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Kirtan 101: Can You Say “Om Namah Shivaya”?

What's old is new again. Chanting and music is the new way to practice yoga across the country.

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On a cool summer evening, several dozen people gather in a modest-sized room at Piedmont Yoga, Rodney Yee’s bustling studio in an upscale neighborhood near downtown Oakland, California. They doff their shoes and jackets, grab blankets and bolsters, and find places on the floor. But they’re not here to do asanas. They’ve come to dip into the same spiritual well that spawned yoga, only this time they’re intent on doing it not through twists, inversions, or backbends, but by opening their mouths and singing in a language none of them speaks.

Along one wall sit three people: a short woman with long hair, waiting quietly before a microphone; a wiry fellow, setting up a pair of tabla drums; and a tall, bearded, bear of a guy popping lozenges into his mouth and taking a few slugs of bottled water. As the crowd settles in, he noodles on a harmonium, a mini-keyboard that generates sound by means of a hand-operated bellows. He pumps the bellows with his left hand while his right hand plays the keys. His name is Krishna Das, and he has come to lead this group in an evening of kirtan, devotional chants from the Hindu tradition.

Having first encountered kirtan several decades ago on a pilgrimage to India, “K.D.,” as he is often called, has spent much of the intervening years conducting and taking part in group chants like this and producing several popular albums of kirtan. His services have never been in greater demand: On his week-long visit to the San Francisco area, he led kirtan at other yoga studios in the region and appeared in an evening of discourse-and-kirtan with famed American spiritual teacher and cultural icon Ram Dass.

I join the 40 or so people who’ve gathered, finding a spot directly opposite Krishna Das and a couple of “rows” back. An incorrigible singing junkie, I never pass up an opportunity to lift my voice, either solo or with others. I haven’t taken part in a group kirtan chant in a good 20 years, since the last time I found myself inside an ashram. At the time, I found it pleasant enough, but got kind of bored by the melodic simplicity and repetitiousness of the chants. Now, however, I’m a bit more inclined to find satisfaction in simpler pursuits.

All attention focuses on Krishna Das. He talks for a few minutes about his guru, the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, known by the nickname “Maharajji” (“great king”). K.D. traveled to India in 1970 to meet Maharajji; in 1973, a few months before “dropping the body,” the sage asked K.D. to return to America. K.D. asked Maharajji, “How can I serve you in America?” only to have the question tossed back at him. Perplexed, his mind went blank; after a few minutes the words came to him and he said to his guru, “I will sing to you in America.” He’s been chanting ever since.

Kirtan is simply chanting the names of God. The words are largely comprised of the various Sanskrit names of Hindu deities: Krishna, Ram, Sita (Ram’s wife), Gopala (the baby Krishna), and so on. There are also occasional honorifics such as “Shri” (“Sir”), exclamations such as “Jai” or “Jaya” (loosely, “praise”), and supplications like “Om Namaha Shivaya” (“I bow to the Self”). K.D. explains that the format of kirtan is “call and response”—he sings a line and the group echoes it. The purpose of repeating these names, in ever-shuffling combinations, is a simple one: to merge with the Divine.

At Piedmont Yoga Studio, Krishna Das—the name, given him by Maharajji, meaning “Servant of God”—closes his eyes and centers himself for a moment. The room quiets in anticipation. He begins to work the harmonium, and it belches forth a wheezy drone of chords and melody. “Shri Ram, Jaya Ram, Jaya Jaya Ram,” he chants. “Shri Ram, Jaya Ram, Jaya Jaya Ram,” the 40 or so attendees sing, a bit tentatively. “Sitaram, Sitaram,” he adds (combining the names of Ram and his wife). “Sitaram, Sitaram,” the group agrees. The woman sitting beside Krishna Das sings the responses into her microphone, helping the group along. After a couple of repetitions, the tabla player joins in, adding some propulsion to the effort, and the kirtan has begun in earnest.

The beat of the tablas can be felt through the hardwood planks of the studio floor, and the inviting rhythm quickly sets knees and legs in motion, even for those sitting in Lotus position. The chant goes on, and I sit with my eyes closed, relishing the deep breaths and sonic exhalations and enjoying the melodic variations. After perhaps five minutes, I notice the chant has picked up energy, and I open my eyes out of curiosity. Startled by what I see now—a swaying group of bodies and a number of arms extended toward the ceiling, waving back and forth like the tendrils of so many sea anemones—I think: How did I wind up at a Grateful Dead concert?

