We form a small semi circle around the teacher. I close my eyes and sit cross-legged on a blanket as I would in meditation. Our teacher is playing the harmonium, a hybrid between a piano and harmonica that’s popular in the Hindu-based devotional mantra music called kirtan. Kirtan is gaining popularity even among yogis that were once afraid to chant OM.
I’ve been practicing kirtan more than ever after joining a Jivamukti-inspired yoga studio in Charleston, South Carolina. Each class adds the ancient chants to their 90-minute practices. At first, I close my eyes and awkwardly repeat the chants, more concerned about looking silly than what I’m actually saying. But over time, I rather enjoy the chanting, it lifts my heart and shuts off my brain for a bit.
In the short time I’ve been practicing it regularly, I have seen some benefits, but for many yogis, it’s not just an addition to their practice, it’s an essential component. GuruGanesha, of the GuruGanesha Band, tours the world playing the mantra music that he says quiets the intellect and opens the heart. He’s been practicing kirtan every morning for the past 40 years as part of his Kundalini yoga and meditation practice.
“I pick up my guitar and start to sing mantras,” he says. “It gives me a deep sense of the divine energy and benevolent force that carries me through my day.” He says that now, in these difficult times, we need it more than ever. “We’re inundated with negative beliefs like violence and hate and this practice is a reminder that at our core we’re all beings of light.”
What is Kirtan?
Kirtan is a singing tradition with ancient roots, first introduced between the 7th and 10th century BC in India. It’s a call-and-response mantra-based practice which does have religious roots, but doesn’t have to be religious at all. Mantras are simply positive praises that you repeat.
The beauty of kirtan is in its repetition. Sometimes a single chant will go on for as long as 40 minutes. But after a few rounds, the words become less important than the vibration of the singing. It may sound new age heavy, but the experience is uplifting especially if you close your eyes and try and be present. It’s almost like an outward meditation where the energy of the group simultaneously lifts you up. Kirtan gatherings can be small, like a class format or they can be huge concert venues.
Why is Kirtan So Beneficial?
According to GuruGanesha, there is a belief that many of the most popular mantras are designed so that when the tongue touches the roof of the mouth in certain ways, it hits acupressure points that cause the release of stress. Kirtan also opens up the heart chakra, called the Anahata chakra, located at the center of the chest. Chakra is the Sanskrit word for "wheel" and it's considered a place where the mind and body connect. In yoga, the body is made up of seven chakras or wheels of energy. Kirtan, which means "to cut" in Sanskrit, helps balance the body and mind through the vibration of sound.
“I call it the compassionate bullsh*t cutter,” says Lindsay Simmons, a Jivamukti Yoga instructor and owner of the blog Healing with Lulu. “It cuts through all the crap and helps you get to the love."
The repetition allows you to lose focus on the words and go right to the experience. According to Simmons, it also cleanses the throat chakra so you’re better able to say what you mean and mean what you say. Simmons, a singer who regularly leads kirtan gatherings, says that before she found kirtan and Jivamukti Yoga, she was stuck in a deep depression that caused her to lose her singing voice. Kirtan helped her to find her voice again. “Kirtan invites the heart to move through the throat and your heart is your wisdom,” says Simmons. “Whenever I’m having a hard time I’ll start singing mantras.”
It’s also beneficial if you’re having trouble sitting in meditation. It can clear the dust a bit so that you’re ready to be silent and still in meditation. After chanting, the vibration can be so strong that you often sit with it silently for a few minutes. It releases many of the blockages, says Simmons, that make it hard for us to sit in meditation in the first place. “Sometimes you just don’t want to be silent.”
How Can You Introduce Kirtan to Your Yoga Practice?
Certain forms of yoga like Kundalini and Jivamukti include kirtan as a regular part of the practice and certain teachers often start class with chanting. Go out of your comfort zone and find a class that includes some chanting. And remember, no one will be looking at you because although chanting is usually done in a group, it’s also an individual exercise in opening the heart. Close your eyes and get into the experience. Also, look for kirtan gatherings in your neck of the woods or look for kirtan bands like the GuruGanesha Band that tour all over the country. And if you don’t have access, just close your eyes and start chanting OM, you’ll be surprised at how beneficial it is. When you’re ready, add in these simple but uplifting chants:
Om Namah Shivaya. (I bow to the Self.)
Lokah Samastah Sukino Bhavantu. (May all beings everywhere be happy and free.)
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