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What’s all this Chanting About? by Jennifer Schmid

Walk into any yoga center in the middle of a kirtan and there is an evident pulsation of bliss moving throughout the room. Kirtan, understood by most as call and response chanting, is part of bhakti yoga, the living art of devotion. Essentially, bhakti yoga is about love and allowing love in its purest sense to transform everything.

The Benefits of Kirtan

Chanting is a way of deepening the relationship to our innermost self. Mind and thoughts surrender as our heart naturally opens up to the flow of life's grace. When we recognize this grace, we are living in the present moment and that’s what yoga in its truest sense is all about. Yoga is classically defined as union of individual consciousness with cosmic consciousness or oneness.

Most often, kirtan chants are the repetition of ancient Sanskrit mantras, a mantra being a great suggestion that carries a vibration of healing and perfection. The repetition of mantras has a calming effect on the mind; each syllable of every Sanskrit mantra is said to resonate with different centers of the brain, guiding the individual towards a state of meditation.

According to Krishna Das, a worldwide icon of kirtan today, "The words of these chants are called the divine names and they come from a place that's deeper than our hearts and our thoughts, deeper than the mind. And, so, as we sing them, they turn us towards ourselves, into ourselves. They bring us in and, as we offer ourselves into the experience, the experience changes us. These chants have no meaning other than the experience that we have by doing them. They come from the Hindu tradition but it's not about being a Hindu or believing anything in advance. It's just about doing it and experiencing. Nothing to join, you just sit down and sing."

How Kirtan Began

Kirtan is a folk form that arose from the Bhakti movement of 15th-century India, where devotees would write ecstatic love poems and go around singing all the time. Their message was clear and simple: cultivate joy. Among the many ways the human spirit expresses its perceptions and deep secrets, music is perhaps the one universal way. His holiness, the Dalai Lama, once stated that "There is something in music that transcends and unites. This is evident in the sacred music of every community— music that expresses the universal yearning that is shared by people all over the globe." The kirtan movement became popularized in the western world by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) founder A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who often could be found chanting under a tree in Thompson Square Park in New York City's East Village. And there's no question that the current kirtan trend also can be linked to Neem Karoli Baba, a guru well known to many of today's popular kirtan artists such as Krishna Das, Jai Uttal and Shyam Das. He imbued them with his love, and they brought it back to us in the form of kirtan.

The best part of kirtan today is how available it is for everyone. Folks like Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Wah! and Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits tour the world, chanting. These people, far from being enigmas, are completely accessible, completely human. Inherent to the experience is a community of like-minded people with open hearts. It’s fun—a room filled with beautiful people, singing, dancing, falling in love, both with themselves and each other. And it’s most definitely not about singing ability but about allowing the deepest intention of one's heart to express itself.

Jennifer Schmid is a yogini, artist, lover and dreamer who lives at Ananda Ashram in Monroe. She has been studying yoga and meditation for over five years, most recently while traveling through India. She loves poetry, painting and creating sacred space for practicing yoga, meditation and healing. Ananda Ashram offers weekly kirtan as well as weekend-long kirtan retreats. For more information visit AnandaAshram.org.

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