The first chant lasts a good half-hour. At its conclusion, there is silence again, but charged this time with elation, alertness, and eagerness. After a brief, engaging talk, K.D. launches into another chant. The pattern plays out repeatedly over several hours: easy, quiet beginning, building gradually in rhythm and intensity, climaxing in exultant cries and inspiring half a dozen or more of those in the room to stand, dance, run in place, and even perform what appears to be a personal form of calisthenics. One woman seated to my left wears a look of bliss, complete with ear-to-ear grin, the entire evening, and repeatedly reaches forward and upward with her hands as though working a huge lump of sacred clay, or reaching into a magical electromagnetic field, or both. For my part, I have a great time singing along, riding the energy, and feeling my insides open with each deep breath and long vowel. (Aaaaaahhhh, eeeeeeeee, ooohhhh: these sounds, I found, are good for you.) But many of the others at the workshop—more experienced, perhaps, in the art of achieving transcendence—are clearly plugged into a higher voltage.

The History of Musical Ritual

“Human longing for ritual is deep, and in our culture often frustrated,” writes theologian Tom F. Driver in The Magic of Ritual. His simple observation explains the surge of interest in chant and other rediscovered rituals. Certainly, in a society where many believe singing is something done by people other than themselves and purchased in the form of concert tickets or a CD, our understanding of the aesthetic and ritual dimensions of the human voice has diminished.

Although we can’t prove it, chant, or sacred singing, was probably one of the first expressions of human spirituality. “It seems very clear,” says singer-songwriter Jennifer Berezan, “that humans have been sounding and chanting as far back as the Paleolithic Age and beyond.” Berezan’s album, ReTurning, which blends original and traditional chants from cultures around the globe into a seamless, hour-long opus, was recorded in the subterranean Oracle Chamber of the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni, a temple on the island of Malta. This chamber, renowned for its special resonance, was created for devotional rituals 6,000 years ago. “It’s likely,” she adds, “that for thousands of years there were unbroken practices of sound and song, possibly often relating to various life/ritual practices such as birthing, planting, harvesting, death, and shamanistic practices of healing and visioning.”

Robert Gass, author of Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound, also believes that ritual vocalizing was one of the first, and remains one of the most universal, human impulses. “We have no recordings of the earliest humans,” he says, “but when we encounter indigenous tribes who’ve had little contact with modern civilization, they all have sacred chants that their oral history traces back to their earliest origins. And if you look into creation myths from different cultures, in almost every case the world is said to come into being through sound, through chant. It’s in Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Native American religions. That’s evidence, in a way. The other evidence you can look at is young children: Almost all young children make up repetitive songs—they lose themselves in the rapture of singing.”

The Benefits of Chanting

Gass has worked with chant and other forms of spiritual music for decades. He founded Spring Hill Music, a recording company devoted to “transformational music,” in 1985; its catalog includes two dozen releases by Gass and the chant ensemble On Wings of Song. He points to five key elements of chanting that make it such a powerful and universally appealing practice. The first two, he says, are characteristic of all types of music:

  • Association (or triggering), in which one’s experiential memories, built up over time, invest a piece of music with ever-deeper levels of meaning.
  • Entrainment, in which the body-mind is induced to align (or vibrate) with a melody or rhythm to which it is exposed. “If you’re in a room and there’s a heavy drum beat,” says Gass, “your body will almost involuntarily start to move.”

The other three elements, according to Gass, are especially characteristic of chant:

  • Breath, i.e., the salutary effect on the chanter’s respiration as it slows from the normal 12 to 15 breaths per minute to between five and eight breaths per minute (which is “considered optimal for mind-body health,” Gass says).
  • Sonic effects, namely the pleasurable sensations and healing effects of extended vowel sounds typical of sacred chants;
  • Intent, which reflects “our desire to be close to God.”

