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Sure, Kirtan’s Not For Everyone, but ‘Scary’?



“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.

Just sayin. (Photo from Kirtan Central for www.bhaktibreakfastclub.com


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  • Gary Goldberg October 21, 2011, 3:41 pm

    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

  • Kate Bartolotta October 21, 2011, 4:16 pm

    For me, my inital exposure to Kirtan reminded me too much of being dragged to all sorts of evangelical songfests in my childhood (but in Sanskrit;) I’m starting to come around though!! Mainly due to Wah! & Kasey Luber.

  • Kitzie Stern October 21, 2011, 9:02 pm

    I discovered kirtan during a tumultuous time in my life, and it brought me great peace — I’ve been hooked ever since. I realize it isn’t for everyone, but with all the great artists in the scene there are many music styles that appeal to Western ears. If the music can draw people into the magic of chanting the names, the energy of our world will be uplifted that much sooner.
    That being said, Brenda raises a good question. Could the Yoga community be more involved in raising awareness of kirtan, and shouldn’t that be a no-brainer?

  • Premjeet Kaur October 21, 2011, 9:29 pm

    Honestly, I do more (much much more! lol) Kirtan than I do actual Yoga. The yoga of sound has drawn me more, as a singer, first and foremost, but its the vibration and the music that brings me to my spirit. Kirtan, in the past year and a half since I have discovered it has changed my life tremendously, and accelerated my spiritual growth by leaps and bounds. There is definitely the wanting of wanting to share this with everyone, because it *is* so blissful and uplifting! But, not everyone is ready to embrace that yet. I got called a weirdo about a month ago, granted I have always marched to my own drummer, but that was a first for me. If loving the bliss of kirtan and being ore integrated with spirit makes me a weirdo, then so be it. 😉 I do wish I could show everyone I meet kirtan and have them all go “wow! that is beautiful, I love it!!!” But I don’t think much of the world is ready yet. and yes Yoga is much much more than the way to a firm butt. I can’t do the yoga dvd’s they come out with because it moves so fast, I end up dizzy and nauseous. Yoga, as kirtan, for me, is a mindful, calming, blissful practice. Not meant to be rushed through like an aerobics workout. So long as much of the yoga community sees yoga as “just a workout”, then the kirtan won’t be spread by them. They need to get to the point where they are doing yoga with the soul, instead of the ego. Sat Nam!

  • Patti October 21, 2011, 10:04 pm

    Did anyone notice that in the first part of the second video kirtan was spelled “kiratan?” Ironic, since the article is about how kirtan is not yet mainstream! 🙂 I have been to Bhakti Fest twice now and did not go to one yoga class / workshop there – I’m all about the kirtan! It is wonderful, blissful, heart-opening, spiritual, and…fun! The vibrations in the group are wonderful. I was in tears twice and I never considered myself an overly sensitive, emotional person – and certainly NOT a great singer! It’s all about the “bhavaliciousness” of it all – love that word!! Great article! And kirtan is only scary if you don’t know what it is – I’ve introduced so many of my friends to it – some fall in love with it and some “tolerate” it. Reciting mantra – or singing mantra as in kirtan – is a way of keeping the “monkey mind” busy to achieve an inner peacefulness – as Krishna Das says, it is hiding the “medicine in the honey” of kirtan! 🙂 I think what might freak some people out is the “Hare Krshna” mantras, due to some bad associations during the 70s with “cults” and such.

  • Sara Sell October 21, 2011, 10:50 pm

    I’ve been on both sides of the kirtan expience, both as a wallah and as a participant in the “audience”. I think that for a lot of people, what’s scary abot kirtan is being so vulnerable. I mean, when you’re singing your heart out to the God Universe, that’s about as open and free as it gers. This can be really scary for people, especially if they’ve had bad experiences in a former spiritual life or if they’ve come to have a specific association with kirtan. Most people I know who were initially ambivalent about giving kirtan a whirl come away with a “Well, that was no big deal!” afterwards. It’s too bad that kirtan isn’t more prevalent in the yoga scene; for me, they go hand in hand as both are forms of yoga, and it feels so good to just sing your heart out with others and share in something so joyful.

  • Jan October 22, 2011, 2:01 pm

    When I first started getting involved in kirtan, I was already well immersed in the yoga community. It seemed like a natural progression to me. I was quite surprised to find how many of my fellow yogis had no interest in exploring kirtan and wouldn’t even come to kirtan at the
    yoga studio. Similarly, the kirtanistas often have no interest in yoga, so I guess it goes both ways. Certainly there is some overlap, but not as much as you would expect. I do remember hearing KD once say that
    once he discovered chanting, he never did another asana. I’ve just come to accept the divergence and appreciate the situations that come along that embrace both practices, such as Bhaktifest. I feel incredibly lucky to live in a town that has inspired yoga AND is a regular stop for the traveling kirtanwallahs. I make my yearly pilgrimage to Omega and count my blessings. Hare bol!!!

  • Larry Pugliese October 25, 2011, 1:50 pm

    The unknown is often scarey. Like when you were a child, the same bedroom you slept in night after night and played in day after day sometimes, in the dark, became “scarey.” When you turned on the light, everything quickly returned to normalcy. kirtan is simply the cry of the soul. Some people are afraid to cry because it is perceived as being vulnerable and therefore weak. Truly a western phenomena. In India everyone will chant in kirtan unabashedly. I’ve been there 17 times in the last forty years since I embarked on the kirtan path and experienced amazingly profound kirtans that have transformed my life and consciousness. But I have also experienced incredibly deep, beautiful and jubilant kirtans in the west. “Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all.” —W. Somerset Maugham Kirtan is beautifully experiential. You just need to open the doors to your heart and that is all.

