If you struggle to sit still for meditation, or if the holiday madness is making it hard for you to relax, says Kundalini Yoga teacher and kirtan artist Katie Wise, why not try a musical version of meditation? Kirtan is a simple call-and-response method of chanting mantras that originated in India thousands of years ago. It opens the breath, focuses the mind, and elevates the spirits. According to the bhakti yoga tradition (also known as the yoga of devotion), it helps us transform our emotions in a creative, spiritual way. And who couldn’t benefit from that during the holiday season?
As Wise, the frontwoman of the Boulder-based mantra rock band Katie Wise & Bhakti Explosion, observes: “During the holidays, families are together, expectations and stress levels are high, and our emotions can run high, too. Chanting can help you get through the holidays with a calmer emotional body. That’s the best gift you can give yourself—and your family.”
Wise adds that “Our inner child is often present during the holidays in a really delightful, wonder-filled way. Everything suddenly has twinkle lights around it, and little Santa elves. There is a magic of the season that calls back our fondest childhood memories. But in the same way, if there are triggers from your childhood holidays, those are also going to rise to the surface.”
Chanting mantras can keep you centered, she says. If you’re a fan of Deva Premal & Miten’s mantra music, you may enjoy chanting along to Deva’s rendition of the mantra Narasimha ta va da so hum, which appears on her jazz-influenced mantra album Password. According to the album’s liner notes, it is “a strong and powerful mantra for protection from negative influences.” A free song download is available here.
In addition, here are two mantras from the Kundalini Yoga tradition that Wise recommends practicing during the holidays.
According to the 3HO Foundation, a global Kundalini Yoga community that follows the teachings of the late Yogi Bhajan, Ra Ma Da Sa is a profound meditation you can use “when you want to send healing energy to a loved one or need healing yourself.” The full mantra is:
Ra Ma Da Sa Sa Say So Hung
As Wise explains, “The translation of this chant is really beautiful. It’s about connecting yourself to the infinite—to Sun, Moon, Earth, and Heavens. That’s why it’s said to be healing—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
You can learn how to practice this chant with a mudra here, or sing along to Wise’s modern, mantra-and-pop rendition below. The track comes from her band’s internationally acclaimed debut album, Lovolution.
(You can download the song for free here.)
This Kundalini mantra has been studied at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania. Preliminary research suggests that chanting it may reduce stress and inflammation and help with sleep, memory function, and depression.. As Wise explains:
Sa is the beginning or infinity.
Ta is life, existence, creativity.
Na is death, change, transformation.
Ma is rebirth.
“If my husband and I are getting out of sync, we’ll sit back to back and chant this mantra together because it’s so balancing,” she says. Wise recommends chanting it with your family during the holidays in this fashion, too, if they’re open to it—especially when visits start to feel tense or challenging.
No matter which mantra calls to you during the holidays, chanting can be practiced on your mat or meditation cushion, or with a kirtan album in the car, but, according to Wise, it’s most powerful in a group—so keep an eye out for local kirtan events, too.
“Kirtan is a communal, spiritual practice,” she observes. “We’re all chanting together, rising together, and sensing the sacred space that chanting creates. Often, after I lead a kirtan, I notice that people are glowing and sharing with each other in a really deep way. It’s really bonding.”
And there’s some science to back this up. According to a recent article published by Kripalu, “A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford [suggests that] group singing can help us form close bonds with each other within the span of just two hours. Other research suggests that group singing in particular increases levels of oxytocin, which is associated with trust and bonding (or what scientists refer to as ‘social affiliation’).”
“In traditional kirtan,” Wise says, “the leader, or kirtan wallah, sings the chant, and the participants chant that same mantra back as a group, over and over again. The chant becomes an ecstatic and effortless way to transform the mind. If we consider the mind to be a monkey mind, it’s like the monkey just starts dancing when you sing kirtan. It can’t make you miserable anymore, because it’s got something to do. It’s like giving the puppy a chew toy.”
You can find recordings of the Sa Ta Na Ma mantra on Kundalini Yoga music record label Spirit Voyage’s website. Just click this link and then the downloads tab.