Thirteen years ago, I had a life-changing experience. In order to explain it fully, I need to go back even further than that, so I invite you to do a little time-traveling with me.
It’s 1973, and I’m walking in Manhattan’s Central Park. From a distance I hear drums and voices singing. As I approach, I see a cluster of very exuberant people wearing colorful, exotic clothing, with funny hairdos (or hair-don’ts!), garlands of flowers, and ankle bells. They are full of energy and joy, chanting endless repetitions of the Maha Mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare…
I see them only as another of the City’s many fringe cults. In my mind, I lump them into the same category as the “Moonies,” those dazed and confused young followers of Rev. Moon, or the “Purple People” who used to ride their bikes through the park, wearing only purple clothing. I watch with amusement as the Hare Krishnas dance and sing. I recognize the mantra as being “from” the Broadway musical Hair.
Fast forward 30 years. It’s Labor Day weekend 2004, and I am at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, at the very first annual Ecstatic Chant Festival. I signed up because chanting sounded fun. I find myself in a huge hall with 300 other people. An American Jewish guy from Long Island named Krishna Das gets on the stage and sits down at the harmonium (a small hand-pumped organ used in Indian music). He is not wearing orange robes, flowers, or bells. Instead, he has an unassuming outfit of jeans and a flannel shirt. He and his band begin to lead us in kirtan, Hindu call-and-response devotional chanting.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare…
I feel waves of love welling up in me. Love for myself, for my partner, for everyone in that huge room, and for the Divine. My heart cracks open. Tears flow, and I finally understand, without being able to explain it rationally, what those Hare Krishna folks were up to.
My life has not been the same since that moment. Since then, I have made it a yearly pilgrimage to spend a weekend singing kirtan. Most years it has been at the Omega Institute for their Labor Day Extravaganza, although some years I flew out instead to the Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California. And, in the summer of 2008, I had the pleasure of attending Jai Uttal’s week-long kirtan camp immersion in Marin County, California. This year, I will once again return to Omega for their Labor Day Weekend Ecstatic Chant Festival.
This is why I have become a kirtan leader today, and started the One Love band. This is also why I was inspired to become a yoga teacher.
What does all this have to do with yoga? Chanting is one of the main practices of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of Love and devotion. Whereas hatha yoga tones and energize the body through postures and breath, bhakti yoga opens the heart . It is also a meditative practice, as the repetition of the Names and mantras focus and settle the mind. Ultimately, yoga is about becoming more fully alive and connected to Source. Chanting is one of the portals into that place where we touch into Spirit’s grace.
The practice of devotional chanting spans across and cultures, spiritual traditions, and millennia. There are two kinds of meditative practices that are found in the world’s religions:
1)Mind-centered practices, meditations that develop concentration, awareness, and insight
2) Heart-centered practices that evoke a sense of connectedness and joy, and that unlock the natural love that dwells within us. Chanting is one of those heart-centered practices.
The repetition of simple phrases or words helps us bypass the analytical mind, with all its judging, comparing, categorizing. Chanting invites us to go beyond the need to figure it all out, and simply drop into the spaciousness of the heart. Another way of saying this is that it helps us make a shift from living in the left brain to the right brain, which is the more holistic and intuitive hemisphere.
You may ask: what if I don’t believe in any God, Goddess, or Divine entity. How can I authentically participate in chanting the name of a deity that I don’t truly worship or have a connection with?
These names and forms are really qualities that live inside ourselves. Each mantra or Sacred Name is designed to invoke and cultivate qualities such as compassion, love, strength, courage, creativity, or to help us open to the grace of abundance and healing. All of these qualities and potentialities live as seeds within our being. Chanting is a practice of watering those seeds so that those qualities may blossom and bear fruit that we in turn, offer to the world.
The masters have taught us that we don’t even need to understand the meaning of the mantra or the Name in order to benefit from devotional chanting, because the chanting itself has an effect on the nervous system and the subtle energy body vibrationally. In particular, root languages such as Sanskrit and ancient Hebrew are said to have a powerful vibrational affect that is transformative. This is called Nada Yoga, the ancient yogic science of sound.
I personally have found chanting to be the most transcendental, the most powerful, the most direct path to union with Spirit. It doesn’t really matter which tradition or language the chant comes from, it all takes me to the same place.
I love the paradox that chanting the many Names and honoring the many Forms leads us to direct experience of what is Nameless and Formless.
So, whether you are new to the practice or a seasoned bhakta, I invite you to let your analytical, rational mind take a little vacation, and open yourself to experiencing the power of chant. Let it be an adventure, an explorative journey into the wellspring of love, joy and bliss that dwells within your own heart.