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Music: Soul Music- The Ancient Practice of Kirtan

All pictures come from the archives at Yogaville Satchidananda Ashram in Buckingham County, VA

By Mary Burruss
ART TIMES Online April 2013

Durga Das & Mira
Durga Das and his wife Mira

A crowd slowly drifts in to a small white-walled courtyard on a sultry Catalan summer night, each guest seeking the perfect meditation pillow on which to sit amongst the trees as if an unseen force were guiding them.  The air is thick with the fragrance of colorful flowers that cover the trees and bushes, hues fading in the dusk.  Satya, a relatively new kirtan artist in 2009, steps onto the makeshift stage in the garden of the Integral Yoga Barcelona to calm applause to begin a call and response type chanting and music session called kirtan with the gathered audience.  Following a short meditation and the chanting of Om, the air is filled with rhythmic singing, drums and sitar music. Patrons begin to sway and pound out the beat with hands on knees. A blissful energy arises from the audience. This is my first large scale kirtan experience at Integral Yoga Barcelona.

“Kirtan is classically defined as call and response chanting of sacred Sanskrit names of deities,” says Jo Sgammato, General Manager of Integral Yoga Institute of New York where regular new moon and full moon Kirtan concerts are held. The tradition began in India in 1506 by Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu of Bengal as part of Bhakti yoga practice, the path to enlightenment through devotion.  Chaitanya Mahaprabhu noticed that it is easier to focus on devotional mantras if they are sung rather than chanted. He felt that the concentration required for singing limited the mind’s ability to interrupt the mantras with thoughts thus making for a more altruistic experience. Mantras, sacred words repeated several times, deliver the mind from material consciousness to enlightenment according to international kirtan performer and recording artist, Vaiyasaki Das.  It is also believed that by singing the mantras they become more powerful as vibrations and can purify the heart reducing desire and suffering resulting in greater capacity for joy and love. The late Swami Satchidananda (famous for offering the opening benediction at Woodstock in 1969) described Kirtan in his book, Integral Yoga Kirtan as taught by Swami Satchidananda, writing, “Chanting calms the nerves purifies the emotions and opens the heart.  It elevates the mind, preparing one for silent mantra repetition and mediation.  It is a joyful practice leading to God-realization.”

Krishna Das Krishna Das (center) at Yogaville. Yogaville archives

Musically, Kirtan began simply as chants converted to songs but has metamorphosed through the centuries.  Chaitanya Mahaprabhu later added percussion and dancing to the singing of mantras in order to further focus the mind. Although his style of Kirtan primarily featured the names of Hindu deities the practice has evolved to include songs and chants from every faith. “Some kirtanists use only their voice. Other instruments such as drums, small hand cymbals, a harmonium, etc. may also be included,” says Reverend Saraswati who sometimes leads kirtan Yogaville in Buckingham County, Virginia. “Integral Yoga Kirtan includes chants from some of the world faiths.  Most kirtans in other places may only include chants from a particular faith.”

Kirtan may even include newer music. Indian kirtan artist, Jai-Jagdeesh adds contemporary music into her performances drawing from her native Yoga Bhajan tradition and American jazz.   Sam “Satyam” Rossitto incorporates music from Carole King, Billy Joel and the Beatles in his kirtan concerts citing the latter’s spiritual influence from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as inspiration for such songs as “Something” and “Fool on the Hill”. 
            The most famous American kirtan artist is 67 year old Krishna Das who as Jeff Kagel, played in the band that became Blue Oyster Cult. With eight albums, a film score and a documentary about his life under his belt with an international tour schedule to make any rock band envious, he is a huge proponent of the healing properties of singing mantras. In a New York Times article from September 2012, he said, “My chanting isn’t some new-age kind of thing. This is an ancient practice that I absorbed when I lived in India. It has become my meditation practice, it has helped me overcome depression, self-loathing, even a cocaine addiction.”

Gita Howeth, Shakti Howeth, Krishna Howeth
 l to r:  Gita Howeth, Shakti Howeth, Krishna Howeth (They are long time devotees – father and his daughters at Yogaville)

Kirtan is an element of Bhakti Yoga the devotional path of  Yoga’s eight limbs.  Most westerners relate only Asana (the practice of physical poses) with yoga but that is only one path to the higher goal of yoga, which is enlightenment.  “Yoga consists of the development of self-knowledge and self-realization through concentration, discrimination, self- inquiry and meditation,” explains Valma Brenton, owner of Herizen Yoga Adventures for Women and yoga teacher trainer splits her time between Van Isle, Canada and Baja, Mexico. “Bhakti yoga is the development of divine love through surrender to God, service (seva), ritual (puja), chanting and devotional meditation.” Chanting mantras is considered a way for one to express a deep longing to be closer to God. It can be joyful, soulful, or calling out for support or guidance. Sgammato says, “Kirtan is sound vibration and the practitioner will experience greater consciousness of the breath and a sense of cleansing of the entire physical system.” Marques Henning, a regular practitioner of kirtan at Yogaville describes the experience as an expression of the heart.  “I get a strong sense of well-being, joy and community when I’m in kirtan.” The most similar practice in American culture is the singing of gospel music from which many people claim to have similar spiritual results.

Hailing back to the courtyard at Integral Yoga Barcelona, I admit to having a similar experience.  Though my practice of yoga and spiritual path were relatively new at that time, I felt a great sense of peace wash over me as the evening progressed. Music at work raising the consciousness of the planet. Om shanti- peace to all.

Go to to find a schedule of Kirtan opportunities at Integral Yoga New York.           

For kirtan workshops at Yogaville click on the links below:




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