Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
I’m sitting with eight others in a semicircle on the floor, slowly unpacking my harmonium for the first time. I revel in its cuteness. It looks like a toy piano crossed with an elegant teak accordion that folds up on itself like a child’s suitcase for easy carrying. I’m at a yoga studio, where I’ve signed up for a class to learn to chant and play 10 Kundalini mantras performed by some of my favorite musicians, such as Snatam Kaur and Jai-Jagdeesh. As a singer and a newbie Kundalini Yoga teacher, the big sound and simplicity of the harmonium appealed to me. I enrolled in this six-week course with the goal of accompanying myself while leading a mantra meditation or chanting during class.
Our teacher, Michael Cohen, founder of the Kirtan Leader Institute, walks us through setting up and positioning our instruments. “You can play just one chord on the harmonium, and it sounds great,” he tells us. And that’s exactly how we start—by simply holding down C and F on the keyboard with one hand, pumping the bellows (the mechanism that pushes air across the reeds) with the other, and chanting “Om.” He’s right. The tone is deep and rich, and when we all play together, the sound becomes even more expansive, filling the room and vibrating deep inside my solar plexus like a soothing full-body hum.
Although many mistake the harmonium for a classical Indian instrument, it was actually designed in Europe in the 1800s as a more affordable alternative to the organ or harpsichord. The European version was played like a traditional organ, but when the instrument migrated to India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—during the ascent of British colonial rule—it met an Indian fan base that adapted it to local specifications: Foot pedals were replaced with bellows and the instrument was placed on the floor so that people could play it while seated in a cross-legged position. Finally, drones—little knobs placed below the keys that play a fixed note continuously when pulled out—were added, giving the modern incarnation of the harmonium its powerful, multilayered, mystical sound.
I’ve been singing my whole life. My dad was a psychiatrist who fronted a rock band on the side, and my first performances were singing Christmas carols with him at inpatient psychiatric facilities during the holidays. As a kid, I was a total ham who sought out the microphone at every opportunity. I grew into a drama nerd in high school in the ’90s: starring in musicals and simultaneously obsessing over classic jazz and punk rock and curating a killer vinyl collection.
See also New Website Teaches Kirtan
Music became my way of coping with the world—a means of processing difficult emotions and even connecting with a collective wisdom of the past, specifically the emotional intelligence of the powerful female vocalists who helped me navigate the heartbreak of the human experience. Aretha Franklin, k.d. lang, and, above all, Billie Holiday were my gurus before I had ever heard of the term.
What is Naad?
The concept of Naad—the essence of all sound—is integral to Kundalini Yoga. Naad Yoga combines mantra, breath, and rhythm to create a healing response in the immune system. Because of the heavy focus on sound vibration, harmoniums, acoustic guitars, and kirtan (a type of spiritual singalong, often using call and response) are frequently found in yoga classes featuring key mantras designed to direct the mind toward positivity and receptivity.
The natural vocal expressiveness of Kundalini Yoga spoke to my childhood self. And, for me, playing harmonium while singing elevates chanting to a full-body somatic experience. Plus, it’s easy. Unlike with a guitar, you don’t need any finger strength or skill to hold down keys, and if you’re not a natural singer, it feels like a low-risk opportunity to sing in a group setting while slowly building confidence in your own voice.
The Truth about Lessons
The harmonium is surprisingly easy to learn, especially the way Cohen teaches. Even if you don’t know how to read music, Cohen’s method of teaching features chart sheets for songs that rely on music notes by their name (ABCDEFG)—not as written music on a treble or bass staff. In the first class, he handed out Post-it Notes on which we wrote down the different notes, and we placed them above the corresponding keys to help guide our fingers. By the end, everyone was singing and playing “Om Shanti,” ascending up the keys from C to G to the rhythm of an electronic tabla beat. I realized right then that the harmonium is tremendously accessible and fun.
By the second class, we took turns leading call-and-response kirtan with our group, which even for a seasoned performer like myself was nerve-racking. Each student sang a verse to a song called “Baba Hanuman” while the entire group played along. Here lies the true magic of kirtan—experiencing the uniqueness and creative expression of each individual and then joining together as one voice, an incantation of the soul uniting with universal consciousness.
Michael Cohen is now teaching Harmonium and leading Kirtan online. Click here for more info.
My harmonium now sits next to my yoga mat in the corner of my bedroom, ready for me to play when inspiration strikes. I often tune in with it before my daily meditation practice. Some days, I play for five minutes and others for two hours, adapting the instrument to my needs for creative expression on that day. Despite its roots in spiritual music, I’ve made this instrument my own, picking out blues chords or favorite jazz standards on the keys. Just like the creative consciousness of the universe, this instrument helps to integrate all aspects of my being, not just the parts I like or the parts that look tidy and together. The other day, I taught myself “You Know I’m No Good” by Amy Winehouse. And after working through the chorus and improvising on the bridge, I felt better than I had in a long time.