Kirtan: Spiritual Materialism, or Accessible Devotion?

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Tonight, I sat in a room of 100 plus enthusiastic—nay, downright blissful—Americans, swaying side to side, arms raised and also swaying, or dancing about in the corners.

It’s called kirtan, and in seven and a half years of publishing a magazine, and now web site, intimately involved in the coverage of yoga, I’ve managed to more or less avoid it.

If you’re cool, or think you’re cool, or if you’re cynical, or even normal (not that that’s a good thing)—well kirtan is downright scary. I felt like laughing at everyone, half the time. The rest of the time, I felt like a wallflower at the proverbial high school dance: not wanting to participate makes you feel uptight, and not with it (it being the present moment).

As the chanting and singing and swaying and dancing went on, I relaxed: I began to sing more (I love crooning along with Elvis and Dino, and kirtan can feel surprisingly similar, at least as led by Sean Johnson). And as I relaxed I stopped fretting about how this was all just cultural appropriation, like

“driving a Mantra sports car when you don’t even have your driver’s license yet,” as I later put it,

or whether this was just love n’light spiritual materialism that, at the end of the day, was just about feeling good, and blissed out. Which is, after all, how the ego wants to feel all the time: pleasure is good, suffering is pushed away.

We were, after all, singing about devotion to God, in sanskrit, and 90% of us didn’t understand 90% of what we were saying. But it sure felt good, so who cares, right?

After two hours of singing and swaying and dancing, with contemplative silences (which I appreciated, instead of habitual rock star-like applause at the end of song) and some heartfelf introductions via Sean, which helped provide some context for our chantings), I was having a damn good time. I started thinking of my friends who like to go to concerts all the time, drinking and drugging and dancing for all hours, and how they love and worship their favorite bands and musicians. And I started realizing that my party friends were merely expressing a timeless, more secularized version of kirtan: where chanting sacred mantras becomes a meditation practice, a fun, loveful way of joining with the present moment and opening up one’s closed, cold, tight-held heart.

And, at least for one night, I opened up, and breathed, and smiled and sang like a happy fool.

Though I couldn’t help but get into a few philosophical discussions with Kasey of and Felicia of LA Yoga magazine…and their experience of other kinds of kirtan scenes, some more masculine; some, like this one, overwhelmingly loving, joyful, feminine…I was grateful to be in such a strong, warm, ecstatic community, one that didn’t mind if I had my doubts and quibbles.

It was a fun, eye-and-heart-opening few hours, a moment where community—as Saul David Raye would put it—was activated.

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6 Responses to “Kirtan: Spiritual Materialism, or Accessible Devotion?”

  1. Thanks for writing so honestly and openly about this. It's so refreshing to be allowed inside a writer's questioning mind instead of just getting the surface view.

    I have the same hesitations you do about any mass spiritual activity. The whole idea makes me feel instantly uncomfortable, perhaps coming from my ultra-traditional Catholic altar boy upbringing, where each week at mass I would say to myself, these people are just going through the motions and reciting all these prayers by rote, just like I'm doing.

    More likely it's just a matter of inner personality. To me spirituality is more naturally a very private matter. Not that it can't be talked about. I'm a spiritual writer! But for me it's a deeply individual experience, not a group one.

    That said I want to broaden my horizons, just like you're doing. So I'm going to make a point of going to the next Rajani kirtan here in Milwaukee, which is, by all accounts, very similar to what you describe above.

    Some of your readers might not be aware that the the ancient Yoga texts themselves present different types of Yoga to match different personality types. It's really quite astounding. See:

    Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. Thanks, Bob, for the time and thoughtfulness behind your recent comments. It was a wonderful, warm experience last night—it was fun, and relaxing, and sweet. That said, without Sean's great introductions before and the contemplative silences after, kirtan could fall into just "feeling good" without having sufficient understanding of the meaning behind the practice. As with the famous Buddhist story about Naropa, the great professor at Nalanda, and the hag… (google it, for those of you who are interested).

    With thanks,


  3. […] goldrush that is American yoga over the past 15 years, it’s important to consider “spiritual materialism“—not from a point of view of defining true yoga and identifying charlatans so much as from […]

  4. […] that “Spiritual Materialism” stuff. Still, we get happy-yappy hippie-dippy love n’lightey comments like this one all the […]

  5. […] Kirtan is worth knowing about & learning, not just monkey-imitating-dancing to. “alalalalalallalalaallalala​alallalalalaallaalalallala​lalalalala (rock back and forth) re… […]

  6. […] get me wrong, lots of “yoga music” is great. I’m even starting to get into Kirtan a little more. But music…well…I always say that music is my performance enhancing drug […]

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