
I’ll be co-hosting a rich and participatory in-person workshop with legendary dancer and instructor Shambhavi Dandekar and meditation instructor/artist Shivani Hawkins. This is a rare interdisciplinary opportunity to gain emotional range and learn how to apply these principles to creative, spiritual, and self-care practices. There will be fascinating, creative, interactive exercises as well as delicious catered food. Please click on the link below.