December 15, 2013

Bhakti Yoga & Kirtan: ecstasy of an entirely different flavor. ~ Jessica Avila

I don’t remember my very first time.

The details I hold in my mind are more likely woven from a fabric of the many blessed communions that have come after, the sounds that have spilled through my lips and the sensations that have overtaken my body, rather than from the memory of that actual night.

I do know for certain it was night. It would have begun at 7 pm on a Sunday. Downtown. In a warehouse. And, no, I’m not talking about that first time. I’m talking about ecstasy of an entirely different flavor, though infinitely sweet. I’m talking about kirtan.


That’s basically what I said.

It all started in a fairly typical yoga class about seven or eight years ago. The teacher played some mantra music and I started asking questions. Who is singing? What are these words? Why are they making me feel this way? How can I learn more?

Something about the resonant sound of OM vibrating at the center of my heart…something about the depth and power of Krishna Das’s soulful calling, or Deva Premal’s angelic intonations…something about the feeling of familiarity with words I had no conscious memory of having heard before.

I was coming home to a home I never knew.

The teacher told me I’d really like this place called Yoga Warehouse. Let’s go together. Take a class. Attend a weekly satsang.

Flashback to that first time:




I don’t think I cried then, but tears are spilling from my eyes as I write this now, thinking about what that night meant and where it has led me.

Yoga Warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, FL, is an affiliated Sivananda center and in order to meet the requirements of this international yoga organization, a weekly satsang must be held. Satsang can be understood as “good company” or “gathering in truth” or other similar interpretations of this Sanskrit word. At the YW it means dhyana (meditation) and kirtan (call and response chanting of mantras).

To me, it meant coming home.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor that night, surrounded by a small, eclectic group of kindred spirits in front of an altar with photographs of gurus and statues of Hindu deities whose names I did not yet know, I found my heart. All I wanted to do was chant. All I wanted to feel was that sense of joy, connection and peace. All I could be was present. All I could offer was love.

This didn’t exactly jive with the image of myself I had created at the time. Young, married professional with plenty of worldly aspirations, a bright future colored by the American Dream laid out before her. A Jew, albeit an exceedingly reformed one, bowing down in front of idols.

None of this made sense and yet it was the only thing that made sense.

In the years that have unfolded since, my heart and voice have opened beyond measure. I have re-envisioned that image of myself and my aspirations have changed in many ways. I have chanted mantra for more hours than I could possibly count, and yet I know I have not chanted nearly enough. Mornings at my own altar. Satsangs at YW. As many local gatherings as I can squeeze in. Festivals, concerts and retreats in different cities, states and countries all so that I could chant in the satsang of like-minded souls: Bhaktifest. Omega Ecstatic Chant. Weekends  of devotion with Krishna Das. Beachside in Costa Rica with Deva Premal and Miten. Traveling for hours in the cold Indian winter to spend one afternoon on the banks of the Yamuna River with my beloved teacher Shyamdas right before he left his body.

This past weekend I celebrated America’s Thanksgiving in a decidedly Indian, yet somewhat Universal, way. There was no turkey, but there were definitely pilgrims, vegetarian devotees to be specific, offering gratitude in a most glorious way. And while none of these people were my biological family, there I was, draped in a sari and immersed in the sounds of mridangas, kartals, harmoniums and hundreds of voices singing the Maha Mantra with all the love in their hearts, feeling an overwhelming sense of family and love.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

I was blessed to be part of the gathering that the Mayapuris hosted in Alachua, FL, for the Festival of the Holy Name, a tradition of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) where devotees gather to chant for hours on end. It was one of the most radiant, ecstatic satsangs of my life.

There was such power in the repetition of this single mantra, the Great Mantra, being chanted with all the love, yearning and sincerity pouring from everyone’s hearts. There was a trance-like state induced by the synchronicity of so many voices calling, hands clapping and hearts beating in unison.

As is always the case when I take part in a big kirtan gathering, so many beautiful memories were made. New friendships were formed. A deeper understanding of Truth was gifted to me. An immeasurable wave of gratitude washed over me. I must give a special shout-out to Kish, Vish, Muki and everyone who was part of the Mayapuris holiday! My heart is overflowing.

I may have started my yoga journey on a mat, moving my body and breath down this path toward Self Realization, but the real journey takes place in my heart. The real vehicle is my voice, which gets me so much further when it is joined by the voices of others, singing the names of the Divine. I travel the path of bhakti, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of the heart, and it always leads me to the happiness, beauty and joy that all of us, in our own way, are seeking.

My search continues, back home now, without the physical proximity of the family that embraced me during the festival, yet knowing that there are truly no physical bounds. Bittersweet in its way, though truly more sweet than bitter.

This family is the human family.

This love is the Universal love.

This path is the one of Truth.

We are all One.

We are all Divine.

And however you package it, whatever words you chant, or not, whatever godhead you bow to, or not, whether you gather in a group or sit in solitude, you, like me, are on a journey home. I share my experiences with you in hopes they might shine a bit of light on your path, and all I ask is that you share your experiences with others in hopes of doing the same.

Haribol! Namaste!


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Assistant Editor: Andrea Charpentier/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photos: Wikipedia Commons, Zimbio


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Jessica Avila