Devotion is the last thing I ever thought I would be into. I don’t know if it was my non-religious upbringing, the scientific mind-based culture I was born into, or my innate disbelief (from childhood) in an all-powerful male God, but for the longest time ‘devotion’ just felt like a dirty word. Mostly, I realise now, I just had no idea what it was. And I had learnt to be cynical.
As a teenager, I was deeply interested in the ‘spiritual’ – crystals, candles, seances, psychic readings, early attempts at meditation that consisted of sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor with my eyes closed until my head fell back and I imagined that something had happened. I would spontaneously go into strange ‘moods’ (which I now recognize as altered states of consciousness), and would find socializing difficult; and when I tried to talk to people about it, they definitely thought I was weird. I participated in the first levels of reiki training when I was fourteen, and was naturally excited to test it out on those around me. One response I received from someone close was, “Don’t touch me, you freak!”
These early experiences had a huge effect on me. I stopped talking about my experiences and interests in the spiritual realms, and I became cynical of the light and sweetness inside of me. It was challenging and paradoxical: I believed in these things on the deepest level (I had experienced too many things to believe they weren’t real), and yet I was somehow also in denial. Self-protection is a powerful thing.
Even when I became deeply engaged in meditation and Buddhist practices in my late teens and early twenties, learning about love, compassion, virtues, and service, a part of me was entrenched in a deep cynicism. Even as light and love were growing within me, I was too afraid to let them show – for fear of judgement. And so I judged myself, I judged those who expressed freely (“f*&%ing hippy bhajans” was my standard internal response to people singing devotional songs), and I kept my heart in lockdown.
But the beauty of dedicated spiritual practice, is that ultimately it works.
Fast forward to my early thirties… I started to open to kirtan (devotional singing) through a boyfriend who loved and shared it, and began to experience both the full force of my resistance and the radical joys of my heart. And then on a retreat in India, where the divine Geoffrey Gordon was sharing daily nada yoga and kirtan, my heart cracked. One morning, during a silent ‘listening’ meditation where Geoffrey was singing a song to the divine duo Rama and Sita, I spontaneously started singing with him, tears streaming down my face, and the words echoing in my head, “I just love God so much!” It was done. My heart was open and the light started to pour out.
I’d had no idea that my heart was a heart of devotion. That I loved the divine, I loved the light, and I loved love. And that revelation and transformation would come through allowing it to pour out, fearless and unapologetic.
But as things often go with spiritual practice, we have these moments of deep insight, that often mark the beginning of an intense upheaval, and then take time to mature… So devotional singing cracked my heart open, and I found myself plunged into a period of despair. Then from touching the depths of darkness and desperately seeking a way out, I started to slowly open to love and devotion. I started praying every day. It became my mission to master love, to see with eyes of love, to live as love, to be love. I realised this was my deepest purpose, and would lead me to my greatest happiness – because then it wouldn’t matter where I was, who I was with, what I was doing – I would be in love. And so began my path of devotion.
So what actually is devotion?
Many spiritual paths ultimately offer devotion as the highest practice. In the yoga tradition, devotion is bhakti – a yearning for the divine, a deep love of God. And what is God? My personal experience of God, which connects to the non-dual teachings of yoga and tantra, is that God is consciousness itself. God is love itself. Everything in the seen and unseen world is made of this same fabric of consciousness, manifest in a divine play to experience its own nature and its own awakening. This is the yearning that stirs within us for awakening, for liberation and for love. It is the journey of the self to the Self.
So if we experience the divine as love itself, then devotion is a deep love of love, a commitment to love as the highest path. It is the path of the heart. But more than that, it is a practice of deep offering, surrender, and trust.
This is the practice of ishvara pranidhana – surrender (pranidhana) to a higher source (ishvara) – that is offered to us in two of the great texts of yoga, the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. It is a way of getting out of our own way and dissolving the personal ego that we battle with so much. It reminds us to open to life, in all its mystery, and allow grace to pour through us.
In the words of my great teachers, “Everything is conspiring for your awakening.” So when we trust in this greater force, whether we call it God, love, or the divine, we recognize ourselves as a small part in the great play of life, that is ultimately bringing us towards our own greatness. We bow down humbly, offering ourselves to the will of God, to the highest good, to love. And we listen. The practice becomes both the offering and the listening, for the voice that guides our next moves. And as we do this, we begin to experience grace and synchronicity, a deep sense of trust, and an often radical shift in perspective – even the hardships have their place, and as we willingly surrender to them in great trust, there is an ease that pours through us.
So devotion might seem like a dirty word, because it is in so many ways the unknown. And it demands that we drop down into the mysterious space of the heart and surrender the constant grasping of the analytical mind. Challenging in a world that triumphs logic and science. When we walk the path of devotion, we open to the great mystery of life. We walk the razor’s edge, because we know that we don’t know. We have to be willing to sacrifice our ego, to have our heart cracked open, to trust life and go where it asks. It’s the most daring and courageous path I know. But the gift is an ever-greater love that begins to awaken within us.
When you listen, you discover that life has a way of weaving itself into being through you. Because life is ever-creative, it is constantly revealing new gifts and insights, and inviting us to explore new paths into greater discovery and fullness.
As I return home from two months of travels and teachings in Thailand, Bali and the Philippines, I see clearly that the thread that has been distinctly woven for me this year has been awakening the voice.
I don’t simply mean the singing voice – the one that we’re told is good or bad, that sounds beautiful or like a cat howling, or in tune or out of tune. I mean the Voice of the Body-Soul. The voice that expresses the stories, the yearnings, the trials, the emotions, the ecstasy and the pain of all we experience in this human life, in this human form.
