My First Kirtan
I remember my first kirtan experience. I was at a Yoga teacher training in Tegallalang, Bali, Indonesia in August of 2013. This kirtan was planned as an evening event, meant to draw the local community together and to also give the teacher trainees an experiential look at bhakti Yoga.[i]
As we sat on the floor of the Yoga shala, the musicians were set up also sitting on the floor. The sky was dark outside, the rice paddies obscured from view beyond the shala, and the lights were dim. At the front of the shala were several harmonium players, a guitar player, a tabla player, and several singers. After introducing the members of the group, the kirtan began with lead singer, Dr. Punnu Singh Wasu. He first helped us read aloud the verses (projected onto a large screen) that were in Sanskrit. Then, he gently brought us into the music by singing out a verse and we would chant it back in response. The music ebbed and flowed as we went from song to song, magically drawing us all in.
The evening progressed and the expression of spontaneous joy was blissfully apparent. People were dancing, playing manjeras (small Indian hand cymbals), and clapping their hands. As a musical person, I found the whole experience very connective, even if I wasn’t personally connected to everything that was being sung. Being Jewish, I wasn’t on board with the many mantras being chanted to the various gods/goddesses; however, the ideas that were shared in song of taking care of the earth and being true and open with one’s heart did resonate with me. As we came to the end of the evening, the takeaway for me was the feeling of love, devotion, and community that was expressed during our time together.
While people gathered up the manjeras and began to filter out, I took the opportunity to speak with Dr. Punnu and ask him about his harmonium. Having never been exposed to this instrument in person, I found it fascinating and was very impressed with the several players and their heartfelt performance. He took the time to share with me how the harmonium is played and even offered for me to play it. His warmth and his kindness reinforced to me that kirtan was a large part of who he was, and how it can shape one positively. This wasn’t just a performance that he and his members give internationally: it is a gift of sharing, love, and devotion and teaches others how to connect to something greater. He was in union with himself. At that moment, I knew that in the near future I would be buying a harmonium and start on a journey toward kirtan.
Kirtan: Then and Now
This call and response type of singing is a devotional ancient practice stemming out of the Hindu tradition. David Newman, kirtan artist and bhakti yoga educator, describes kirtan as “to praise that which is exalted”. The word “kirtan” also arises from a Sanskrit root meaning “to cut through”. In essence, kirtan is a practice by which one affords the opportunity to cut through the idea of separation, connecting to our hearts and connecting to the moment through singing and sound. World-renowned mantra music artist Deva Premal describes kirtan: “In kirtan, we sing our praises to the divine in the many forms in which it manifests.”
Kirtans generally incorporate the singing of various mantras. In traditional kirtan settings, the mantras chanted will focus on the names of various gods and goddesses from the Hindu and Sikh traditions. Through this devotional singing, one’s faith is strengthened and the soul uplifted.
But why sing mantras? And do all kirtans have to focus on singing to a deity that one doesn’t ascribe to? As kirtans take off around the world, they are morphing into different forms. Many different faith groups are setting up these kirtan-like experiences in their own way, using mantric singing and customizing their mantras to be suitable to their belief system. As a mantra is a simple phrase, this is the key to making the kirtan very approachable and drawing the masses: one doesn’t need to learn endless lines of melody or words. A simple phrase sung out and called back brings unity in the kirtan community, and allows for maximum participation. Mantras also enable a “letting go” of the mind. As the mind quiets and becomes still, emotions are allowed to flow from the heart freely and the sense of “I” is transformed into “we”.
Why Do Kirtan at Soul Spark Yoga
Kirtan inherently has a quality about it that brings community together. While people might not personally know each other in the kirtan setting, by the end they experience a joining in their hearts. David Newman coins it well when he says, “Kirtan is the glue that bonds our hearts together.” In a world where people are separated in so many ways and communities are fractured, this knitting together through chant is a powerful community builder. This connection and unity can help people not only to form bonds with one another, but also create wholeness in each kirtaneer.
At Soul Spark Yoga, Yoga has always been more than just doing asanas on the mat. In Western society, this is essentially what Yoga has come to symbolize: poses, poses, poses. However, the true practice of Yoga embodies so much more. Out of the eight limbs of Yoga, one of which is asana (the Yoga pose), there are other limbs which afford us the ability to withdraw our senses (pratyahara), concentrate (dharana), and meditate (dhyana). Kirtan offers us a chance to experience these other limbs of Yoga and bring balance, healing, and unity.
It is my goal to bring the kirtan experience to the studio in an approachable way that will bind members of various faiths in song and unity. As we deviate from the traditional kirtan repertoire, we will strive to dwell on themes that bring unity, awareness, and heighten compassion. As my husband, Jason, plays the tabla and I play the harmonium and keyboard, we will share mantras that will be suitable for those of any faith system. It is my hope that all our voices will come together in joy and unity and we will experience a sense of community that is uplifting.
Stay tuned as the kirtan planning comes together…it is my hope to bring this experience to you in mid-January.
i. The Beginners Guide to Kirtan and Mantra – Thrive: The Kripalu Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2015.