Kirtan: A Gateway to the Heart of Yoga

A communal celebration of sound and spirit, inviting participants to unite in a practice of celebrating God and life itself.

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Meaning ‘praise’, kirtan (often sankirtana) is a practice that’s oriented around glorifying the highest and most Supreme, and you may have come to hear about the practice through popular artists like Krishna Das, Snatam Kaur, and Deva Premal.

It’s a devotional chanting practice, falling into the category of Bhakti Yoga, during which we recite the names of God with mantras, melodies, and rhythmic beats.

A practice democratized by the Bhakti saints, it became a medium for spiritual expression that was accessible to all people regardless of their social status, aligning with the movement’s ideals of direct connection with the divine through devotion and love.

If you’re looking to add to your spiritual practice, let’s take a look at:

people singing devotional music together

kirtan Means?

At its core, kirtan is an ancient call-and-response style of devotional chanting. However, it does not necessarily have to be this style of call-and-response, and often my favorite practices are where we all sing at the same time.

The sanskrit term ‘kirtan’ originates from ‘kirt’, meaning ‘to praise’ or ‘to glorify’.

It constitutes a communal celebration of sound and spirit, inviting participants to unite in a practice of celebrating God and life itself.

In a kirtan gathering, a lead singer or group sets the tone by chanting mantras (or sacred sound or phrases), while participants respond or join in at the same time, creating a cyclical flow of sound.

The music, often accompanied by instruments like harmonium, drums, and cymbals, generates an atmosphere that transcends linguistic barriers, often joining the group in the oneness of spiritual connection.

people sitting around singing together

The Rebellious history and origins of kirtan

The origins and evolution of kirtan carry within them a rebellious undertone, particularly during historical moments when it served as a means of defiance against societal norms and established systems.

There are many legends about the origins of the practice, though we know that kirtan’s origins can be traced back to ancient Indian Vedic traditions – where chanting mantras was a revered practice to invoke divine energies and cultivate a deeper connection with the cosmos.

This meant that, in its early historical roots, the practice of kirtan was initially associated with Brahmin priests or scholars due to its traditional ties with Vedic hymns and rituals.

During ancient times, the Vedas, which contained sacred hymns and chants, were primarily preserved and transmitted orally by Brahmin priests, and they were the custodians of these ancient texts and practices.

During the medieval period in India, kirtan emerged as a prominent practice within the Bhakti movement, a spiritual revolution challenging the rigidity of caste hierarchy, religious exclusivity, and societal norms prevalent at that time.

This movement, spearheaded by influential saints and mystics, was a rebellion against the entrenched societal structures.

Luminaries like Mirabai, Surdas, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu elevated the practice to new heights.

Bhakti saints used kirtan as a tool to voice dissent, advocate equality, and propagate a message of universal love and devotion.

Their renditions of kirtan often defied the religious dogmas imposed by the orthodox establishments, embracing a more inclusive and direct form of devotion that transcended barriers of caste, creed, and gender.

Kirtan gatherings organized by these rebel saints were revolutionary in their inclusivity. They welcomed individuals from all walks of life, disregarding societal hierarchies.

People from diverse backgrounds, including those considered ‘outcasts’ or marginalized, found acceptance and solace in these devotional congregations.

Mirabai, for instance, defied the norms of her aristocratic upbringing to immerse herself in ecstatic kirtan sessions.

Her devotional songs, expressing intense love for Lord Krishna, challenged the societal expectations of a royal princess and stood as a rebellion against the constraints imposed upon women in her time.

They popularized kirtan as a means of expressing profound devotion and surrender to the divine, making it accessible to all, regardless of social status or religious affiliation.

people playing the drums wearing bright colours

A tool of empowerment and liberation for the masses

The Bhakti movement’s use of kirtan challenged the monopoly of religious institutions on spiritual knowledge and practices.

By chanting in vernacular languages accessible to the masses, these mystics bypassed the need for Brahmin priests or religious authorities as intermediaries between individuals and the divine.

Kirtan, therefore, became a potent tool of empowerment, allowing individuals to connect directly with their spirituality without the hierarchical structures dictated by the religious establishment.

This direct communion with the divine stood as a rebellion against the prevalent religious hegemony.

does it have to be a religious practice?

Although common in Hinduism, Vaishnavism, Sikhism, and yogi practices, indeed, kirtan can also go beyond religious or spiritual boundaries and be embraced as a secular practice.

While traditionally rooted in devotional aspects within various spiritual paths, its essence as a communal musical expression isn’t restricted by specific beliefs or affiliations.

Secular kirtan sessions focus more on the musical and communal aspects rather than the religious or spiritual context.

By emphasizing the universal elements of music, rhythm, and group participation, secular kirtan gatherings create a space where people from many backgrounds can come together, chant, and experience the uplifting and unifying power of music without any religious connotations.

Secular kirtan sessions often adapt the traditional chants or mantras into phrases that resonate universally, focusing on themes like peace, love, harmony, or gratitude.

someone playing an accordion with a yellow background

Science of kirtan

Practicing kirtan impacts various cognitive and emotional processes. The science behind singing, especially in the context of devotional chanting, showcases its ability to stimulate neural pathways, induce relaxation, and cultivate emotional well-being.

Singing triggers the release of endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin in the brain. These neurotransmitters are associated with feelings of pleasure, reward, and bonding, contributing to a sense of well-being and connection with others.

Singing, particularly in a group setting, also synchronizes neural activity among group members. This synchronization creates a sense of unity and connectedness, stimulating areas of the brain associated with empathy and social bonding.

Studies have also shown that singing induces relaxation by reducing the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone!