And as we get even more refined, we understand as the voice of consciousness itself. It is the power of the word, of thought, of the very vibration of life that takes us closer and closer to our essence. So we can start at the voice to travel the exquisite journey inwards, towards silence, towards our essential nature. It is one of the most powerful tools we have.
From a deep love of devotional singing, community and a wonderful acoustic space, I began late last year to offer free community kirtans. To my surprise, a kirtan band emerged, and growing numbers of people started coming together to sing. It felt amazing, and so I continued. I quickly discovered that people were deeply curious to use their voices more, and to work with mantra and chants. These are powerful tools to soften the mind, connect to the heart, and lead us into silence and meditation. And so I began offering workshops, exploring this yoga of sound, to which people flocked. These practices unlocked not only people’s voices, but also tears, emotions and experiences that had been repressed for far too long in a culture that says that only a small handful of people are ‘qualified’ to use their voices.
I was then invited to teach the Art of Voice and Mantra on my dear friend Emily Kuser’s High Vibe Yoga teacher training in Bali in July. I love these spaces outrageously, where there is time and freedom to explore and experiment.
Thirty students opened their voices and hearts fully to daily devotional song, so willingly and beautifully that we cried. They courageously used their voices to freely release and express the stories and pains lying hidden with the body. And then used their voices to soothe and soften. Without words, without stories, without guidelines or limitations. We discovered together the connections between the voice and the force of life, the breath; and the direct connection between the voice and consciousness, the essence of life. We sang, we laughed, we cried, we screamed, we crooned, we sighed and we discovered ourselves anew.
Through our Voice we are born and we die, we create and release, renew and discover. It is profound, simple, and astonishing. And something we all innately and uniquely have.
So I am completely and utterly in love. And dedicated to diving even further into this journey of the Voice. In early September I am flying to the US for a retreat with Sally Kempton and Silvia Nakach, for five days of mantra, voice and meditation with these shakti masters. And I am dedicated to sharing more of my own discoveries, gifts and awakenings with anyone who wishes to courageously and lovingly explore their own Voice. Because it’s one of the most incredible things I know.
When we follow the inner promptings, our own true Voice, we know exactly where to go. And what we discover along the way is bound to be astonishing.
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Kali: Doing the Shadow Work, Saturday August 27th 12-3pm, Gertrude Street Yoga Studio
Sound and Silence: mantra and meditation, dates to be advised soon
It’s been a big few weeks since returning home of new life schedules, becoming even busier with study and work as I have commenced a counselling placement with asylum seekers and victims of family violence, and most recently navigating the passing of a family member. Yes, life has been feeling quite full…
But the gift of it all has been realising the need to spend dedicated time in reflection, in dreaming, in reconnecting with what is most meaningful to me, and with what I really want to create in this one precious life.
As I sat in reflection over this weekend, I remembered that it is fundamentally connection – helping people to connect and find support with one another, inspiration – inspiring people to celebrate life and live it to the fullest potential, and love – generating genuine love and compassion, and sharing that with as many as possible.
And that I want to create an offering from my pure desire to share these things into the world, that is a simple exchange of energy and connection and enjoyment, and nothing to do with anything you have to pay for (hallelujah!). So I am starting with a free community kirtan – an opportunity to come together for the pure love of it, to sing, to chant, to use the healing power of sound to connect, inspire and create love.
I would love you to join me in building our inspired community in the incredible acoustic space at Good Vibes Yoga Studio next Sunday 25th October:
Free Community Kirtan – Chant, Sing, Connect, Celebrate
Good Vibes Yoga Studio, Northcote, Sunday 25th October, 7.15-8.30pm.
Bring an open heart, mind, and voice – and it’s free!
FB Event link here <3
As fierce as the earthquake in Nepal has been, it is so heartening to see the plethora of appeals and events in our community, on Facebook, and around the world to support the survivors and the rebuilding after the devastation. And it’s so important that we all contribute our small piece into this global community – financial contributions, prayers, love, and action.
I’d like to invite you to two very special events tomorrow evening in Melbourne:
FRIDAY 8th May
1. YOGA CLASS by donation at Gertrude Street Studio – Compassion and Connection in Action
I am offering my 5.30-7pm Embodied Class by donation (suggested $10 minimum) to contribute to the work of The Global Women’s Project directly in Nepal. Gertrude Street Yoga have generously offered to match all donations. It will be a very special class on compassion and connection.
GWP Director, Briony Mackenzie, now living and working in Nepal, was a dedicated student of mine at Gertrude Street, and has since become a dear and inspiring friend. As a volunteer run organisation, 100% of donations go directly to supporting vulnerable women and families affected by the earthquake.
with Sun Hyland, Mel Dobra & Chakradyan
I will be playing violin and singing with Sun Hyland for this special event.
The Art2Healing Project and The Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Melbourne Presents a Soulful Evening of Kirtan and Peace Meditation to raise funds for the marginilized communities affected by the recent earthquake in Nepal.
Starts 7.30pm at The Ashtanga Yoga Centre, Argyle St, Fitzroy.
I recommend booking your tix online here as it is likely to sell out!
MORE EXCITING NEWS AND EVENTS…
As many of you already know, on 16 May I’m heading off for 4 months of yoga training, teaching, and adventures… BUT, I will be teaching a very special EMBODIED FLOW WEEKEND WORKSHOP on 20-21 June at Gertrude Street Yoga Studio (I’m coming back for a sneaky week), and of course I would love for you to join me at one of my retreats in Bali in September…
Mei Lai xo