Kirtan: In the West
What is Kirtan?
Kirtan is part of Bhakti yoga, which is also known as “the yoga of devotion”, and is now slowly being adapted into the Western Culture for the last decade or so. It is derived from Sankirtan, which is the spiritual practice of communal singing (Bohn, 2008). Kirtan is call and response chanting of Sanskrit mantras along with dancing and the playing of instruments. Some of the instruments used usually include a Harmonium, Tablas, and a Tanpura. The devotional singing of the mantras consist of prayers to the gods as well as the repetitions of the God’s name. Kirtan is not supposed to be a strenuous practice and is for everyone to take part in! There is no right or wrong way to sing or dance to Kirtan and you are not required to sing or dance if you don’t want to, you can just sit quietly. The sounds are designed to resonate within your body/mind to help move the energy up the energy centers (chakras) of the spine (kundalini) and lead us deeper into the core of who we essentially are (Samadhi). By repeating these mantras to oneself, or through chanting them aloud, one can experience greater health, happiness, peace and prosperity (Satchidananda).
Unfortunately there is not much information available on the history of Kirtan in the East nor West; However, Vaiyasaki Das says that, “The roots of Kirtan go back over 500 years to Renaissance India. Kirtan reached its highest form of expression in Bengal, located in northeast India. Today in India, Kirtan is accepted as one of the surest paths to enlightenment” (Das, 2007).
It is said that, “Kirtan found its way to the West through one of India’s great gurus from the 20th century Neem Karoli Baba, who instructed one of his students, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), to return to America and teach” (Shubalananda, 2008).
Bhakti yoga is one of the major branches of yoga. In the process, Bhakti yogis come to see “the Divine in all things,” ultimately achieving a state of nondual consciousness, or Samadhi, in which all of life is recognized as One Absolute Being (Trivieri, Jr., 2001).
Chanting is an ancient and universal practice. According to the MacDictionary, chanting is a repeated rhythmic phrase, typically one shouted or sung in unison by a crowd.
“Chanting calms the nerves, purifies the emotions and opens the heart. It elevates the mind, preparing one for silent mantra repetition and meditation… Chanting can be seen as an expression of the yearning of the devotee to commune with the Divine… Chanting done in a devotional manner is transformative; it lifts the emotions and fills the heart with pure love” (Satchidananda).
According to yoga insight, playing chants before or after performing yoga postures has many health benefits – lowering blood pressure, slowing down the heart rate, encouraging the body to produce natural painkillers and much more (Yoga Insight). Because I have titled this paper Kirtan: In the West it wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t include some scientific conclusion about chanting so according to a Harvard medical school professor, Herbert Benson, “The benefits of chanting recited by scientific research are an increase in oxygen, glucose, and a reduction in carbon dioxide” (Benson, 2005). Another Richard Alpert?... Not quite; however, another source also says that, “listening to mantras directly lowers blood pressure, normalizes heart beat rate, brain wave pattern, adrenalin level, even cholesterol level” (Yogsadhna).
My Kirtan Experience
Walking into The Arlington Center at a quarter to eight p.m. was a little unnerving because there was a few people just sitting there staring at my friend and I (it also might have been the energy from the wall that you immediately walk towards as you open the door, if we’re talking in terms of feng-shui that is). The people sitting there didn’t seem the friendliest but they told us that setting up was still happening and that we could go in. The room had a nice feel to it. It was very open with light wooden floors and white Christmas lights lit the room. They had a plethora of blankets to sit on so everyone grabbed one as they came in and we all sat down in a semi-circle towards the front, facing the band. There were people there from the ages of college students to older adults. We started the night of Kirtan by call and response chanting 3 OMs and saying a prayer for peace (one of the one’s we usually say in our class practice). Then the band started to play their instruments and sing and we had the option of voluntarily singing with them. Eventually some people started to get up dance. The band stopped playing and DJ Mantra Ji took over and started playing well-known Kirtan artists such as Krishna Das. By that time, everyone was dancing. This went on for about 2 hours so in that time people sat down/layed down/sang…anything and everything seemed pretty acceptable. We ended the night of “bliss” by gathering in a circle holding one another and chanting a Sanskrit mantra. They were also very kind and gave us each a rose because it was the night before Valentine’s Day.
There was another free Kirtan class offered on February 20th, 2010 at The Arlington Center, which I really wanted to attend because someone else was hosting it instead of DJ Mantra Ji, so I was curious to see how the two differed. Alas, I had a really intense experience with JourneyDance the day before in my Somatic Movement class and wasn’t really able to physically and mentally attend Kirtan at that point.
The Arlington Center
The center was fairly easy to get to being on the 77 bus line, however, when I needed additional information about the center, getting a hold of the people that work there was not so easy. When I attended Kirtan on the February 13th, I didn’t find there to be helpful staff around to answer my questions. I talked to DJ Mantra Ji after Kirtan was over that night and tried asking him a few questions but he didn’t seem to have the answers I needed and instead was trying to promote himself as an up-and-coming artist. I probably wouldn’t have needed to get a hold of the center if they had some background information on there website such as the history and what not. As a customer, I would like to know what their credentials as a studio are and the fact that they lack this information makes me a little skeptical of who they are. I tried calling them a couple of times and an automatic playback of the center’s schedule comes on and once you listen through it, there is no one there to answer your call. I would have left a message however I thought it would be complicated to ask my questions and receive answers over the phone. Overall the center seemed really well kept but I feel like there is a lack of communication between the staff and customers, which makes me feel like they are almost an impersonal organization.
Why I chose Kirtan
When researching what to do for my midterm, I came across Kirtan and never heard of it before, so I was curious and I Googled it. From that I got the gist that it was yogic chanting and dancing. I really love chanting and my somatic movement class has had a profound impact on my new love of dancing so I was really excited about it. It’s interesting looking back because I originally wanted to have an experience with Bhakti yoga because I was very used to Baptiste’s Power Yoga. I ended up coming across Kirtan, which is part of Bhakti yoga and I look forward to going to many more Kirtan events in the future! It was such a positive experience to be in a room with mostly strangers and to yet feel so free to express myself.
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