Kirtan / Yoga Chanting
What is Kirtan and Yogic Chanting?
Born from one of the oldest sacred sound traditions of the world, kirtan call-and-response chanting, comes to us from India. Kirtan involves Satsang, a Sanskrit term meaning where people gather together as a community to remember to turn inward and to help each other find our own inner path. Kirtan is called yogic chanting and yoga means union. Kirtan uses a combination of sound, vibration, melody, harmony, and Sanskrit mantras to lead us into meditation: a state of unity and inner connection with ourselves, our community, and more expanded states of consciousness. The chanting can be moving and exhilarating, and at the same time, quieting and meditative. Kirtan may he performed in any language because all sound comes from the Divine source and because kirtan is sung with devotion the vibrations that are created have a universal impact. Kirtan is part mantra yoga, nada yoga (the yoga of vibratory frequency and sound), and bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion and the heart). Chaitanya Mahaprabu (1486-1533) began spreading congregational call and response chanting of the holy names of universal consciousness throughout India, and started the sankirtana movement that continues worldwide today.
An ancient yoga tradition, kirtan is one of the oldest sacred music traditions in the world. Recently it has been popularized by such notable people as Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Ragani, and Deva Premal. Kirtan is a participatory, call-and-response, cross-cultural music experience that incorporates the audience into the event. Musically, Ann Arbor Kirtan combines Indian and western instruments and melodies, including bass guitar, guitar, dulcimer, keyboard, cello, tambura, harmonium, flute, cymbals, tabla, and an assortment of other drums. Kirtan is a participatory and cross-cultural music experience in which the participants are of equal or greater importance than the musicians and chant leaders.
Chanting is a form of spiritual self-expression. The individual chanter expresses who they are in that moment, giving themselves wholeheartedly to the chant, and in turn opening their heart and moving their personal process forward in a significant and powerful way. You don’t have to be feeling blissful or be a ‘true believer’ to experience this. One can simply participate as an experiment and see for oneself. Ann Arbor Kirtan is a not-for-profit organization of volunteer musicians and singers, coming from a variety of yogic disciplines and professions, who engage in chanting as a spiritual practice. Each of us has had some kind of direct experience of the power of mantra and chanting, and through this became committed part of our regular spiritual practice.
Below is an example of a chanting sheet we hand out at our kirtan events. The name of the chant is on top, followed by the words in the chant and then the meaning of the is explained.
1) Samadhi Sita Ram
Hari Rama Rama Ram, Sita Rama Rama Ram.
Bolo Sri Ram jai Ram jai jai Ram, Sri Ram jai Ram jai jai Ram
Ram Ram Sita Ram, Ram Ram Sita Ram,, Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Ram Ram Sita Ram
Meaning: Rama represents the perfect king, who establishes the rule of dharma, right action, manifesting harmony on earth. Sita represents the ideal consort/wife. Sita was born from the earth, and endured great trials with humility, strength and devotion. Their passion desire for each other not only represents the yearning of devoted lovers, but also for the inner unity of the male and female energies within ourselves. The words (jai and bolo) here simply praise Rama and Sita.
2) Govinda Hare Gopala
Govinda Hare Gopala
Govinda Hare Hare
Hare Krishna Hare Hare
Meaning: Devotional song to Govinda & Gopala, who are aspects of Krishna, the lord of universal love, ecstasy and bliss.
Om Namoh Bhagavate Vasudevaya (repeat 4X)
Panduranga Vitale, Hari Narayana, Baja Narayana Govinda
Hari Narayana, Baja Narayana, Narayana Baja Govinda
Narayana Baja Govinda (ending)
Meaning: These are actually two ancient chants in praise of Krishna. The first heralds the enlightening energy of the original creator of the universe. The second hails the purity of Krishna’s physical manifestation. When we sing these chants, we joyfully praise the force of creation manifesting in our daily lives.
4) Krishna Govinda Gopala
Krishna Govinda Gopala
Krishna Murali Mano Hara Nanda La La
Meaning: These are all names of Krishna who represents devotional and ecstatic personal love, knowledge, and bliss that transcend all boundaries of time and space
5) Rama Rama Rama
Rama, Rama, Rama, Sri Rama, Sri Rama
Meaning:Rama, legendary king of ancient India, is revered for his unending compassion, courage and devotion to spiritual values and duty, despite harsh tests of life and time.
6) Jaya Bhagavan
Meaning:Meditate on Universal Consciousness / Oneness in the Infinite form.
