Our Featured Topic: The New Me: A Report from the Transformation
Kirtan has changed my life. There’s no doubt about it — I have turned from being unhappy, slightly depressed, angry and bored to being joyful, happy, loving, involved and spiritually fulfilled.
What is kirtan, you ask? Kirtan as a form of Bhakti yoga — the yoga of devotion — is part of the yogic philosophy: yoga as a union of body, mind and spirit. Bhakti yoga is growing in the West, but is as of yet still lesser known than its counterparts of posture (Asana), breath (Prana) or meditation (Dhyana), for example. Kirtan is perceived with the heart — sending love and joy to your inner being and to the universe. It is the chanting of mantras in call-and-response style producing vibrational energy amongst the participants in a joyful celebration of divine love. Kirtan can be meditative or ecstatic, depending on where your heart leads you.
In my case, chanting came to me at a yoga retreat a few years back. The first chant I ever heard was one from Krishna Das, “Om Namah Shivayah.” I instantly realized I had found something that I never knew I was looking for. I started buying his CDs and listening exclusively to chanting. It was so soothing, calming, joyful and heartfelt that I wanted more of it, and fast! I was fortunate that the chant master himself came to Minneapolis just a short while later. The experience of sitting amongst hundreds of other chanters and feeling the energy and vibrations of the communal singing, with Krishna Das leading the call, made an even bigger impact on me. I asked him afterwards how I could get started leading kirtan myself, a question that hadn’t occurred to me before I went to the event. He said to me, “Just start to sing — sing from the heart.”
And that’s what I did. First, I bought a harmonium, an instrument brought to India by European missionaries that is now considered one of the staples of kirtan music. One year of piano lessons when I was a child may have been of some help, but I mostly just figured out some easy drones and chords by just playing with it. For many months, I just sang at home, and then I assembled a little band: harmonium and vocals by me, violin by Nancy Lemke, and mrdanga (a hand drum) by Gregg Giddings. I also traveled to many kirtan events nationwide, taking in and enjoying the different styles that kirtan has taken in the West.
I used to sing in choirs and in the shower, but I’d never performed as a lead singer in public. However, my passion and drive to chant with other people overcame my perfectionist mindset, and I learned to just “let it out” right from the heart. The Minneapolis kirtan community embraced us with open arms. We were supported by Sacred Rearrangements, a shop and healing center owned by Susan Shehata and Keith Helke, with advice and practical help, and our first public kirtan took place in their space. Our audience (or, the other members of the band, as chant artist Dave Stringer calls them due to the fact that they are intimately involved in the musical outcome) grew slowly but surely. After Gregg moved out of town, we found our current drummer, Mark Baker, on craigslist. During the last few years, we have played in yoga studios and parks, at festivals like the Twin Cities Kirtan Fest and the Inner Peace Festival, and just recently at the inaugural Bhakti Fest Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin.
Personally, kirtan has brought me close to Eastern spirituality. Singing the Divine names (which is what the chants basically are) is a joy to my heart and has fulfilled my yearning for a home within myself. It is my daily practice and prepares me for the ups and downs in life that I am now able to face with greater equanimity. It brought a transformation with it that I would have never believed possible. It has been so natural and all-encompassing that friends have likened it to me finding my personal dharma, the purpose I was born to accomplish in this life.