Kirtan has been slowly gaining a following in the west, largely thanks to the efforts over 20 years of Krishna Das, Dave Stringer, Jai Uttal, Snatnum Knur and more recently MC Yogi and Govin Das and Radha. But what is it? Based on ancient chants, it is an example of what is know as nada yoga, or the yoga of sound. It's a form of meditation and has the ability to quiet the mind if listened to with intention.
Everyone experiences kirtan differently, and it doesn’t have to be a religious or spiritual experience. Its kind of what you want it to be. Typically at a kirtan event everyone sits on the floor, and there’s not much of a distinction between performers & audience. The kirtan wallah (leader) sings the chant or mantra, and the audience sings it back. A single chant can go on for how ever long the wallah chooses and the audience participates, or the song can be verse and chorus repeated once through. As you sing with each other you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself, you tend to lose yourself in the music and the shared experience. When the music stops, your mind is still somehow.
Because kirtan has roots in India, many of the songs are sung in Sanskrit. Krishna Das often says that this is of some benefit to most Western participants as they don't generally have the same attachment or pre conceptions about the words as they would were they in English, which makes it easier to simply sing and not overthink the meaning. Krishna Das also says that each repetition of the mantra is opening a channel to the divine - that concept being whatever that means to you. It may be a channel to god or creator, to the divine in you, to your higher self, or simply connecting with those around you, the earth or a bunch of atoms and molecules.
Now the thought of singing publicly may send a shiver of fear into the hearts of those who believe their voice is only fit for the shower or the car sans passengers. Kirtan is never about the singing as much as it is about the intention and the passion of the singer. Some of the most moving experiences in kirtan come from experiencing someone singing their heart out with deep passion or devotion. The magic of kirtan is that with the call and response and repetition, little by little you forget about the you in the room, and become part of the us, with the music holding the space in the room.
Kirtan sessions can use a variety of instruments both western and indian, but commonly features harmonium, a hand pumped keyboard with a distinctive drone sound, a drum called a mrdingum, a variety of percussion instruments, flute, bells and cymbals, guitars, bass, really any instrument can add texture and sound - and even just voices can be perfect.
Every spiritual tradition historically and contemporarily has singing in groups as part of its practice, in fact many activities where crowds come together in devotion - think of your footy teams song and the passion which it is sung to celebrate win and loss alike. For me, kirtan is one of my favourite chanting and devotional practices. I love it alone, with a crowd, with a circle of buddies, along with a playlist on Spotify, however it comes. as voices and people connect, the song becomes a vehicle for the unity of yoga, you can lose yourself into a moment in a way that if can often take a long time in more silent sitting meditation practices to achieve. Fear or concern about performance is all simply ego, and once you make a commitment to push past that anxiety and self criticism and surrender to the joy, such rich pleasure ensues.
Dr Polly McGee is one part writer, and many parts assorted thinker, do-er, talker, eater, chef, explorer, yogi, kirtaneer and dog wrangler. She has worked in kitchens, bars and restaurants from frantic to fancy, managed multi-million dollar innovation grants programs, advised hundreds of start-ups on how to refine their business ideas and source funding, and championed causes from a variety of soapboxes, lecterns and stages. She is currently the Strategic Marketing Lead for Global Edtech Startup Prosper Education. Her new book, The Good Hustle, is coming out in February 2018