  • Pranada Comtois October 26, 2011, 6:58 pm

    Had to laugh that someone called kirtan scary. There will always be prejudice and disrespect, as long as there are people who are either uneducated, close minded, or set in their own ways. I find when I tune out someone or something for one of these reasons I’m always smaller because of it. Luckily kirtan grabbed me forty years ago and I’ve been chanting ever since. 🙂 Kirtan is yoga, according to the tradition it comes from. Whether we’re aware of that or not, as yogis in America doesn’t change kirtan’s heritage.

  • Dharampal Kaur October 28, 2011, 8:05 pm

    As a kirtan artist, I feel like an ambassador for kirtan. Whenever I offer a kirtan, I see it as an educational opportunity for students. My first kirtan experience was pretty weird–the teachers didn’t explain the meanings of the mantras or if they were call and response. As teachers it’s important to not use our spiritual experiences as leverage but rather return to the innocent, beginner mind. Like one of my friends said, ‘why make something more mysterious that is already mysterious. Explain it like you would to a child because really it is that simple’. Kirtan has changed my life, but I understand it might not be everybody’s thing. Some people like kundalini yoga, vinyasa or ashtanga. Kirtan is just as much a yogic path as other types of yoga and speaks to some but not all.

  • Meredith Murphy December 13, 2011, 10:35 pm

    I loved reading this.
    I think what is “scary” about Kirtan is the shared bliss of it all. It’s the degree of “letting go” that happens when we allow ourselves to experience the ecstatic bliss of the divine flowing through us. We’ve become removed from this experience. Many people find it themselves through meditation and other methods, but to SHARE IT to feel it with others, there is a sense of abandon that is as another observed, UNFAMILIAR and I suspect that is part of it…
    Just my observation. I think the power of it is what is actually feared, and this is also the great potential gift of Kirtan, to open us to an experience of the divine that is communal.
    Om Shanti!

  • mike houlihan February 5, 2013, 10:05 pm

    Brenda makes a good point, but I think the yoking of yoga and kirtan is just a matter of time. But we should back up a bit and ask, what is yoga? If we define yoga as an asana class (which is limiting) then we can say that the people who do postures might not have an affinity for kirtan. If we define yoga as a way of living, as a philosophy, then it contains everything, including kirtan (just as bhakti contains yoga). I havent met any true yogis who don’t love kirtan or many kirtanis that dont practice some other form of yoga. As a studio owner and ardent promoter of kirtan, i can tell you that the yoga crowd is slow to come to kirtan, but they are trickling in. Kirtan is popping up everywhere and everyone is doing it. It’s becoming much like “yoga” in that sense. I think part of the resistance to kirtan is that people have a hard time getting past the words kirtan and chant, just like they do with effort, guru, surrender, enlightenment. Most people ask what is kirtan and when you tell them, they say oh. Once they hear it though, they say, “oh, that’s kirtan? Wow, I didnt know.” The funny part is that the yoga teachers are all playing kirtan in their classes and the students love it. That’s the irony of it all. I love yoga and kirtan. They both take me deeper into spirit. It’s a mantra revolution and there is no stopping it. people are waking up and the two are fusing together. Fun to be a part of.

    • Brenda Patoine February 7, 2013, 8:48 pm

      “It’s a mantra revolution and there is no stopping it.” Radhe Shyam! Thank you, Mike, for this enlightening perspective as a yoga studio owner and VERY ardent promoter of kirtan. Bhav on!

  • Christy Freer February 7, 2013, 10:18 pm

    Thanks for writing this, Brenda. I think that in the West, we are conditioned from birth to be disconnected from an awareness of our bodies and to shy away from ecstatic experiences. We are taught that a lot of things that are natural to us are bad, and that we should resist, suppress, be quiet, be too cool to care, and to be completely intolerant of anyone or anything that is different. We live a lot of our lives based on fear, unfortunately. I think a lot of asana practitioners do yoga just like any other exercise, without bothering to actually use the practice to become more in tune with their bodies. I find, though, that yoga is often the gateway to more openness on many levels; it just takes time, and for some of us, it may take more than this lifetime! I know as a kirtaniya, yogi and mother of a small child who has not yet had her natural awareness “scared” or “shamed” out of her that music is in all of us. Literally! Our cells are all dancing, all of the time, so why shouldn’t we dance, too? But the process of abandoning ourselves to those natural, basic instincts that allow us to rock out in ecstasty in front of others is a complete 180 for many folks who have spent their whole lives being told that such expression was forbidden. So the best we can do as kirtan ambassadors is to continue to provide opportunities to experience kirtan, hold a safe space for those for whom this kind of change or vulnerability is indeed scary, and be compassionate toward those who, for whatever reason, are not ready or willing to participate. Shanti, shanti, shanti.

  • narga satyavedananda February 8, 2013, 6:13 am

    Hey one of the best raves i’ve EVER heard on KIRTAN and RESISTANCE to it was by
    : Irene de Lucas Ramòn
    The power of Mantras in Yoga practice – Part I
    I was so impressed by her comprehensive and exacting description that i added it to my website (hope u don’t mind my sister Irene, you absolutely NAILED IT ) hit the Nada Yoga Button an scroll down

  • Irene de Lucas August 25, 2013, 2:52 pm

    Thank you for your lovely words on my piece and for sharing it with your readers in your website Narga! It is an honour and my pleasure.
    Om Shanti