Gass adds that chant derives its power from the synergy of all five elements working together. “It’s sort of like a secret weapon,” he says. “You’re not thinking about it; it just happens.” “It” often goes beyond a generalized feeling of well-being or delight to more dramatic experiences. Yoga teacher Chaula Hopefisher, a former professional jazz musician who for several years has led chanting sessions at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, has seen a range of emotional and spiritual responses. Participants in her chanting sessions have included recovering drug addicts and others in halfway houses, who may be facing issues of sobriety, childhood abuse, or a life-threatening illness such as AIDS. She finds the chanting can evoke deep healing in them. “The big tatooed guys are marshmallows hidden under hard exteriors,” she says. “When I sing to them and tell them to breathe very deeply and know that it is safe to feel or to remember, they often cry. They connect the singing, devotional experience with safety—with God, really. The hardest, most set-in-their-jaws people are also the most devotional.” Hopefisher released her first album in 1999, Multi-Colored Chant, a cross-cultural collection recorded in a progressive fusion/world music setting.

Also seeBeginner’s Guide to Common Yoga Chants

Growing Interest in Chanting

Hopefisher’s clients are only part of a larger phenomenon: the growing interest in chanting, which is especially pronounced in the yoga world.

To some extent, chanting has even been incorporated into the regular yoga curriculum. At Jivamukti, “chanting is integral to our hatha yoga classes,” Miller says. Every single class at the studio, she says, begins with the group sounding Om three times, and proceeding to a brief chant, which differs from class to class and teacher to teacher. All classes conclude with three group Oms, and some teachers also lead another brief chant at that point. At Yoga Works, some teachers lead the three Oms, and a few add other chants (Iyengar teachers, for example, may lead invocations to Patanjali). Leslie Howard opens and closes all her classes at Piedmont Yoga with chants, both because of her own affinity for singing and because the clientele enjoys it. “Students say they love that we’re exposing them to other aspects of yoga besides the physical,” she says. “Sound, to me, is the most primitive form of life. It touches the deepest part of you.”

Something plenty deep was clearly being touched in many of the participants during the kirtan sessions I attended over the course of several months, starting with that summertime Krishna Das gathering at Piedmont Yoga. The following month I returned to the same studio for an evening with Jai Uttal, which also drew 40 or more eager chanters. A few weeks later K.D. was at the “Yoga, Mind, and Spirit” conference in Colorado, leading afternoon workshops and regaling 800-plus conferees in evening concerts. As fall progressed into winter, Uttal led several more kirtan evenings at Bay Area studios, and saw attendance grow from “25 or 30” a year earlier to more than 100 on several occasions. At one Berkeley studio where he appeared, the room became so full that latecomers were actually turned away for fear of violating fire regulations. In the rarefied culture of the yoga community, Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, it seems, have emerged as the Pavarotti and Domingo—or, if you prefer, the Mark McGwire and Michael Jordan—of kirtan.

Kirtan’s Unlikely Stars

At first glance, K.D. and Uttal seem a study in contrasts. Krishna Das has a large frame and looks like he’d be at home on a basketball court; in fact, he originally attended college “mainly to play basketball.” Uttal is shorter and wirier. Both are easygoing and garrulous, but Krishna Das has a more avuncular aura; Uttal seems more intense, as though some part of him were continually engaged in a deeply creative process. The two singers’ vocal styles differ as well. K.D., whose oaky baritone was described by Variety as “not that far removed from that of folkie Gordon Lightfoot,” favors simpler melodies and improvisations, allowing his resonant voice and heartfelt emotion to fill the space. Uttal’s tenor vocals, like the densely rhythmic and richly eclectic music he performs with his band, the Pagan Love Orchestra, are more complex, full of brilliant, idiosyncratic trills in the Indian tradition. Yet the two men’s chanting work is identical in spirit, and the paths they took toward their vocations remarkably similar.

Both grew up in the New York City area, and both traveled to India as young adults, in that time when the doors of perception, having been flung open by the social and spiritual tumult of the 1960s, seemed to be coming off their hinges. K.D. was born Jeff Kagel; he sometimes goes by “K.D. Kagel.” He was emotionally adrift in his early 20s, “looking for love” and living in upstate New York “on a piece of land owned by some Jungian acidhead mountain climbers,” when he first encountered Ram Dass, who had recently returned from his first trip to India and encounter with Maharajji. Until then, K.D. says, “I’d been running around after every yogi who’d come to the States for years.”

When he heard Ram Dass speak, “I knew that what I was looking for existed. I felt that the search was real, that there really was something to find, there wasn’t just psychological pain to be had.” In time he realized that in order to find that “something,” he’d have to go experience Maharajji directly. One night not long after first arriving in India, K.D. was taking a walk by a crater lake near the mountain town of Naini Tal, when he encountered kirtan for the first time. “I heard this chanting from a very old temple there,” he says, “and it blew my mind. I don’t know how to explain it. It drove me crazy. I couldn’t believe the intensity, the joy, the happiness of what they were doing. I didn’t even know what they were chanting. I didn’t know anything about it, but I started to go by there every Tuesday night. I later found out they were chanting to Hanuman.”

