There are plenty of reasons to become distracted when practising yoga on a hotel rooftop in India: beeping horns, buzzing mosquitoes and curious monkeys top a long list just for starters. But as I try to remain committed to the last part of my morning practice, it’s neither the physical nor the animal that tempts me to cut my Savasana short. Instead, it’s the sound of an ancient mantra coming from somewhere across the river, as a local ashram cranks up its daily session of kirtan.
Kirtan is the singing of mantras in call and response style, and like many Westerners, I’ve recently become hooked. Rolling up my mat and crossing Luxman Jula, one of the rickety pedestrian bridges spanning the Ganges River in Rishikesh, I’m pretty confident I’ll find where this morning’s session is happening: the sound of a megaphone is blaring out the Gayatri mantra so loudly it’d be hard to ignore this kirtan if I tried.
As a practice of bhakti yoga, kirtan sessions are open to all, so I know there’ll be no problem rocking up for a quick morning chant with a bunch of Indian strangers. Entering the ashram gates, I join the locals on the floor, cross my legs and begin to sing in unison with the group. The next hour is spent repeating mantras led by the “kirtan wallah” (a devotee with a decent voice, who sits at the front of the room). For me, the effect is similar to a blissful meditation; there’s not a Downward Dog in sight, but kirtan takes me to the very heart of yoga.
Although the kirtan practice comes from this part of the world, I hardly had to head to India to experience it. Meeting to chant ancient mantras in this style is taking off throughout the West. Thanks to yogic “rock stars” such as Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, Hindi and Sanskrit mantras are now chanted at events held in yoga studios, town halls and temples across the globe.
While most yoga students are familiar with at least one yogic chant (many lineages will have their own, chanted before or after class), there are a slew of chants out there that have been around for millennia.
Unite In Voice
Kirtan is a participatory experience, where the kirtan wallah chants the first round and the rest of the room repeats. The experience can be peaceful and deeply meditative or wildly vibrational. Often it’s both, in close succession. This remains true even if, like me, you absolutely and unequivocally can’t hold a tune. The joy of kirtan means you don’t need to. No, really. A kirtan event is one of the most collective yogic events you can undertake, and singing skills are far lower on the list than your willingness to take part.
As almost any kirtan wallah worth their salt will make clear, this isn’t about them, it’s about us singing together. Without you joining in, it’s not kirtan—it’s a concert. And while a concert might leave you feeling moved or swept away by sound, it’s not a patch on what happens if you overcome the feeling of shyness, open your mouth and let out your most heartfelt Shri Ram Jai Ram.
Regardless whether singing the simple but powerful Om Namah Shivaya, or fumbling your way through the complicated Hanuman Chalisa, most of the chants involve singing to someone, or something. Newcomers often get caught up in this concept: why would we want to chant an ancient mantra to God (either of the guy-in-a-white-robe style or the elephant-standing-on-a-mouse variety). You can if you like, but I suspect most Westerners are like me and are simply chanting to an idea or an energy. While it’s tempting to over-think the process, kirtan works best if you simply (in the words of the Dixie Chicks) “shut up and sing”—the rest takes care of itself.
Kirtan’s New Generation
For musician Edo Kahn, sound has always been in his blood. But it was a trip to India a number of years ago that set him on the path of becoming a kirtan wallah. “I’d become a bit at a loss about my calling or my path. The commercial music industry wasn’t serving me, and I was ready to let go of music. I asked Amma [Sri Sakthi Amma, Edo’s guru], ‘How can I serve?’ He told me, ‘Just sing, it brings joy,’ ” he says. And so he does. Now, with partner Jo Mall, under the name Edo&Jo, they lead kirtans across Australia, run chanting sessions and hold retreats in Asia.
Kahn feels the practice connects him to the roots of yoga. “Chanting originates from the Vedas—the main scriptures where yoga and Ayurveda come from. The Vedas weren’t created by anyone, they were found in nature. As the sound of nature, they’re not for one religion. [Instead] they underpin everything yoga is about, which is union. So when we chant, we’re connecting with the vibration that’s already in nature. You’re sitting, connecting with yourself,” he says.
Like many Westerners now converted to kirtan, Kahn doesn’t just love the experience of the practice, but the speed at which it works. “It’s a fast way to experience peace in the body. The way sound resonates with the body is very instant. There’s something about a group coming together, too; when a group of people chant Om it changes the vibration in the room,” he says.
