Let your Heart Sing Out: Kirtan as Yoga. ~ Steven Rosen


“The benefit that one attained in the Satya Age by meditation, in the Treta Age by sacrifice, and in the Dvapara Age by temple worship, can be had in the Kali Age merely by reciting the names of Krishna.” ~ Bhagavata Purana 12.3.52


Who hasn’t tried conventional yoga?

Nearly everyone, at one time or another, has found themselves sitting with eyes closed, in a lotus position, perhaps, engaging various breathing techniques and focusing on some meditational image or conundrum.

But, let’s face it — for most of us, it just doesn’t happen. As much as we try asana and pranayama, we just can’t lift ourselves to Yogaland, and enlightenment seems predictably far away.

Surely, if we could follow all the rigors of Patanjali’s ancient methods, we could bring ourselves to unknown heights of spiritual awakening. If only we could follow the dictums of the yogis of old, we could reach nirvana before we could even say “yoga mats.”

But that’s the problem: the yogis of old were preaching in a different era, completely unfamiliar with the needs of contemporary (wo)man. Not only that, how many of us are familiar with what they really had to say, anyway? For example, how many people know that there are diverse spiritual techniques recommended for various world ages? By the time our present age started, some 5,000 years ago — or so the wisdom texts of ancient India say — the method was supposed to be Kirtan Yoga, the power of sacred chant, not difficult postures or breathing techniques. This idea is central to all yoga texts. An easy process for a difficult age.

And why not? Kirtan is practical. Not everyone has the physical stamina to practice more conventional forms of yoga. But even a child can chant. You open your mouth, and you let your heart sing out. It’s blissful and, under proper guidance, easy to perform.

All the senses are involved. The sound engulfs your ears and tongue; you see the other chanters and perhaps gaze at pictures of deities or divine personalities, teachers who have mastered yogic science; the smell of incense or fresh flowers usually find their way into a kirtan environment; you can play cymbals or a small drum, or even clap your hands, so the tactile sense is engaged as well. One can sit meditatively or get up and dance. Kirtan is a full experience.

By chanting, one naturally engages the breath, which is the perfection of pranayama. We chant, and our breathing is controlled by a consistent in-and-out dynamic. The mind is brought under control, too, simply by focusing on the sound – the chitta vrittis, to use yogic terminology, are subdued, thus affording even fledgling practitioners true peace. The fluctuations of a once disturbed mind are now pacified by the the transcendental sound currents. This is because, by chanting, one is essentially glorifying the supreme with carefully passed-down mantras – word-combinations scientifically conceived by the ancients, putting one in direct touch with Divinity. It is the only form of yoga that benefits not only the practitioner but also anyone within earshot.

In the early stages of the chanting process, one immediately feels good, cleansed, relieved. As one matures in the practice, purification sets in, and an innate happiness rises up in one’s heart. Bad habits gradually fall away. In due course, chanting is healing, nurturing, and fundamentally uplifting. It culminates in an overriding sense of love – for God and for all living beings.

Little more than a decade ago, few were aware of the virtues of kirtan, even in the yoga community. Today, kirtan events attract yogis and non-yogis alike. Normal, everyday people chill out by listening to kirtan CDs and popular music artists sample kirtan performances on their disks. Krishna Das, whom Yoga Journal once dubbed “The Pavarotti of Kirtan,” and Jai Uttal, an extremely gifted kirtan singer, are arguably the most popular of the genre. But there are many others as well. The international Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) led the way in the 1960s, its guru, Srila Prabhupada, holding the first kirtan in the Western world in front of a now famous tree in New York’s Tompkins Square Park. Others followed suit – knowingly or unknowingly — and never looked back.

As a result, a new kind of kirtan has emerged: Ancient India’s sages have called out to us, and we are answering their call, with modern words, rhythms, and beats. This is kirtan, too — a call and response form of yoga. So let all potential yogis go down to a yoga studio and do some chanting, let them flick on a CD, or just chant from their hearts. This is the yoga for the modern age.


