Does kirtan in the west need a tuning overhaul?
Kirtan and mantra chanting are now found across the globe as a part of the modern yoga movement. However, Western Kīrtan has adapted to a western ear, losing its connection to the ancient language from which it stems. The Sanskrit alphabet is a language filled with subtleties created by placement of the tongue. Ananda George is an internationally respected teacher and sacred musician who aims to raise awareness of this slip of the tongue, through “The Heart of Sound” and other nāda (sound) Yoga offerings across the globe. Ananda’s path of yogic study led her on a long journey to find a teacher and training true to the roots of this ancient language of Yoga. Eventually her search led her to a master teacher of Hindustanī classical vocal music in New Delhi who unveiled many fascinating sound practices. Diving into the practices with renewed vigor revealed transformation going far beyond the physical. Her journey inspired the creation of “The Heart of Sound,” a 200 hour integrated experience of nāda Yoga training.
Ananda is based in the US, but will be in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne and Byron Bay) from the 16-28 October offering the Heart of Sound Teacher Training, a Yoga Teacher Training based on sound. We chatted to her, pre visit, about the way forward for kirtan, and how people from all walks of life can embrace mantra.
AYJ: What are the main benefits of kirtan from a psychological and spiritual perspective?
A: That’s a tough question to answer, because there are SO MANY!
First and foremost, from a spiritual perspective, having a safe and harmonious environment to express love for the sake of love alone is incredibly healing. We’re singing to the Beloved in all names and forms, and whether we’re yearning for a reconnection or exclaiming praise and gratitude, the passion that a good kīrtan stirs up is transcendent and soul-satisfying.
From a psychological perspective, devotion is the culmination, the rarified essence, of all other emotions. When we can bask in the fullness that reverberates within the sounds, it gracefully dissipates the sense of separation that causes us to seek fulfillment in external, temporary pleasures, addictions, relationships, material possessions, etc. It puts an end to craving.
That reorientation, from the externally-seeking mind, to the pure awareness that abides in the Self, is the essential yogic transformation. When we’re at home in the heart of sound, anxiety, fear, depression, loneliness, and other symptoms of lack and disconnection vanish steadily in the resonance of love.
AYJ: Can you experience these benefits even if you feel like a novice and have trouble with Sanskrit?
A: Yes, definitely! The sounds of Sanskrit are powerful creative energies. Much like with a radio station, even if you’re close to the bandwidth you can enjoy the vibrations. If you feel great going to kīrtan, keep going, and keep singing your heart open even if you don’t know what you’re doing!
Most of us felt daunted by our first yogāsana class, didn’t we? It’s the same with the yogic practice of kīrtan and mantra chanting. If you know you’re going to want to chant mantras over time, a foundational knowledge of the anatomy of Sanskrit sounds will deeply enhance the benefits.
You don’t need to be an anatomy expert to have a visceral, intimate experience of the important muscles groups you engage within your body in a particular posture. Experiencing the magic of the Sanskrit sounds is the same; each grouping of sounds engages certain subtle sonic and nervous system pathways.
However, it’s worth noting that for a variety of reasons, very few kīrtan artists and even many mantra teachers are not pronouncing the Sanskrit accurately, and unfortunately this prohibits them from receiving the full benefits of the sound vibrations. Many don’t even know they don’t know!I’m particularly passionate about spreading this message because I was one of them. I had been chanting mantras for 13 years, and had just started teaching, before I learned Sanskrit. I wish someone would have told me! Tuning into the subtle Sanskrit sounds has made an incalculably magnificent change in my experience of mantra, and I want everyone who loves chanting to have that thrill!
AYJ: How can a person become more comfortable with participating in kirtan?
A: Do the practice for the sake of your own connection, not for any sense of performance. The biggest obstacle is usually worrying about what your neighbor might be thinking about your voice! Just like in yogāsana class, it’s practice not perfection. Making the effort to listen in, and sing (anything!) from your heart is a great place to start.
I suggest the following:
- If you don’t know the words, hum along. I remember fondly during my first trip to India in 1997, I would hum along as best I could and just sing out the few words I knew…Śiva…Krsna! [LL note: there should be dots under the “rsn” however I can’t seem to get my computer to do this today] It worked to keep me connected to the surge in devotion among the crow until I learned more.
- If you don’t know the melody either, just hum along on a base note that feels good and matches what others are singing.
- If you feel too shy or you don’t want to sing along, just hum very softly to yourself, even just listen and feel the sound vibrating in your heart.
Regardless of the level of participation you choose, focus on connecting with your heart and your voice, and forget about what anyone else might be thinking.
It’s important to remember that sacred sound is about listening. It’s inductive, not productive. The sound yoginī is interested in experiencing the connection with the Infinite through sound, versus impressing anyone with her vocal acrobatics or fancy multi-syllable Sanskrit lyrics. From that perspective, the infinity is penetrated most effectively through steady, sustained practice on one note with simple vowel sounds. No need to worry if you’re not following along with the musical flourishes in a rocking kīrtan. The goal is connection, not performance.
AYJ: Why is mantra such a bit part of the yoga tradition?
A: While yogāsana deals primarily with the physical body and the breath (the two most dense kośas, or sheaths covering our true identity as infinite awareness), the sound-based yogic practices penetrate and transform all five sheaths. That’s one of the reasons why if you go to most āśrams in India (spiritual communities where yogic practices are taught) , the primary daily practices are almost always sound-based.
The ancient yogic tradition is much more concerned with the eternal (consciousness) than with the temporary (body). From this larger perspective, the care of our body instrument is a necessary prerequisite to focusing on the longer-term goal of purifying the obstacles within our minds. The āsanas help detoxify the denser body tissues and allow it to sit comfortably erect long enough for us to explore the other aspects of our whole being with the more subtle sound-based practices.
For the beginner, you can think of mantra as yoga for the mind. It’s hard to be happy if you have an unhealthy body, but it’s impossible if you have an unhealthy mind!
For details of Ananda’s upcoming trainings, see www.truefreedomcoaching.com