For many new yogis, kirtan can seem very different and sometimes scary. Kirtan is a Sanskrit word that means to narrate, recite, or describe. In yoga, it typically describes music or chanting. It is often done in a “call and response” format. This engages the group and gets the energy levels high! It is usually very structured and may involve instruments.
It was Paramhansa Yogananda, the author of The Autobiography of a Yogi, who brought kirtan to the west. Before this, it was mostly rooted in India and within Hinduism. Today, kirtan is often a part of yoga teacher training. I have not even heard of kirtan until my yoga teacher training. I found myself prepared for a yoga class in my yoga leggings and yoga shirt expecting some meditation and asana practice. I did not think I would experience anything like kirtan. But when I did, I loved it! It is Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion.
Kirtan is very much a meditation! You are able to become one with the music and with the chant. I found that at first, my mind would wander, but soon, I was able to calm my mind. I found myself in meditation through kirtan. Kirtan is one of the easiest ways for me to reach meditation. I think this is because I am a Vata dosha. I am airy, have a wandering mind and am often anxious. That means I find it really hard to sit in silent meditation. Sometimes, I can achieve flowing meditation and a quiet mind, but often, I need a mantra or something to ground me. This is why kirtan is a great practice for any aspiring or established yogi seeking different ways to meditate.
Kirtan is essentially chanting of mantras. The mantra in Sanskrit literally translates to using an instrument to free the mind. The instrument is kirtan! Chants allow us to take our attention away from our streaming thoughts. When we shift our focus to a repeating phrase, especially a sacred mantra that has a blessed meaning, we come into the “now”. It is also helpful that Sanskrit does not often translate directly into other languages well, so it is difficult for the mind to attach meanings to what is being repeated.
Kirtan has actually gained such popularity that DJ’s have been releasing purely kirtan albums! Many Sivananda centers that can be found internationally hold kirtan at 6:00 am and often in the evening too. While these centers usually charge for memberships and classes, attending kirtan is typically free of charge!
So, where do you start? I would begin by attending a kirtan if you can find one locally or by searching online. Find ones that you like. Listen to the melodies and absorb the sacred vibrations. Remember that everyone feels a little uncomfortable singing along especially in a group, but it gets easier. This is part of quieting the mind. Don’t worry about making sure you are pronouncing all the Sanskrit right. It is unlikely that you will, and that is okay! Just enjoy and free your mind.