Hanuman, the monkey god, is one of the most revered figures in Hinduism. In the Ramayana, a classic spiritual text, Ram’s wife Sita has been abducted, and Hanuman, his devoted ally, helps reunite the divine couple. One of the most beloved devotional chants, the 40-stanza “Hanuman Chaleesa,” extols his virtues and magical attributes. For both K.D. and Uttal, the Chaleesa carries special power and meaning, and Hanuman particular import.

After returning to America, Krishna Das chanted on a more or less informal basis. Eventually, in 1987, he formed Triloka Records with a partner, and since then he has released several albums, including One Track Heart (1996) and Pilgrim Heart (1998). Having experimented on the first two albums with a world-music approach to the arrangements and accompaniment, K.D. returned to a simpler, more traditional setting in later albums. “I don’t want to be a musician, a star,” he says. “I have no aspirations at all any more. I just want to sing.”

Triloka has also released several Jai Uttal albums before he left the label to work on an “experimental” project. Born in Brooklyn as Doug Uttal, Jai—the name was given to him by his first yoga teacher—was probably ordained to be a musician: His father Larry, a successful music-business executive, “discovered” Al Green and put out the first album by the legendary band Blondie. His parents started him on piano lessons at age 6, but after a few years he “got sick of it.” As a teenager he became attracted to folk music, took up the banjo, and “got into old-timey pre-bluegrass Appalachian music. “Then I got into psychedelic music,” says Uttal, “and became a fanatical [Jimi] Hendrix fan. I packed away my banjo and got into electric guitar, and Indian music.”

He enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he planned to study music and religion. But on the eve of registration for his first semester, he attended a concert by the Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan. “I knew his albums,” he recalls, but the concert performance “just blew me out. I only lasted at Reed for three months, then came to the Bay Area to study at the Ali Akbar College of Music.”

But Uttal became fully immersed in Indian music over the course of numerous journeys to India. For several years in the early 1970s, he lived in West Bengal, where he encountered the Bauls, itinerant “madmen” lost in divine rapture and its musical expression—namely, chant. He’d first heard of the Bauls on an old Nonesuch recording entitled The Street Singers of India: Songs of the Bauls of Bengal, but during his Indian sojourn he met them, sang with them, learned their songs and, more importantly, their devotional attitude. They remain “a major musical and spiritual influence on me,” he says. Over the years, in the course of several extended visits to India, Uttal also spent time with Neem Karoli Baba, whom he describes as “a central figure in my life.” He also went to many of the same northern temples where Krishna Das fell in love with kirtan, including the one by the lake outside Naini Tal. In time, Jai too became enraptured, and his life and work have largely revolved around chant since then. He has by turns studied Zen meditation and yoga, but he professes that “chanting is [his] spiritual practice,” not just his profession.

The awesome transformational power of chant may derive in part from a phenomenon along the lines of British scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of “morphogenesis,” which holds that it is easier for something to happen if it has already happened before—not because of any technical know-how handed down, but because a kind of energetic or cognitive breakthrough has been achieved. “We’re all going on a journey together [when we chant],” Uttal says. “The more each person reaches into his heart, the easier it is for the next person to do it. Because these chants have been sung by so many people for so many centuries, when we do them we plug into that energy field and are nourished by it. We derive strength, we’re getting juice, from centuries of people singing ‘Sita Ram.'”

In the end, chanting is, as Ram Dass put it at the San Francisco event in which he appeared with Krishna Das, “a method of the heart.” As K.D. says, “It’s all about how you do it, not what you do. If you’re singing from the heart, you could be singing ‘Bubbula, Bubbula,’ and it wouldn’t matter, because you’d be connected.”

There is a famous image of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, that has been made into a poster. To prove the purity of his love, Hanuman has torn open his own chest. Instead of a heart, there is a radiant image of Sita and Ram in eternal union. Uttal sees this as a sublime metaphor for the workings of devotional chant.

“When we chant,” he says, “we are ‘tearing open our chests’—opening our hearts to reveal our true identity—and finding God there.”

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