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Jai Uttal is a Grammy-nominated kirtan artist, multi-instrumentalist, and ecstatic vocalist. He is considered a pioneer in the world music community with his combined influences from India and American rock and jazz. Nubia Teixeira is a Brazilian-born yogini who has devoted herself to teaching yoga and dance for the past 26 years. Together, they practice Bhakti Yoga and teach the devotional arts to audiences around the world.
1440: Let's talk about Bhakti. What is it?
Nubia: Bhakti is translated as devotional yoga, the yoga of the heart. For me, it is a way of communing, conversing, and communicating with the Divine. Bhakti bridges the unseen ethereal realms with the material world of our daily lives.
1440: How is Bhakti expressed? You mention conversing with the Divine—what does that look like?
Nubia: It looks just like what we're doing right now—looking at each other, connecting, and sharing our hearts.
Bhakti reminds me that there is spirit and goodness in all of us.
It allows me to see my heart reflected in you and your heart reflected in me. As I try to cultivate the qualities of love and caring in my own being, I will also do my best to encourage those same qualities to grow in you.
I practice Bhakti in my daily life by prioritizing conversations with the Divine first thing in the morning. By taking time to ask for her guidance, I feel a spiritual energy carrying me through all the callings and responsibilities of my very active life. I feel most deeply and personally connected with my Divine Mother in all her many forms, especially Durga Ma.
Each one of us has a unique way of communicating with and conceiving of God.
Bhakti Yoga is a way to nurture and enliven our personal relationship with that infinite spirit. Kirtan is one of the great and most ancient practices of Bhakti.
1440: What led you to kirtan?
As a child, I was filled with a longing and a sense of separation and aloneness that ultimately brought me to music.
I studied piano without much enthusiasm when I was very young, but when I first touched the strings of the banjo, at age eleven, there was something about that sound that resonated with the deepest rivers of my heart.
So, I dove really deeply into music. I wandered, entranced, through the most esoteric record stores in Manhattan and somewhere along the way I stumbled across some Indian music albums by the great Ali Akbar Khan. I dropped out of Reed College after one semester, failing music and religion, and came to California to study with this great master. During this period, before I ever traveled to India, I discovered some very simple kirtan chants that completely captivated my heart, along with the classical ragas I was learning from Khansahib.
I didn't consider myself a singer at the time—I was studying instrumental music.
But somehow, when I started to chant, something inside of me really came alive.
I felt able to express emotions that I couldn't express in any other way. At eighteen years old, I didn't have a psychological or spiritual context for understanding any of this. All I knew was that when I sang kirtan, something lifted in me and transported my heart to a place of peace and soulful self-expression.
When we sing kirtan, I believe we're asking Spirit to come closer to us.
It's as if we're saying to God, "Hey, don't forget about me. I'm here and I need you!" Each person in the room can express their deepest heart feelings and longings through the repetition of the melodies and the mantras. Our individual experiences are unique, but communally, we share our passion and love with one another.
1440: What role do you believe the devotional arts—like kirtan and dance and other forms of Bhakti—play in people's lives in this day and age?
Nubia: It goes back to the need for connection. We are living very crazy, isolated lives right now. We're all working really hard to pay our rent or mortgage and to keep our households going. We don't spend time with our neighbors.
We don't gather to worship like we once did.
When we join together for kirtan, yoga, prayer, and other heart-centered events, we support each other and break down that feeling of isolation.
Jai: So many of us are just so beat up by life and afraid to express our emotions and needs.
Culturally, we're not supposed to be needy.
We're supposed to be self-sufficient and strong. But, in truth, most people are wounded and hurting, and the practices that Nubia and I share are ways of gently healing those aching places inside our minds and bodies.
We gather together to nurture our hearts so that we can move through life with peace and trust.
It's not getting any softer out there, but we don't want to put on hard shells that weigh us down with fear and worry. We want to live in wholeness. Our Bhakti path is not meant to take us away from the real world. Rather, it's a way to embrace our lives with a safe and loving heart, being held in the arms of the Divine.
Kate Green Tripp is the Managing Editor of 1440 Multiversity.