For me, most interestingly, kirtan has the potential to down-regulate our amygdala. During a study where participants chanted ‘OM’, they found a significant deactivation, in comparison to the resting brain state, in multiple parts of the brain including the amygdala.

The amygdala plays a crucial role in modulating emotional responses and regulating the body’s stress reactions, meaning that the chanting triggered the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to the activation of the relaxation response.

This activation results in reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, and a sense of calmness.

There is also a benefit of mindfulness that comes alongside kirtan, which requires focused attention on the chants and melodies. This concentration develops a one-pointed focus, improving cognitive function and enhancing the ability to stay present in the moment.

someone playing the cymbals up in the air over their head in nature

how to practice kirtan

1. Create a Sacred Space

  • Setting the atmosphere: Choose a quiet and calming space, free from distractions, where you feel comfortable and focused. Dim the lights, light candles, or burn incense to make it feel extra special – like you would a meditation.
  • Gathering instruments: If desired, gather musical instruments such as a harmonium, drums, or cymbals that complement the chanting. These instruments can add depth to the kirtan experience. However, you could play the music on a device instead.

2. Prepare Mind and Body

  • Relaxation and breathing: Practice deep breathing or simple relaxation techniques to calm the mind and body before starting the chanting session. Relaxation helps to create a receptive state for the practice.
  • Mindfulness and intention setting: Set an intention for your kirtan practice. Cultivate mindfulness by focusing on the present moment, letting go of distractions, and bringing your awareness to the ‘now’.

3. Chanting

  • Choose mantras or chants: Select mantras, sacred phrases, or devotional songs that resonate with you spiritually. These can be traditional sanskrit mantras or chants in your native language that hold personal significance.
  • Communal or solo practice: Decide whether you’ll practice kirtan alone or with others. Group sessions create a communal energy that amplifies the experience, but solo practice allows for personal introspection and connection.
  • Start & finish slowly: Begin with gentle and slow chanting. Focus on the pronunciation, rhythm, and melody of the chants. Gradually increase the tempo and intensity as you become more comfortable. Slow it back down as you get towards the end of the song.
  • Immerse yourself: Engage wholeheartedly in the practice. Close your eyes, surrender to the mantra, and let the vibrations resonate within you. Feel the connection with the divine or the spiritual essence that the chants invoke.

4. Cultivate Mindfulness and Reflection

  • Be present: Stay mindful and present during the chanting. If your mind wanders, gently bring your focus back to the chants and the sensations they evoke within you.
  • Reflection and contemplation: After the chanting session, take a moment for reflection. Notice any shifts in your emotions, thoughts, or overall state of being. Allow the experience to settle within you.

5. Conclusion and Integration

  • Gratitude and closure: Conclude the practice with a moment of gratitude. Express thanks for the experience and the spiritual connection cultivated through the chanting.
  • Integration into daily life: Carry the essence of the kirtan practice with you into your daily life. Reflect on the insights gained and strive to integrate the sense of peace, connection, and devotion experienced during your practice into your everyday actions and interactions.

Chants to try out

While traditional kirtan chants often have established melodies that have been passed down through generations, the beauty of the practice lies in its flexibility and the freedom to create melodies that resonate with individual preferences.

Here are some chants to try out with their commonly sung melodies, but feel free to create your own version of these or use any kind of mantras that you like!

1. Hare Krishna Maha Mantra

  • Mantra: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”
  • Meaning: This mantra is a potent invocation of the divine, calling upon Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. “Hare” refers to the divine energy of the Supreme. Chanting this mantra invokes spiritual joy, love, and devotion.

2. Om Namah Shivaya

  • Mantra: “Om Namah Shivaya”
  • Meaning: “Om Namah Shivaya” reveres Lord Shiva, the deity associated with transformation and dissolution. It translates to “I bow to Shiva” in English and signifies surrender to the divine, embracing the cycle of creation and destruction.

3. Shiva Shambo

  • Mantra: “Shiva Shiva Shiva Shambo, Shiva Shiva Shiva Shambo x 2, Mahadeva Shambo, Mahadeva Shambo x 2”
  • Meaning: Shambo is an expression of joy and celebration, often used as a name for Shiva, signifying his divine attributes and blissful nature.
  • Mahadeva is a reverential mantra, praising his greatness and auspiciousness. This chant celebrates the divine attributes and qualities of Shiva, inviting a sense of devotion, surrender, and reverence.

Here’s my favorite video to sing along to for this mantra:

4. Gayatri Mantra

  • Mantra: “Om Bhur Bhuvah Svaha, Tat Savitur Varenyam, Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi, Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat”
  • Meaning: The Gayatri Mantra is a revered chant invoking divine light and wisdom. It seeks to illuminate the intellect and guide it toward righteousness and truth.
  • It’s a hymn that emphasizes the power of the divine light to illuminate the mind, purify thoughts, and lead toward righteousness and truth. Chanting the Gayatri Mantra is believed to cultivate spiritual awakening and mental clarity.

5. Radhe Govinda

  • Mantra: “Radhe Radhe Radhe Radhe Govinda, Brindavana Chanda”
  • Meaning: Radhe Govinda is an endearing and reverential address to Radha and Krishna. Radha symbolizes pure love and devotion, while Govinda represents Krishna as the protector and beloved.
  • Chanting this phrase is a way to connect with the divine couple, seeking their blessings, and expressing devotion and love towards them.

To Take with you: A virtual kirtan

Here is a practice that I will often use and sing along to if I can’t make it to a communal kirtan session but want to feel part of a community. Enjoy a practice that’s very close to my heart.

Jai Ma!

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves.

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