My First Kirtan Experience
My first kirtan happened over 12 years ago, probably among one of the first couple of times I visited the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Back then, they had a long weekend program that included elements of yoga and Buddhist practices, both of which I was starting to explore. If memory serves, most of the four days involved an hour of yoga, an hour of seated meditation, a meal. Rinse and repeat, multiple times a day. In the evenings (before we practiced loving silence) there would be a special event of some sort, such as a lecture or group discussion. One evening, there was something called a kirtan.
I had no issues with the silence. I was shy and loved not having to worry about "making friends." Although I was getting better at meditating for an hour at a time and tolerating the caffeine-withdrawal headaches that thumped my skull against my head to the point I feared others could see it, I anticipated these evening events; they were somehow more engaging than what was going on in my thoughts or in my body. Even though I'd been forced into music by my parents as a child, I welcomed listening to music as a distraction to all this, and was curious about the strange instruments, such as the harmonium, which I saw before me on the makeshift stage.
Looking back, I realize now that while I did yoga (asanas) to strengthen and stretch my body, and meditated to focus my mind, kirtan was the third point on the triangle--the one that got at my emotions and caused me to question who I really was. I enjoyed the music, and sang along though I had no idea whether I was saying the words correctly and had no idea what they meant. But what stood out to me, which I still remember, was the spontaneous dancing. Sure, my foot was tapping, and I may have even clapped a bit. But every now and then, someone would stand up, move to the outside of the room (maybe), and dance freely, in whatever way the music moved them. It was as if the song animated their bodies from the inside, and they were oblivious to things like, say...how they might look to other people. As someone who had always enjoyed dancing, I was envious, but completely self conscious. What would people think of me if I got up and started moving in "weird" ways? I had only ever done ballet--where I was shown the steps and like most other things in my childhood, told many times when I got them less than perfect. I just couldn't do it.
That was when I saw her. A woman had stood up from her back jack and pink square cushion, and started dancing in place. She had long gray hair (which may have been in braids, breaking multiple other "rules" that I had learned about women and aging). As I watched her, my thoughts began to shift. I felt admiration toward this strange woman. In that moment I asked myself, "how do I want to live my life?" "Do I want to be the kind of person who cares so much about what others think of me that I won't do something my body is aching to do, something I know I will thoroughly enjoy?" After a few more moments, I got up and let loose.
I still don't always pronounce the words right. I still don't know what many of them mean. And I've never lasted long in a chair or cushion at a kirtan since. I'll say "thank you" to that woman, whoever you are. That night, you were my guru (teacher).
Benefits of Kirtan as a Spiritual Practice
I attended Krishna Das' "Heart of Devotion" workshop, where we chanted and he talked about how kirtan was his primary spiritual practice. He told us he chanted because he HAD to, describing it in a way that sounded as though his very life depended on it. Given that I've been going through my own personal hell recently, I could relate.
For starters, it can be an alternative for those who have trouble meditating while sitting still, in silence, or who fear yoga as something that requires twisting their bodies into pretzels. Focusing just on the sounds from the instruments and people singing has a way of drowning out unwanted and automatic negative thought patterns.
Additionally, some believe that the very practice of sounding (of which vocalizing the Sanskrit language is one possibility), has healing properties--correct pronunciation is helpful, but an open heart is more important in order to receive the benefits, which include inner peace and a sense of joy.
And then there's the sense of community and belonging that attending a kirtan with friends (and even strangers) can help one feel again. In an age where communication happens primarily via technological devices and where in many cases, regular "church going" has fallen by the wayside because of the unpopularity of religious dogma, it's just NICE to sit in a room with other kind, compassionate human beings and sing. Plus, there are now some scientific studies in contemplative neuroscience that help explain why rituals like kirtan can create a kind of "buzz".
Is Kirtan for Me?
If you're interested in learning more about kirtan, the best advice I can give you is to just jump in. Listen to music online, buy a CD for your car (in my opinion, kirtan is fantastic for helping one handle traffic jams!), or find a meetup near you. For those in the Boston area who are up for an experience, check out the Boston Yoga and Chant Fest coming up in a few weeks! It's sure to be a memorable experience.