7)Hari Krishna ( Vaiyasaki Das)
Hari Krishna, Hari Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hari Hari
Hari Rama, Hari Rama, Rama Rama, Hari Hari
Meaning:This sixteen-name, thirty-two syllable mantra is believed by practitioners to bring about a higher state of consciousness when heard, spoken, meditated upon or sung out loud. This higher consciousness ultimately takes the form of pure love (Krishna). Hari refers to the energy of the divine while Krishna and Rama means "He who is All-Attractive" and "He who is the Source of All Pleasure."
8) OM Mata Kali
Om Mata Kali Om Mata Durga
Kali Durga ye Namoh Namah
Meaning: Om is the universal mantra invoking the possibility of achieving enlightenment. Mata means mother. Mata Kali and Mata Durga are two aspects of the divine feminine, one in her fiercest form and one in her warrior persona. The words in this chant invoke the support of more vigorous energies of feminine consciousness to achieve enlightenment.
Nataraj Nataraja, Jay Shiva Shankara Nataraja
Shivaraj Shivaraja, Shambho Shankara Shivaraja
Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya
Meaning: We are invoking Lord Shiva, who is the Lord of the dance/play of consciousness, to please perform his dance of annihilation to rid ourselves and grant us liberation from the demons of ignorance and ego within us!
How Kirtan and Yogic Chanting Helps Health
Kirtan involves using mantra/nada yoga, which is the science and art of using vibratory frequency and sound current to help a person experience mental calmness and a sense of unity with all creation and consciousness. It uses primal sounds to connect the cells of the physical body to the subtle qualities of the mind. In nada yoga, mantras are chanted or repeated mentally and traditionally practiced with a straight spine in a meditative posture.
The word mantra is a Sanskrit word composed of the root man meaning “to think” and tra meaning “instrument to liberate us from bondage.” Thus, the word means “an instrument of thought that can free us from the constraints of our mind.”
Chanting mantras can affect the body in several ways. Repetition of mantras causes vibration in the sphenoid bone and sella turcica of the brain, while at the same time, the tongue stimulates acupuncture meridian points on the roof of the mouth, both actions in turn causing stimulation of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and pineal gland. It has been noted that intoned mantras can stimulate endorphins and neurotransmitters and change brain wave patterns. From a Tantric yoga perspective, as mantras are chanted, energy of the sound current creates a channel of healing energy, which travels through the spinal cord to stimulate the energy centers of the body, the chakras. Thus, through the practice of nada yoga, we can enhance efficient cellular communication, stimulate our immune system, improve our physical health, and calm the mind.
According to Vedanta and Tantric philosophy, consciousness is single, unified, and complete. Consciousness is the intelligent underlying force of the universe and has the inherent desire and the ability to know and experience itself. To become aware, consciousness needs to become differentiated from one into many, so that the many can know the one. The first manifestation of this differentiation is vibration. Human beings experience this vibration in the form of subtle sounds called mantra. This infinite vibration is heard in deep meditation, when the senses and the mind are quieted. Thus, when humans listen for and experience this vibration, they are actually hearing the faint echoes of underlying universal undifferentiated consciousness as it manifests into form.
Because mantras are an expression of a more complete, unified state, they are uniquely linked to an expanded level of consciousness. Mantras help to focus the mind on a single thought and, through consistent practice, they also replace distracting conscious thoughts and disturbing memories from the subconscious. Constant repetition of the mantra and listening to its sound quiet the mind, create inner silence and gradually pulls individual consciousness towards the universal.
In deep meditation ancient practitioners have described hearing subtle sound vibrations. Mantras are actually condensed forms or seeds of that vibration experience. Being a seed, it can be nurtured to grow into the entire experience. These mantras have been passed on through a long line of teachers. It has been recognized that teachers are simply acting as transmitters, first picking up the sounds and then distributing them to receptive students. The mantra itself may be a small word, but being a seed, it has a very powerful effect because of its latent force.[i]
There are several types of mantras. Bija mantras are chosen by meditation teachers based on the personality and life circumstances of their students. Therefore, the mantra can be used not only to help focus concentration but also to help the student with specific difficulties. The teacher selects the mantra similar to a physician prescribing a medication, except in this case the diagnosis and prescription are made on the spiritual level.
