Why Kirtan? (part 1)

“In this materialistic age, more concentration can be gained through kirtan than through meditation. Today, the atmosphere is filled with so many different kinds of sounds. Because of that, concentration will not come easily and meditation will be made more difficult than ever before. These obstacles can be overcome, however, if one performs kirtan. Not only that; the atmosphere itself will be purified by your kirtan.” -Amma

Kirtan is devotional, call-and-response singing of names of the Divine.  (If you want to hear/listen to some before reading this so you know what I’m writing about, you can listen to a number of songs recorded from past kirtans at the bottom of this page.)   I’ve wanted to write this blog for a few years now but have been resistant, and I only today realized why.  Writing about kirtan is so deeply personal for me and will entail writing about my experience with one of my spiritual practices, experience that I feel very shy about sharing.  Writing about hatha yoga and how to practice, I enjoy doing and is easy.  Writing about kirtan (or meditation) is writing about things that I have been taught not to share about.  Still I feel the need to share some about it because many others are, and some of them, honestly, I don’t agree with, or don’t fully agree with.  (and really it would probably be more problematic if we all agreed 100%!)

My first kirtan experience was during my yoga teacher training in 1992, and I loved it.  It moved me.  I had done singing in church growing up, being in the church choir, and not felt much.   I had also practiced spiritual singing in the SiSiWiss Medicine (a Native American religion) in the late 80’s and early 90’s and had very deep and healing experiences.  Soon after that initial training, I started attending a weekly 3-hour kirtan every Sunday evening.  I usually went for the last half or more, and when the continuous kirtan ended, I just wanted to sit there in silence.  There was great quiet in my mind and a beautiful, contended peace, deeper and different in some way than anything I had ever experienced, but at the same time it was so natural and familiar, like I was at home in myself in a way I hadn’t been before.  It was an easy thing to want to attend every week.

I think there were a few factors that made that initial kirtan practice so profound and effective.  The first was that it was led by a woman who had been on a spiritual Path for many years.  She also had a great devotion and love for what she was singing to (The Divine of Many Names), and had been in the presence of many saints.  Another was that kirtan was her practice and something that she shared from her heart.  And last but definitely not least, there was not even a twinge of performance in it for her or us (I’m not knocking performance in general, just saying that in this particular situation, it would be a block to the intended effect), and she wasn’t doing it to make money.  (In fact she was just sharing her office space.  And I’m not knocking making money, which apparently everyone needs, just that it also can create a block to the intended effect.)  She was singing to God and sharing her energy.  We were singing to God and sharing our energy.  Everyone’s eyes were closed as we were endeavoring to focus our attention beyond the body and little mind.

Around that time, 1994, I got my first harmonium and began practicing by myself and leading a once a month kirtan with our local Kripalu group in Ann Arbor and then here when we moved to NC.  That group fell apart after some time, but then we met Amma and on one of my first retreats with her, I felt that she was giving me the guidance and motivation to begin leading kirtan again, this time weekly, so in 1998-9, Nikki and I decided to start offering weekly kirtan every Friday evening, even if no one showed up, first at our home yoga room, then at the studio behind our house, before moving it to Carrboro Yoga Co. briefly and then Open Heart when that began.  Nikki’s (my wife’s) “back-up” singing has been very helpful as some energy to “play off” and to help others learn and feel confident in the singing.   Early on there were a number of weeks when it was just me and Nikki but those days are apparently long gone.  We’ve had a few drummers over the years, and Bodhi Harmony still sometimes joins us playing tables when his busy schedule allows.

Over the years, I have been blessed to be in the presence and get teachings from some great and long-time practitioners including Bhagavan Das (who introduced Ram Das to his Guru) at an intimate, week-long retreat at the Kripalu Center; Yogi Hari at Yogaville for a week and then for 2 weeks at his ashram in FL;  Krishna Das at Yogaville for 2 Memorial Day retreats and several other times for an evening; and the first Kirtan Festival at Yogaville which included Wah! and Jai Uttal; and of course, Amma, who gives teachings (and I think also Shakti, Divine Energy) through her soul-inspired singing.  There have been many other great and not-so-great kirtan leaders but I received something from them all.  The deepest kirtan experience I ever had was with Wah! at that festival which opened a door into another world that is RIGHT HERE, always and only, but it had never been perceived or experienced by me.  It was the Eternal Now and is the only thing that ever was or will be.  That experience persisted for a couple hours.  If that doesn’t make sense, just let it go… for now 🙂  All of those kirtan walas (leaders) have a deep connection with the Divine that they are able to share just by their being in It, and by the Grace of God.  They were/are my teachers and inspiration in the practice of kirtan.

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