Sure, Kirtan’s Not For Everyone, but ‘Scary’? ~ Brenda Patoine

Via elephant journal
on Dec 7, 2011
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“Scariest three words ever: kirtan flash mob.”

Those seven words, tweeted by “yogasavestheday,” were a blunt reminder that, even in the yoga world, kirtan is often still dissed or derided. Or maybe just considered a little woo-woo. Maybe even cultish. (Gasp!)

But seriously folks, what exactly is scary about this Kirtan Flash Mob caught on tape by Jesse Johnson? (See more pictures here.)

It’s ironic, really. Kirtan is, after all, a core principle of bhakti yoga, the “yoga of devotion,” which is said to be among the fastest paths to God-realization. Chanting the names in Sanskrit is the way there. This may seem a big gulp of Kool-aid to swallow in an age when yoga is more often seen as the way to a really great butt than the way to be one with God.

Still, the Western kirtan movement owes its growth largely to the explosion of yoga in the West. Kirtan is the original “yoga music” right? — it’s hard to take a yoga class without being exposed to at least Krishna Das or Deva Premal during savasana. Yet kirtan still seems to take a “poor cousin” back seat in the broader yoga community. If it’s not openly derided, as in the aforementioned tweet, kirtan is at best largely ignored by a grand swath of Western yogis. Maybe indifference is more accurate, a sort of roll-your-eyes and roll-up-your-mat-when-the-harmonium-comes-out attitude.

Is there a Schism Between Yoga & Kirtan?
I’ve noticed this at yoga conferences, where kirtan is NOT a given. Live kirtan at a Yoga Journal conference, for example, seems to be the exception, not the rule (though Krishna Das will be at the next big one, in San Francisco). The big yoga/music fests, like Wanderlust, headline and promote their pop artists way more than even the biggest names in kirtan. (Understandable, of course, from a marketing standpoint.)

Then there’s Bhakti Fest, the 4-day West Coast festival completely devoted to being in the bhav. There, the yoga tents overflow with live kirtan. Yet there too, yoga has the star power; the yoga classes are always packed. Not so for the two stages where kirtan is performed 24 hours a day. At least, not until Krishna Das or Jai Uttal are on…

There is without doubt a contingent of yoga luminaries who have wholeheartedly embraced the bhakti bhav. Superstar yogi Shiva Rea is a huge kirtan fan who often sings on stage with C.C. White, and Felicia Tomasko, the editor of LA Yoga, tirelessly promotes kirtan music in the fertile grounds of Southern Cali. Sharon Gannon and David Life have made chanting the names an integral part of the Jivamukti tradition they founded and have been huge supporters of kirtan since the 70′s, when Krishna Das and Shyamdas held small weekly gatherings in their New York space. Gurmukhi chants are central in the Kundalini path to happiness taught by Yogi Bhajan.

Kirtan Going Mainstream? Think Again
Kirtan’s definitely not for everyone. That’s a given. But even as it becomes more widely embraced by the public — we’re now seeing mainstream media showing live kirtan and kirtan flash mobs popping up in places like Burlington, Vt. — there still seems to be this odd schism with at least some in the yoga world. Am I imagining it?

Maybe I’m just oversensitive (it’s been suggested). Or maybe it’s because I tend to get a little evangelical (cringe) about wanting to spread the bhav. Because, you know, this kirtan thing is like the best thing going, right? And everyone — everyone! — should at least get turned on to it once, right? And once they do, they can’t help but be completely, bhavaliciously engrossed by the chanting of the names, right? RIGHT??

Thank you, yogasavestheday, for snapping me back to reality.

Just sayin. (Photo from Kirtan Central for

GET THE BHAV!! The Bhakti Beat is a kirtan and bhakti yoga blog/vlog covering kirtan news, reviews and interviews — and lots of videos from kirtan events across the country. Created by Brenda Patoine, a freelance neuroscience writer who discovered kirtan at Omega’s Ecstatic Chant weekend in 2006, when she walked into a Krishna Das concert late and was instantly swept into the bhav of 1,000 or so bhaktas dancing and chanting ecstatically to a climaxing Maha Mantra (Hare Krishna chant). She has not been the same since.


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15 Responses to “Sure, Kirtan’s Not For Everyone, but ‘Scary’? ~ Brenda Patoine”

  1. Thaddeus1 says:

    We could all use a little more bhakti and bhav in our lives.

    Posting to Elephant Bhakti. Like Elephant Bhakti on Facebook.

  2. Posted to Elephant Main Facebook Page, my Facebook page, Twitter, StumbleUpon.

    Bob W. Editor, Elephant Journal
    Yoga Demystified
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  3. Loi Laing says:

    Never thought of it from that perspective. Personally, I love me some Kirtan!

  4. YesuDas says:

    Spread the bhav on with your bad selves!

  5. yogijulian says:

    hey i think there is still a negative/weird association (rightly so) with the long history of hare krishna cult members in airports and on street corners/university campuses chanting hare krishna – as in the occupy video above.

    singing is not for everyone. personally as a longtime yoga teacher i enjoy some kirtans and can find them beautiful deep meditations and sharing of powerful group energy, but for the most part they are not my thing, and i think perhaps for some reasons similar to other peoples:

    1) chanting the "names of god" is an overtly religious activity that may not be everyone's cup of tea…

    2) chanting in someone else's languages can feel both inauthentic and like a kind of cultural appropriation, like we are being pretend hindus.

    3) it is not always clear what the intention is – perhaps:

    a) to sing and get high
    b) to discover some magical power supposedly held in the very special and exotic chants
    c) to get some literally conceived of deity to help you in your life
    d) to do some psychological/spiritual inner work using the symbolism of the mythology

    given that most yogis in america are not hindus, and that some may not be religious at all, and that most do not have a background in the culture and it's myths and what the songs are actually about can make it seem like a somewhat disconnected or dare i say pretentious activity.

    no offense to anyone who loves it and gets a lot out of the practice – i have too at times! just reflecting on what some of the resistance may be…

    all the best.

  6. and in the meantime, until you are there, until you have found bhakti – i will happily and compassionately hold space for you to do your practices the way you do, the way you desire, the way you need to do them, knowing that you will indeed find your way home. 🙂 <3 jus sayin'

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  8. Valerie Carruthers says:

    Many Yoga students are initially (and some permanently) challenged by chanting Om at the beginning and end of class let alone full length kirtan. All a teacher and chantin fool like myself can do is offer them the opportunity to "chant the universal sound of harmony and peace." It's a slow-drip process sometimes. And one day…maybe…the walls will come tumbling down.

  9. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Kirtan is the one thing a studio (that I was later to leave) did right!

    Noone that I knew of, could really do it better before or since. There are so many details to attend to: of setting the mood, of choice of instruments, of spoken word intros, and being in general, gracious hosts to what is an electrifying and transporting experience. The less Sanskrit you know, the better. When done right, Kirtan is more than a concert and less than a rave. Ecstasy effects without the drugs.

  10. BrajaSorensen says:

    Well said Valerie…

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