The vibration OM can be heard when the mind is calm in deep meditation, reverberating through our minds and the universe around us. OM is the primordial sound of timeless consciousness, vibrating within us from the beginningless past. The sound is approximated when putting your ear up to a seashell, or trying to talk with your lips closed. Almost all religious and spiritual traditions have a close form of this sound in its prayer or meditations. In Jewish meditation, the word for peace is SHALOM and is often used as a mantra in meditation. In Christianity, prayers end in the word Amen, which approximates the sound of OM. In Hinduism and Buddhism, OM is chanted at the beginning of most prayers and rituals.
My Personal Experiences with Kirtan and Yogic Chanting
My journey into the ancient world of yogic chanting actually began a bit awkwardly. As a young physician drawn towards Eastern thought, alternative methods of healing, homeopathy, and art and science of yogic breathing and meditation, I felt paradoxically somewhat uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed about chanting out loud in ancient Sanskrit. What was a nice Jewish boy from Cleveland doing, not only living in a yoga ashram at the Himalayan Institute in the late 70’s and early 80’s, with my wife, Jan, and my children, but also chanting in Sanskrit with fellow meditation students at the end of a long workday. And to add to my self consciousness, I couldn’t quite comprehend what the orange robed, shaved headed Hare Krishna devotees were doing, who we’d see on the streets, chanting loudly, dancing around, and clanging their cacophonous symbols. Were they doing the same thing that I was doing?
At the same time, however, I loved the Beatle’s early foray into Indian music and especially George Harrison’s work. I had always been fascinated by the wonderful tones and rhythms of the Indian drum, the tabla. And I felt quite at ease repeating and using Sanskrit mantras in my quiet sitting meditation practice. Over the years, I began to have some very powerful and life transforming inner experiences of hearing and feeling beautiful inner sounds in my meditation. One early experience that was exhilarating occurred when I was meditating with my spiritual teacher, Swami Rama. After the meditation ended, I continued to hear/experience the seed of all sound vibrations, the mantra OM, deep within my mind for a long time. I felt great ecstasy and total immersion in something much larger than my small self. It was then that I realized the great power of mantra and sound vibration and this has been a guide for me ever since. This experience continues to the present time, when, at times, that same universal and beautiful OM sound spontaneously arises and permeates my consciousness. I began to feel more and more at peace with sharing these experiences with others. Teaching meditation and participating with kirtan became wonderful vehicles for this. And ironically, while I still dress in western style jeans, sweaters, and corduroys, I find myself enjoying and chanting in large groups, and singing the same kind of Hare Krishna chants I heard on the streets many years ago…
Glenn Burdick and I are two longtime friends and colleagues. About four years ago, we decided it was time to share our mutual passion for meditation, mantra and Sanskrit chanting with the local community. Out of this vision, Ann Arbor Kirtan was born. There have always been wonderful local spiritual groups who practice kirtan regularly. Our vision moved us to create an opportunity for the many people who love chanting and want even more opportunities to chant, or who may not be affiliated with such a group or who prefer to remain outside of a formal religious organization altogether.. We had hoped that experienced chanters, as well as those new to these practices, would feel welcome and participate wholeheartedly, and it appears that this hope is coming to fruition.
Glenn and I started Ann Arbor Kirtan simply because we love to chant and wanted more opportunities to chant with dozens of others on a regular basis. We have always felt supported and inspired by the beautiful instrumental music of chanting and wanted others to feel supported and honored in this same way. For years, various of our members have been profoundly moved by the authentic chanting offered within such religious/spiritual organizations as the Siddha Yoga Meditation Center of Ann Arbor and the Amma group. We are in no way seeking to replace the great ongoing work of these communities. We are simply sharing what inspires us with as many people in our community as possible, including those who would otherwise not know about or get to experience Kirtan.
We did not come together for the purpose of performing to an audience. In fact, we’ve done everything we can think of to minimize the separation of the chant leaders/musicians and the participants, and still maintain enough structure for it all to work well. Participants are offered chanting sheets with the Sanskrit words and English translation, We include a number of chants that anybody can readily join in on, though it can take a little while for a newcomer to get comfortable with the pronunciation of a chant or two. However, one can always just close their eyes and meditate on the beautiful melodies, instruments and voices in the room. The bottom line is we are a group of individuals from various professions who felt, ‘if we build it they will come’. Happily they have! Recently after one of our monthly Kirtan nights a young couple new to chanting was overheard commenting, ‘this is such an amazing way to spend a Friday night!’ Well said! Chanting is a moving experience that is easy to do, requires no special equipment, is not weather dependent, and it’s free! What’s not to like?