By now we’ve all tried conventional yoga: we’ve sat with eyes closed, in a lotus position — or a facsimile thereof — and we’ve tried various breathing techniques. We’ve meditated on this, that, and the next thing, patiently waiting to enter sacred space, to be lifted from our present plane of consciousness and to be transported to Yogaland.
But for most of us, it just doesn’t happen. The grueling techniques of asana and pranayama can surely bring us to the greatest heights of spiritual awakening — if only we could engage them the way the yogis of old had told us to.
The yogis of old, in fact, told us a great many things. One such tidbit is that there are diverse spiritual techniques recommended for various world ages. By the time our present age started, some 5,000 years ago — or so the wisdom texts of ancient India say — the method was supposed to be Kirtan Yoga, the power of sacred chant.
Even Arjuna, Lord Krishna’s friend and devotee (to whom the Bhagavad-gita was spoken those multiple centuries ago), found traditional methods of yoga somewhat challenging, and by the Gita’s Sixth Chapter he rejects them as too difficult. So Krishna compassionately offers an alternative. He tells Arjuna and the rest of us to simply absorb our consciousness in the Divine. This is most effectively accomplished, He says, through chanting.
As if to confirm Krishna’s ancient words, kirtan — a call-and-response form of devotional singing — is now gaining momentum throughout the world. Yoga studios once known for silent meditation now broadcast tuneful mantras through their loudspeakers, and have special sales on devotional CDs; health food stores and restaurants now support the latest kirtan singers through soft music and New Age magazines. Parts of upstate New York, formerly known as the "Borsht Belt" because it catered to Jewish comedians in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, are now being re-designated the "Bhajan Belt" – bhajan is an alternate form of kirtan, and its popularity in that area, and elsewhere, is considerable.
And why not? Kirtan is practical. Not everyone has the physical stamina to practice more conventional forms of yoga. But even a child can chant. You open your mouth, and you let your heart sing out. It’s blissful and, under proper guidance, easy to perform.
All the senses are involved. The sound engulfs your ears and tongue; you see the other chanters and perhaps gaze at pictures of deities or divine personalities, teachers who have mastered yogic science; the smell of incense or fresh flowers usually find their way into a kirtan environment; you can play cymbals or a small drum, or even clap your hands, so the tactile sense is engaged as well. One can sit meditatively or get up and dance. Kirtan is a full experience.
By chanting, one naturally engages the breath, which is the perfection of pranayama. The mind is brought under control simply by focusing on the sound – the chitta vrittis, to use yogic terminology, are subdued, thus affording even fledgling practitioners true peace. This is because, by chanting, one is essentially glorifying the supreme with carefully passed-down mantras – word-combinations scientifically conceived by the ancients, putting one in direct touch with Divinity. It is the only form of yoga that benefits not only the practitioner but also anyone within earshot.
In the early stages of the chanting process, one immediately feels good, cleansed, relieved. As one matures in the practice, purification sets in, and an innate happiness rises up in one’s heart. Bad habits gradually fall away. In due course, chanting is healing, nurturing, and fundamentally uplifting. It culminates in an overriding sense of love – for God and for all living beings.
Little more than a decade ago, few were aware of the virtues of kirtan, even in the yoga community. Today, kirtan events attract yogis and non-yogis alike. Normal, everyday people chill out by listening to kirtan CDs and popular music artists sample kirtan performances on their disks. Krishna Das, whom Yoga Journal once dubbed "The Pavarotti of Kirtan," and Jai Uttal, an extremely gifted kirtan singer, are arguably the most popular of the genre. But there are many others as well. The international Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) led the way in the 1960s, its guru, Srila Prabhupada, holding the first kirtan in the Western world in front of a now famous tree in New York’s Tompkins Square Park. Others followed suit – knowingly or unknowingly — and never looked back.
Today, popular writers explain kirtan mantras in contemporary language. Deepak Chopra and others draw on kirtan texts from ancient India, giving a modern spin to age-old wisdom. In Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound, for example, author Robert Gass says that kirtan is "singing our prayers, vocal meditation, the breath made audible in tone, and discovering spirit in sound." He reminds us that "Religions and armies, tribes and nations, political marches and sports teams have all recognized and made use of the power of chant to touch our collective minds and hearts — for better and for worse. Something happens when we chant together, when we choose to give our voices, our energy and our hearts to a common song and to each other." His words merely echo India’s ancient Sanskrit texts.
And so a new kirtan has emerged: Ancient India’s sages have called out to us, and we are answering their call, with modern words, rhythms, and beats. Kirtan is a call and response form of yoga, and we are responding, too, as the sages knew we would.
Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, a biannual publication exploring Eastern thought. He is also associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine and the author of over twenty books on Indian philosophy. His recent titles include Essential Hinduism (Praeger, 2006), Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita (Greenwood, 2007), and The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008). He is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. More information at www.sjrosen.com/Steven_J._Rosen/Home.html