When I was 20, I wanted to drop out of college, trade my sweater and jeans in for a sexy, glittery getup, and join Cirque du Soleil. I had excelled in hatha yoga classes for a few years and thought I had potential as a contortionist. (Oddly enough, they didn’t offer that as a major at my school.) I loved to explore the infinite possibilities of the human body and wanted to push the boundaries.
So I packed my bags and drove off to attend a summer yoga program in the Poconos. A few months of in-depth asana training, I mused, and I’ll be on my way to fame. I was shocked, when I arrived, to hear that my fellow participants aspired to study yogic scriptures, attend satsang, and learn meditation.
Meditation? I scoffed. This is a yoga institute. We’re here to chill out, eat vegetarian food, and do postures for several hours a day in exchange for chopping vegetables. These people are strange.
But soon I discovered rusty old locks in my neck, shoulders, and hips that seemed to have no keys, and saw many others who were closer to contortionism than I would ever be. I was stubborn, however, and I kept pushing until I injured myself so badly that I couldn’t do postures for a month.
Humbled by my foolish injury, I decided to slow down and see what this spiritual place had to offer me.
With no TV, private phone, or friends to keep me occupied, I began to attend lectures I wouldn’t normally have been interested in: ayurveda, the nasal wash, biofeedback, the Bhagavad Gita, pranayama, and yes, meditation. Eventually I realized I had stumbled into an ashram, and humbled by my foolish injury, I decided to slow down and see what this spiritual place had to offer me.
By the end of the summer, I had found comfort in the ashram’s peaceful atmosphere, and I had warmed up to meditation. On the advice of the spiritual teacher, I went back to school to complete my degree, armed with a host of yoga techniques I planned to incorporate into college life.
One of the most accessible techniques was kirtan, a simple form of sacred chanting that arose in India thousands of years ago. I had been studying voice, so I was eager to explore a different kind of singing. And kirtan, I soon learned, was the opposite of my classical training. Instead of standing on stage and singing scripted music for an audience, kirtan is a casual call-and-response sing-along. Everyone sits cross-legged in a circle, mostly with their eyes closed, in a quiet, joyful form of vocal meditation. The words are simple: Sita Ram, Hari Bol, Om Namah Shivaya; and the melodies are simple, too. The kirtan leader begins the songs slowly, then gradually increases the speed and volume. And instead of a piano as accompaniment, there is a unique assembly of instruments—harmonium, sitar, clavas, tablas, tampoora—to keep things lively. Improvisation is key, so the kirtans are different every time.
According to the ancient scriptures, kirtan is one of the nine limbs of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. And because the words we sing are Sanskrit names for God, kirtan is mantra put to music. Tradition has it that whenever students are exhausted by their practices, they can start chanting as a way to soothe their senses, stimulate their minds, and transform their emotions in a creative, spiritual way.
Back at school, my newly acquired, shoot-for-the-stars ideals—no sugar, no sex, and a two-hour regimen of yoga practice every day—began to slip away as the semester progressed. Soon I was back to my old tricks: staying up late, eating badly, breathing badly, breaking hearts (including my own). Everything I needed for a regular, fruitful meditation practice receded until I was simply sitting for 10 minutes without any asana or pranayama warm-ups, and trying (but failing) to concentrate on my mantra. Then I remembered that I could reap some of the benefits of meditation from chanting, so I decided to give it a try. And since there weren’t any live kirtans in my area, I settled for playing chanting CDs on my Walkman while trekking to class, and singing along to the stereo while I cooked my meals. I noticed that my breath began to open, my mind became more focused, and my spirits lifted, and soon I was chanting whenever I had a chance. Singing the names of God became a tape that played in my head for hours after the CDs ended. Soon I could turn it on at will to shift my mood and connect with the divine.
I had studied voice for several years, but something had always been missing. I was cursed with an infinite, inverse perfectionism complex—the more I knew about singing, the further away I felt from perfection. And as my technique improved, I felt less and less inspired by the music. In kirtan, I found a whole new voice. Most of the songs were in the key of middle C, and since I had been trained as a soprano, it was refreshing to sing in a lower range. When I forgot about technique and sang from the heart, I discovered a rich, deep soulfulness in my voice that I never knew I had. Singing, for once, was effortless.
I was cursed with an infinite, inverse perfectionism complex—the more I knew about singing, the further away I felt from perfection.
Chanting also broadened my perspective. Suddenly I remembered that my life was bigger than my latest breakup, bad mood, or bout of writer’s block. It was even bigger than my body, my ego, and my mind. As I sang the mantras, I was quieted and purified. It was like taking a happy pill. And the happiness came from a sense of expansion, of spaciousness. It helped me remember the deeper purpose of life.
Over the years I’ve used chanting to reconnect with my center—whether I’m living in a rural ashram or a bustling city; whether I’m singing with others, by myself, or just in my head. During that first summer at the Himalayan Institute, I discovered a way to tap into my own source of beauty and strength—and there was no turning back.
Today, I live at the Institute year-round and sing kirtan every week. Some days when I join the circle of singers and the music begins, I’m crabby, irreverent, reluctant to sing. I ask myself, Why am I here? I hate yoga. I am the worst kirtan leader on the planet. I open my mouth expecting to growl, but within a few phrases I’m sweetened by the mantra and the melody and I’m singing from the heart. Happiness is irresistible.
Although it usually takes some time for the whole group to get in sync, at some point everything clicks, the mood shifts, and the music flows forth like a river after a storm. We are swept up in the current and carried along. Life is good. I realize I came in feeling like a pair of crumpled pants, and now I’ve been handwashed and ironed and hung on a clothesline in the country. I am swaying in a summer breeze—I feel smooth and fresh and light. I understand what Rabbi Tirzah Firestone means when she writes, “By chanting, we strip away our outer appearances, our smaller selves, to let the light of our true nature shine forth.” Kirtan is an easy, accessible way to start doing that.
I learned that you can’t sing kirtan for an hour and resist the lure of a joyful mind, no matter how miserable you are when you begin.
Kirtan helps iron out emotions, too. Recently, I went through a period of grief and depression, and it took all of my willpower to drag myself to kirtan and sing. I began to conduct an experiment. I poured all of my negative emotions—all of my heartache and longing—into the chants, and before I knew it they were replaced by an indescribable, mysterious but palpable presence. I learned that you can’t sing kirtan for an hour and resist the lure of a joyful mind, no matter how miserable you are when you begin.
In India, kirtan is revered as an ancient form of therapy. Maybe that’s because, as Benedictine monk David Stendl-Rast explains, “When chant music stops…an audible silence reverberates through the room….The silence is not merely sound’s absence, but a mysterious presence, the immense nothingness that is our origin and our home. If we listen carefully, we discover that when all is said and done, chant inducts us into this silence that is the ground of our being.”
Every spiritual tradition offers many paths that help us get back home. Personally, my favorite is one that’s put to music.
This article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Yoga International.
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.