Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chanting, Then and Now

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 last year I flew out 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.

The rise in popularity of kirtan festivals, camps, and workshops are indicative of a wave that is sweeping the United States and other Western countries as well. Although it is an ancient practice from India, it is beginning to find its way into the mainstream, as yoga is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

Kirtan has been practiced in groups for millennia. When the group all feels like one voice, you feel the divine presence. It’s shining in all the molecules. It is super- high and beautiful. But that feeling of high is different from the high of drugs and alcohol. It’s so much a feeling of the divine presence. I always feel like we’re giving so much of our hearts to each other, our spriits and our passion. Most of us live life on a pretty low burner. When we can share that heart energy, the flame rises and it’s just so great. If you’re singing with an open heart, the presence of God, the divine spirit, the universal spirit—whatever you want to call it—is in the chants. The more we invest our hearts in the chants, the more that spirit is there. When you do it in a group, each person increases the others’ experience.
~ Kirtan leader Jai Uttal, interviewed by Maggie Jacobus in Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Path

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.

This year I attended the Omega Ecstatic Chant Festival for Labor Day only (an option for those who cannot attend the entire weekend).  The highlights for me were:  

Deva Premal and Mitenwith Bansuri flute master Manose Singh


I recommend Jai's new CD, Queen of Hearts. 

And, last but not least, The Mayapuris, who were fabulous muscians and dancers, as well as nice to look at!

I invite you to check out the above links and explore this world of kirtan. Enjoy!

OM Shanti,

Where Everything Is Music

Don't worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn't matter.

We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world's harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.

So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can't see.

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

-- Jalaluddin Rumi
translated by Coleman Barks

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