I feel like this year has been a bit of a yoga re-awakening for me, a time for me to not only return to a regular practice but to delve into other endeavors such as Laughter Yoga, kundalini, YogaDance, Biodanza, Dharma Dance, and even a woo-woo crystal workshop. I feel like having this blog keeps me in check and from settling into a stale routine, and although I’ve always been open to trying out all these new things, being able to blog about it and having a receptive audience has definitely given me that final “push” into just signing up for the workshop/class/session already.
Which is why I headed to a local yoga studio last weekend for a kirtan, led by David Newman (Durga Das) and his wife Mira. I don’t follow David’s music, but I have heard of his name via Kripalu catalogs.
Kirtan is kind of like a “yoga concert,” a way of settling into the mind, body, and spirit through music and repetition of chants. Most kirtans include Sanskrit mantras, performed in a call-and-response manner, with the leader singing a line, and then the audience singing it back in return. Each mantra can be performed for several minutes, chanting over and over and over again until there is no longer a divide between you and the music, kind of like the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism, who spin and spin until they are connected with a higher power. Not only is kirtan a great way to exercise your voice, lungs, and throat, but it is an opportunity to connect with others and find your voice melding with everyone’s around you.
Kirtan is also known as a branch of “bhakti yoga,” the yoga of fostering devotion and love with yourself, others, and perhaps even a higher being. Asana (physical) yoga is just one blip in the grand scheme of yoga; aside from bhakti yoga, there is also jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge) and karma yoga (yoga of service and action). Bhakti yoga is not only creating community but supporting it and being fully participatory in it.
As I’ve written about here in my yoga teacher training recaps, “mini-kirtans” were a regular occurrence during my month at Kripalu. I’ve never attended a formal pay-for-admission, organized kirtan, but several times during my YTT our facilitator Megha would bust out a harmonium and lead us in Ganesha Sharanam or So Hum Shivo Hum for what always felt like a blissful lifetime. My class of 60-something students would sing along, dance, twirl, join in with tambourines or maracas. I went from the girl who lip synched most of her way through her high school musicals to a Sanskrit-chanting lunatic. I loved it all.
I was looking for that same feeling when I signed up for David Newman’s kirtan. I wanted to sing in that mysterious Sanskrit language until I felt compelled to rise to my feet and sway, twirl, and get lost in a sea of sound.
Unfortunately, that did not happen.
It’s not to say the concert was bad in any way. But each kirtan artist has his/her style, and David Newman’s style just so happens to be more mellow and a bit on the contemporary side; meaning, more of a English/Sanskrit blend, more guitar than harmonium. Kind of like kirtan for the modern age.
Maybe it was the environment as well that kept things on the low-key side. The yoga studio was set up beautifully, but with the blankets arranged in straight lines and rows, things felt a bit too confined, like guests were kindergarten students instructed to stay put on their “magic carpets” during the school assembly.
Maybe having Kripalu kirtans as a “baseline” was a detriment, because everything I craved and anticipated (harmonium! loud! dancing!) was not present at this particular event. I thought for sure that a group of almost 70 people in this small, low-ceiling yoga studio would blast through the walls with our singing, but the sound was a bit underwhelming and not as magical to my ears as our YTT group singing in Shadowbrook Hall. Sadly, I think David’s wife Mira contributed to this reservation: Her voice was so soft and mouse-like (at times I wasn’t even sure she was singing) that as the “response leader,” she just didn’t have the powerhouse vocals to guide the group into our full, rousing potential.
Of course there were guests who wanted and loved this environment. It was no doubt a safe, warm, secure setting. Those looking for a relaxing way to wind down their day I’m sure settled into a blissful state of mind. At times, I found myself closing my eyes, repeating the mantras, and sinking into meditation. It was nice, and I’ll admit I said that to myself several times throughout the event: Ahhh. This feels good. This is nice.
That only happened during the Sanskrit chants, though. David does a lot of English stuff too (“Love, peace, and freedom for us all”), which just isn’t my cup of Yogi Tea. Never has been (As much as I love kundalini yoga, the “Long-Time Sun” closing song gives me the heebie-jeebies). I’m such an old-school chanter, I suppose. I was thoroughly disappointed “Om Namah Shivaya” wasn’t on the playlist (isn’t that, like, a requisite in kirtan?), but we did get some “Jai Sita Ram,” and the “He Ma Durga Maharani Ma Durga / He Ma Durga Maharani Bhavani Ma Durga” melody has been haunting my mind for the past week.
When David started playing “Ganesha Sharanam,” my heart leaped. Here we go!, I thought. The mantra from Kripalu that made me whirl and twirl and rise and fall was on the playlist, and I was ready to chant my way to ecstasy. But…. it fell flat. It never reached the lively tempo we achieved at Kripalu, where we started slow and worked our way up into a maddening pace, and then settled down again. It was steady and easy, and the desire to dance just never hit me. I sang along, of course, but to be standing among 70 people and not be hit in the solar plexus with that urge to move felt odd and unsettling.
When it was all said and done, I left the studio feeling content. If David Newman’s goal is to transport people into a state of serene meditation, then he succeeded for me. However, just like yoga classes come in all different shapes and sizes and styles, so does kirtan, and as much as I appreciate contentment, I also seek a bit of auditory “explosion” from kirtan, which just isn’t David’s style. I was happy for getting my butt to something rather new to me, and now I’m ready to explore what else is out there.