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Kirtan is a yoga practice which consists of the call and response singing of mantras. But why is it sometimes called ‘Medicine for the Soul’ – and is this practice for you?
Mantra - the chanting of the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit - takes you beyond the every day thinking mind into spacious meditative awareness. The word 'mantra' consists of two syllables - 'man' pertaining to the mind; and 'tra' meaning to liberate. So here we have it, mantra has the potential to liberate us from the sticky glue of our distracted and excessively thinking mind.
So for kirtan, just like in meditation, when you notice you have stopped paying attention, you bring yourself back to the singing, and remain present with the sound of the chant and the mantra. In this way we train ourselves to let go of thoughts and memories, stories and obsessions that keep us 'me-focused' and troubled; and we open to the more spacious and soft experience of our true nature whose abode is in the heart.
As we perform asana for the body and meditation for the mind, we practice kirtan for the emotions. After all we are emotional beings. Internationally renowned kirtanist Krishna Das says that chanting is like asanas for the mind and heart.
Kirtan is a community practice
While the use of mantra in meditation is a very personal one, kirtan is practiced in community. We help each other along as we chant and play music together, raising the vibration with and for each other. And while we’re making ‘music’ there is no need for trying to sing or play perfectly. Rather, by singing from the heart and connecting with our inner worlds, the outcome always sounds ‘true’. Emotions aren’t always beautiful or harmonious and they don’t have to be. They just need to be able to flow as they will and that’s where the magic – the medicine – happens.
What do the words mean?
The mantras fall into three main categories.
1. The names of God. They are chanted not to worship an external deity that exists outside ourselves, but to invoke the qualities of that deity within ourselves. For example, Ganesha kirtans invoke the quality of new beginnings; Krishna invoke playfulness; Ram kirtans invoke qualities of honour and integrity; Devi kirtans invoke the qualities of the divine mother; Shiva kirtans consciousness and transformation.
2. Principles. Some kirtans contain mantras that encapsulate higher principles that we can aspire to, for example, truth, beauty, wisdom.
3. Other languages. There are also kirtans in different languages, every language actually, including the medicine songs from the Native American Tradition which are much loved as they invoke the elemental forces of nature.
With a background in music, it was probably natural that I should be drawn to kirtan and mantra practice as I deepened my journey into yoga. What I love is the simple beauty of the melodies, the repetition that enables a group process to develop almost instantly, and the journey and flavour that each kirtan and kirtanist takes us on. There's an unpredictable and spontaneous quality to the music depending on who is in the room, and a palpable connection
between the group through the singing. It's moving, uplifting, joyful.
Another aspect for me is that singing kirtan and learning new melodies creates fresh grooves (aka neural pathways) in the brain. Grooves that are filled with inspiring ideals and positive vibrations; grooves that send messages into every cell of my body that all is well. Kirtan quite literally has helped me to change the soundtrack of my life and in so doing heal body, mind and spirit.
Is this practice for You? - Experience it for yourself
In July, we have a Weekend Kirtan Workshop coming up at Western Creek. Come and learn how to lead, participate and benefit from this transformational practice.
In Hobart, you can find us at South Hobart Yoga & Meditation once a month on a Saturday night.
There is nothing like singing to open and heal the heart.
Change the soundtrack of your life!