“Scariest three words ever: kirtan flash mob.”
Those seven words, tweeted by “yogasavestheday,” were a blunt reminder that, even in the yoga world, kirtan is often still dissed or derided. Or maybe just considered a little woo-woo. Maybe even cultish. (Gasp!)
But seriously folks, what exactly is scary about this Kirtan Flash Mob caught on tape by Jesse Johnson? (See more pictures here.)
It’s ironic, really. Kirtan is, after all, a core principle of bhakti yoga, the “yoga of devotion,” which is said to be among the fastest paths to God-realization. Chanting the names in Sanskrit is the way there. This may seem like a big gulp of Kool-Aid to swallow in an age when yoga is more often seen as the way to a really great butt than the way to be one with God.
Still, the Western kirtan movement owes its growth largely to the explosion of yoga in the West. Kirtan is the original “yoga music” right? It’s hard to take a yoga class without being exposed to at least Krishna Das or Deva Premal during savasana. Yet kirtan still seems to take a “poor cousin” back seat in the broader yoga community. If it’s not openly derided, as in the aforementioned tweet, kirtan is at best largely ignored by a grand swath of Western yogis. Maybe indifference is more accurate, a sort of roll-your-eyes and roll-up-your-mat-when-the-harmonium-comes-out attitude.
Is there a Schism Between Yoga & Kirtan?
I’ve noticed this at yoga conferences, where kirtan is NOT a given. Live kirtan at a Yoga Journal conference, for example, seems to be the exception, not the rule (though Krishna Das will be at the next big one, in San Francisco). The big yoga/music fests, like Wanderlust, headline and promote their pop artists way more than even the biggest names in kirtan. (Understandable, of course, from a marketing standpoint.)
Then there’s Bhakti Fest, the 4-day West Coast festival completely devoted to being in the bhav. There, the yoga tents overflow with live kirtan. Yet there too, yoga has the star power; the yoga classes are always packed. Not so for the two stages where kirtan is performed 24 hours a day. At least, not until Krishna Das or Jai Uttal are on…
There is without doubt a contingent of yoga luminaries who have wholeheartedly embraced the bhakti bhav. Superstar yogi Shiva Rea is a huge kirtan fan who often sings on stage with C.C. White, and Felicia Tomasko, the editor of LA Yoga, tirelessly promotes kirtan music in the fertile grounds of Southern Cali. Sharon Gannon and David Life have made chanting the names an integral part of the Jivamukti tradition they founded and have been huge supporters of kirtan since the 70’s, when Krishna Das and Shyamdas held small weekly gatherings in their New York space. Gurmukhi chants are central in the Kundalini path to happiness taught by Yogi Bhajan.
Kirtan Going Mainstream? Think Again
So, maybe kirtan’s not for everyone — or maybe everyone just hasn’t experienced the kirtan that resonates with their soul. But even as it becomes more widely embraced by the public — we’re now seeing mainstream media showing live kirtan and kirtan flash mobs popping up in places like Burlington, Vt. — there still seems to be this odd schism with at least some in the yoga world. Am I imagining it?
Maybe I’m just oversensitive (it’s been suggested). Or maybe it’s because I tend to get a little evangelical (cringe) about wanting to spread the bhav. Because, you know, this kirtan thing is like the best thing going, right? And everyone — everyone! — should at least get turned on to it once, right? And once they do, they can’t help but be completely, bhavaliciously engrossed by the chanting of the names, right? RIGHT??
Thank you, yogasavestheday, for snapping me back to reality.
I don’t have to be convinced about the joys of kirtan. I have noticed that Yoga Centers that do host kirtans, generally do not draw on their own people. My experience is that Yoga practitioners do not have a natural affinity to chanting kirtan. This may be changing. Kirtan is not about performance, so if you are going in, wanting to be entertained, you are not getting it. It is a spiritual practice. It has been said, that in this age of Kali, it is the swiftest way to liberation. I’ve seen my life change amazingly in the years I’ve devoted to kirtan. It can catch you, once it does you are on your way