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Renowned yoga teacher Janet Stone and DJ Drez’s new kirtan album, Echoes of Devotion, debuted at number 1 on iTunes’ World Music chart last week—just 6 months after they hosted Yoga Journal LIVE!’s first-ever Chanting 101 workshop in San Francisco for a full house. The class was such a success that Drez is hosting another chanting workshop “Dreaming in Sanskrit” with partner, vocalist Marti Nikko at the next event in San Diego this month.
If your yoga background hasn’t ventured into the group singing realm, you likely have questions. Whether you want to learn more about how to fit it into your practice or why to bother with Sanskrit at all, Janet Stone has answers. Her album can get you started on your own at home or in bringing kirtan into the yoga classes you’re teaching (no solos required).
6 Things for Newbies To Know About Chanting + Kirtan
1.“Chant(ing)” actually has multiple meanings.
Turns out, that word is multitasker in yoga lingo, frequently used in a few different ways. First, (and confusingly) “chant” is often used interchangeably with “mantra.” “Man is the root of the Sanskrit word for mind and tra is the root of the word instrument,” Stone says. “So mantra is an instrument to train the mind. This brings greater concentration to the moment, to lessen our attention on the continuous stream of habituated thoughts and to fall in love with NOW.” The mantra (or chant) is either a word or phrase to be repeated in japa meditation or sung in kirtan, or kirtana, songs. Both practices come from the bhakti yoga tradition, often defined as the yoga of devotion.
2. You’re not the only one uncomfortable with the group sing-along.
Know that you’re not alone. Even Stone had her hesitations. “My first kirtan experience I was practically drowning in tabla powder, flowy shirts, swaying people, closed eyes, and indecipherable words—and yet for at least a half a second, I had no judgments of these weirdos,” she says. “For that flash, I was a weirdo myself. It felt like I was immersed in some heart space I didn’t recognize. For a moment I stopped looking at the difference between the me’s and the them’s. ” She calls that experience samavesha, or the power to be immersed in something and have that something immersed in you. And yet, just as quickly that half second passed, as she heard the sound of her own voice and began judging the experience again. She clearly got past that.
3. You don’t have to get the words right.
Do you get hung up on the often awkward-feeling sounds or phrasing of Sanskrit chants? (We do.) Stone says that’s also common. “Sanskrit is an ancient and sacred language, science, art, that carries meaning in every single syllable and yet, we’re us, most of us born in the West and adopting this practice out of a desire to connect with something vital and alive within,” she says. “So, first, I would say to go easy on yourself, the calling out alone is enough.” She mentions that a saying from the Bhakti tradition goes, “thinking we have to have exactly correct pronunciation to be heard by God / the divine is like thinking that a baby must cry in just the right pronunciation to be heard by its mother.”
4. But you can practice chanting like you practice asana.
“To feel comfortable, I recommend finding someone who chants, whose chants feel accessible and simple enough to repeat again and again,” she says. “They don’t have to be long or complicated to explore the different ways in which your mouth can move.”
5. Can’t carry a tune? You also can’t ruin a kirtan.
“It never seems to matter if someone has a ‘good’ voice,” Stone says. “What matters is that they have a voice and they add it into the soup of human expressions. In a group, gathering with many who carry their stories, we come together, our voices finding each other until our focus becomes unified. We lose some of the separation, melt some of the hard boundaries, and call out together.”
6. You don’t even really have to understand what you’re saying.
Think you won’t get anything out of a chant if you don’t learn Sanskrit? Stone disagrees. “While in India in the mid-’90s I came across a Sivananda teacher who freely repeated mantras as he went about his day. I had no knowledge of what he was saying or why, but found myself repeating it,” she says. “It didn’t seem to matter what it was; I was drawn to how it felt. It felt as if I forgot myself and at the same time remembered myself more intimately than ever before.”
See also 200 Key Sanskrit Terms to Know