As yoga pervades American culture, many new yoga teachers head out into the teaching world with little or no training in kirtan, the devotional practice of singing mantras, usually in a call-and-response format. Whether or not you’ve been trained in chanting or Sanskrit pronunciation, learning a bit about kirtan and beginning to incorporate it into your classes can help show your students how to take the physical asana practice to a new level.
Kirtan Goes Mainstream
Kirtan is a practice of bhakti, or devotional yoga, a centuries-old form of spiritual practice common in many traditions. While once obscure in the U.S.—generally seen only in Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, who lead kirtan sessions internationally and have become known for their albums that merge traditional Indian chanting with rhythms from around the world.
Listening to their polished recordings, it might be easy to feel intimidated, and to think that you need to be an accomplished musician to lead your class in chanting. If you’ve found yourself stymied by fears that you aren’t musical enough, take some advice from Krishna Das (typically known as K.D.), whom we reached recently while he was on tour in Colorado. “Chanting isn’t about music at all,” K.D. says. Instead, he insists, it’s about engaging in a practice designed to bring you more fully into yourself. “What’s being chanted is what’s called in India the ‘divine names.’ We’re calling out to our own true selves, our own inner nature … calling out to that place inside of us that is full and complete, the divine in us: who we are underneath all our masks, all our roles. Most people are so outer-directed that they never experience that place.”
Chanting is the part of yoga that many associate most closely with religion, and when students from various faiths come to yoga class, there can be a sense of fear: students may be nervous about the origin or intention of the chants, and teachers may be nervous about scaring students away.
But, K.D. explains, practicing kirtan is not about turning your students (or yourself) into Hindu or Buddhist devotees. “This is not about religion. Even though these names come from Indian religions, this is not about becoming a Hindu, or anything like that. Any name you use from any tradition will bring you into yourself sooner or later.”
If that sounds a bit ephemeral, that’s probably because it is. Just as with the asanas, the power of yogic practices like kirtan is hard to explain in words. To really get it, you may need to try it out and feel the effects for yourself.
For a taste of the practice, try attending kirtan sessions, or buy some recordings to play at home. “Find someone that inspires you, someone where, when you hear it, you feel it,” says Janet Stone, who uses chanting to close out her asana classes at the Yoga Tree studio in San Francisco. “Having that teacher who inspires you is really helpful.”
Then, when you begin to bring chanting into the classroom, she advises, “keep it really simple.” Stone, whose chanting hums with a sense of devotion, echoes K.D.’s advice: Your ability to lead chanting has nothing to do with how musical you are. “I am in no way a singer, sometimes my voice crackles. I usually deal with it with humor.”
In fact, she adds, you should expect that each session of chanting could be unlike any other, just as your asana practice can change day to day. “Sometimes it falls completely flat, and sometimes it rises up. Sometimes everyone in the class is shy [and uncomfortable with singing].” When that happens, Stone advises, stay steady: “If it’s falling flat, don’t waver. Pick your voice—and it doesn’t have to be a pretty voice or a singing voice.” If you need inspiration from a yogi who’s not trying to “sing,” try listening to master teacher Dharma Mittra, whose chanting is monotone. Even so, notes Stone, “He doesn’t doubt himself.” With a small group, or when students seem particularly quiet, Stone recommends shifting from call and response to singing all together.
Intention vs. Accuracy
In general, consistency is one of the keys to the power of kirtan. “Repetition is important, because it allows the mind to relax,” K.D. explains. “It releases you from the things you think about yourself, which are the things that cause us pain.”
There are many forms of chanting practice, some of which prioritize specific mantras and accurate pronunciation. As a teacher and practitioner of bhakti yoga, you’ll have to find the path that feels genuine for you and your students. K.D.’s path is simply one way to go. “What I do,” K.D. explains, “is also a folk practice, it’s not a strict yogic Sanskrit discipline. The intention and the motivation is much more important [than pronunciation].”
As you begin to bring chanting into your classes, remember that what may seem to some to be esoteric and complex is as basic as the Downward-Facing Dog pose that very possibly makes up the foundation of many of your classes. The point is to give your students another tool to unify the inner and outer consciousness. Adds K.D, “Chanting is another type of yoga. It’s so simple. It doesn’t require you to believe anything. If it feels good, it’s good.”
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco.