There’s a rave-like atmosphere in the ballroom of a Florida hotel and a group of musicians onstage, but this gathering of hundreds isn’t a party or performance. It’s a spiritual practice. The yoga conference participants singing and dancing late into the night are engaged in bhakti yoga, the yoga of joyful devotion to God.
Bhakti yoga isn’t a recent import. Many Westerners got their first taste in the 1960s, when shaven-headed Hare Krishna devotees took a bhakti practice called kirtan to the streets. Kirtan is the chanting of God’s names and attributes, often in call-and-response fashion. In 1969, Beatles guitarist George Harrison produced a recording of the Hare Krishna mantra, and bhakti debuted on Britain’s Top of the Pops. Around the same time, former Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert returned from India with a new name—Ram Dass—and the message that psychedelics were poor substitutes for divine love. He taught ancient Hindu chants to hippies.
Anyone can sing to the Divine Being. The practice of kirtan doesn’t require formal training.
Recent years have seen another surge of Western interest in bhakti yoga and particularly devotional chanting. Longtime “kirtan wallahs” such as Jai Uttal and Krishna Das (Americans both) have graduated from living rooms to concert venues that seat many hundreds, achieving the status of rock stars in the yoga community. These days, it’s rare to find a yoga conference without communal chanting on the program. The Omega Institute’s annual “Ecstatic Chant” weekend grew so popular that this year the retreat center scheduled two chant-a-thons. There are kirtan camps for those seeking in-depth study and kirtan ringtones for cell phones. The Canadian music company that manages Avril Lavigne and Sarah McLachlan recently signed half a dozen chant artists to its label. “It’s a bull market,” quips Shyamdas, who has led kirtan for a quarter of a century.
Why are a growing number of Westerns investing in bhakti? For one, it’s accessible. Anyone can sing to the Divine Being. The practice doesn’t require formal training. It doesn’t require physical flexibility. Unlike avenues such as asana and silent meditation, which call for persistence, chanting “can be immediately successful with just a little bit of good intention,” says Shyamdas, who points out that bhakti is by far the most popular branch of yoga in India.
“Success” is an experience that even longtime chanters find hard to verbalize. It’s heart-opening, they say. It’s elation and more. “I haven’t found a good way to explain it without people thinking I’m weird,” says Sharon Smith, a Connecticut yoga teacher and retired project manager. “You need to feel it a little bit. I don’t think you can talk someone into appreciating kirtan. It’s visceral.”
The yoga studio boom also has much to do with bhakti’s new fan base. More and more people are giving yoga a go and discovering the music that’s played in many classes. They buy chant albums and tickets to sacred sing-alongs. Miten, a British rocker turned devotional singer, says people often tell him: “I’ve started to get into yoga, and I heard your music, and I can’t stop playing it. I play it in my car. I play it to my kids. It just resonates. I don’t know why.”
It’s not only yoga practitioners who are tuning in. After NPR reviewed David Newman’s Lotus Feet: A Kirtan Revolution, the chant maestro heard from music lovers who’d never stepped inside a yoga studio. “They were just digging the music,” says Newman, whose spiritual name is Durga Das. “We’ll go to a yoga center to chant and the owner will say, ‘God, we’ve never seen these people.’ They are drawn to the music, and through the music they’re exposed to the vibration.” Krishna Das was greeted by 700 fans in Buenos Aires after one of his songs, “Jaya Bhagavan,” was used in an Argentine film.
Though rooted in India, the music of yoga’s new rock stars has an unmistakably Western imprint. The ranks of chant artists are filled with lovers of rock and jazz, bluegrass and reggae, folk and world fusion. “We were brought up with the Beatles or the blues or whatever, so that enters into our styles,” Shyamdas says. They may slip an English song into an otherwise Sanskrit set. They may swap tabla drums for bass guitar. They may even insert a sax solo. It’s not the stuff of Indian temples, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less spiritual.