With so many Westerners now finding kirtan for the first time, Kahn also gets plenty of practice at explaining why we might find ourselves chanting to a Hindu deity, such as the monkey god Hanuman, or the elephant god, Ganesh. “Ganesh is just an elephant’s head! You can look at it as an energy and remove the association of the form. It’s very hard for humans to worship a formless divine; we live in a physical form, so it’s very helpful to have a physical form to focus on,” he says.
Kahn is clear about the fact that finding solace in kirtan is not related to your ability to blast out a tune. “That shouldn’t matter. It’s about your love,” he says. If we can let go of judging our singing skills, the benefits of kirtan can really serve us. “It’s amazing to see kirtan take off in the West, because head and heart are so disunited. If we sing, the energy can move through and we can unite head and heart,” he says.
East Meets West
While a night of kirtan with Edo&Jo can get blissfully upbeat, those looking for a bit more “rock” in their practice eagerly await American Dave Stringer’s annual Australian visit, where it’s common for a room of 200 people be up on their feet rocking out to Om Namah Shivaya.
“There’s an ecstatic experience we have when we come together to make music,” says Stringer. “If you go to a rock concert you get caught up and you and your problems dissolve into a feeling that’s greater than you. You can start out angry, but you can’t stay angry. If you sing for 20 minutes, it’s the same thing,” he says.
Stringer often reminds his audiences that there is a long history of yogis coming together to sing.
Stringer often reminds his audiences that there is a long history of yogis coming together to sing. “Kirtan started in the 15th century as a kind of spiritual pop music. It used the vernacular, popular melodies people could remember,” he says.
Another accidental kirtan wallah, Stringer’s former career in the Los Angeles film industry saw Santa Monica’s thriving yoga scene become his local place of practice. “In 1997 a friend asked me to lead twice-monthly kirtans at her new yoga studio. A lot of the teachers who happen to be famous now were teaching there at the time, and people like Seane Corne and Saul David Raye started taking me on their retreats,” says Stringer. “It was never meant to be a living, it was something being added to my yoga practice in a community I was part of.”
Now that Stringer spends much of the year travelling across the world in his role as a kirtan wallah, he’s determined to keep the practice of kirtan accessible. He’s also eager to emphasise that like yoga itself, it’s not a religious practice. “I project the mantras on a screen, so people can follow them. I don’t use a spiritual name, I don’t wrap it in religious clothing. [And] I’ve learned to speak in a practical way about something that is essentially esoteric,” he says.
To Stringer, the purpose of kirtan is clear. “I’m not chanting to anyone or anything. What I’m trying to do is move beyond an experience of duality; the sense that I’m small and the world is somehow big. If I’m chanting to anything, it’s within myself.”
Kirtan is no longer a fringe practice among the Western yoga crowd. Krishna Das (KD to friends and fans) has sold more than 300,000 albums, kirtan is now on the agenda at the most mainstream of yoga festivals and in most Australian cities you’ll be able to find a kirtan event at least monthly if you look hard enough.
Kirtan is really attempting to deliver us to a place that is spiritual and beyond dogma and religion.
While the kirtan wallahs draw plenty of attention, it’s really the practice that counts. “That’s the challenge ahead for kirtan; it’s really about creating community and togetherness,” says Kahn. “Yes, it helps if one person or group is holding the energy—it helps the group stay present—but a kirtan wallah is just an invitation to be present, to let the divine do what it needs.”
For those still unsure whether they’re ready to sing in a room full of strangers, Stringer has his own words of advice. “I ask people not to believe in what we’re doing, but to suspend their disbelief for long enough to participate. My understanding is that yoga—and with it, kirtan—is really attempting to deliver us to a place that is spiritual and beyond dogma and religion.”
Of course, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to get out there and try it for yourself. After all, what’s the worst than can happen? You sit, you repeat the words and you go home… just a little bit lighter inside.
5 albums to start your kirtan journey:
Embrace by Deva Premal: Although she has loads of CDs, the sounds of Embrace will win you over to the hypnotic sounds of Deva Premal.
Prem by Snatam Kaur Khalsa: Kundalini yogis excel at kirtan and this gorgeous CD will become a fast favourite if you like melodic female voices.
Greatest Hits of the Kali Yuga by Krishna Das: What can we say? The king of kirtan will soon have you hooked. Start with this one and you won’t look back.
Hidden in the Name by Wah!: Tunes more to hum to than rock out to, however Wah! is a favourite of many kirtan devotees.
Kirtan: The Art and Practice of Ecstatic Chant by Jai Uttal: Another “big” name in the US, two hours of kirtan will have you belting out mantras like a pro in no time.
Sue White is a Sydney-based freelance writer and long-time practitioner of hatha yoga.