About the author:

Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies, a biannual publication exploring Eastern thought. He is also associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine and the author of over twenty books on Indian philosophy. His recent titles include Essential Hinduism (Praeger, 2006), Krishna’s Song: A New Look at the Bhagavad Gita (Greenwood, 2007), and The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008). Find out more at www.sjrosen.com.

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akincana krsna das Oct 16, 2013 6:12am

I've seen many people living in modern cities achieve real spiritual experiences and undergo powerful personal transformation by doing kirtan… especially when they do so in the company of experienced, advanced kirtaniyas. Kirtan changed my life!

Vic DiCara Oct 10, 2013 10:18pm

It's a good message from a good author and good practitioner. My comment below is not directly to the article but to the general culture of kīrtan in context of the "yoga-studio" type of scene.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that (paraphrasing) – "yoga/meditation is too difficult, so do kirtan." Kīrtan is not an alternative to yoga/meditation – Kīrtan IS yoga/meditation.

Singing, dancing and music – these are peripheral parts of kirtan. The core of kīrtan is bhakti (pure love). Bhakti (the real thing) simply does not come from ahankara (ego). Engaging in kīrtan without expressing pure bhakti is not actually kīrtan. It is kīrtan-abhāsa – it "resembles" kīrtan. The kīrtan that is, genuinely, "yoga" is not the semblance of kīrtan – it is the pure thing, the real thing, śuddha-nāma-kīrtan.

Singing, dancing and playing music is fun and easy, sure – but is that "kirtan yoga"? Not exactly. The genuine article is produced by bhakti, and bhakti is produced from the śuddha-sattva – the purified soul. A soul is not purified without extreme endeavor.

Therefore real kīrtan is accomplished only after practicing extreme humility and self-sacrifice, and regularly, progressively hearing carefully about Krishna from someone who really deeply comprehends Krishna, and learning the meaning, deeply, of the Hare Krishna mantra – and meditating on that meaning with a purified heart while one chants.

The padma purāṇa states

ataḥ śrī kṛṣṇa-nāmādi na bhaved grahyam indriyai / sevonmukhe hi jihvādau svayam eva sphuraty adah – "Krishna's name (and so on) is not within the grasp of the senses. It can manifest from the voice of the chanter only when he or she has an attitude of purified love."

Any kirtan will be fun, because singing and dancing is fun. But profound, earthshattering, destiny altering elightenment and utter transformation can be had when we cultivate kīrtan within a context of bhakti-sadhana – especially, japa of the mantra we are singing in kīrtan must be performed regularly. For this one must put in the hard work, sit in asana, do pranayama, release the extraneous thoughts (pratyahara), adopt the devotional identity in relation to the mantra (dharana), produce and contemplate the mantra repeatedly (dhyana) and become intimate with it (samadhi). The experience of kīrtan by one who regularly pracitces serious mantra-japa cannot be compared to the experience (or the results) of a person who does it because it's easier, more fun, or more social than the "other yogas."

Another comment I would like to make is about westernized kīrtan. From 1991-2010 I was in a band, "108" which composed original bhajanas (devotional songs) in the hardcore punk-metal genre. I'm not a victorian or ultra-conservative. Nevertheless you have to note that every object has a corresponding psychological-emotional effect. The psychological effect from the sound of a guitar is quite different from the psychological effect from the sound of a clay mṛdanga. The effect, for almost everyone, of hearing a guitar is to feel like rocking out, or hippying out, or whatever. The effect of hearing a clay mṛdanga – for example (or a vina or some other authentic Indian instrument) transports us out of our identity and puts us in an exotic mental and emotional space where it is far easier to realize that "I am not this body, I am a beautiful spiritual being with a specific exciting relationship to that gorgeous, enchanting being, Krishna" Therefore kīrtan with western instruments is not as beneficial as kīrtan with Indian instruments.

Krsnanandini Oct 10, 2013 1:34pm

I like it! Steven has a gift for sharing the profound in a very attractive and simple way. He describes the process, the potency and the pleasure of kirtan. Thank you!

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