Raising Our Voices in Loveby Ian Boccio
Yoga has existed for thousands of years in India, and its philosophies and practices have taken countless forms over the millennia. All of them are directed toward a common goal: the transformation of individual consciousness from a finite/separate state into the infinite/unity consciousness that is the true nature of human beings. As yoga has migrated out of India and become a global phenomenon, two practices in particular have achieved widespread acceptance in the United States.
The most popular is Hatha Yoga, the physical postures and breathing exercises that we think of immediately when we hear the word yoga.
The second is a practice known as kirtan—properly pronounced KEER-tuhn—from the Sanskrit word meaning celebration.
Kirtan is a chanting practice in which participants rhythmically vocalize sacred names, usually with some kind of musical accompaniment. Coming from India, the sacred names are typically the ones from that culture: Krishna, Shiva, Durga, Hanuman and many others, and the language used is either Sanskrit or one of the many vernacular languages from the region including Hindi, Bengali, etc.
Music that transformsThe traditional form is a style of call-and-response chanting, in which the kirtan wallah, or chant leader, sings out a name or a short phrase and everyone else responds by repeating it back, matching the (usually Sanskrit) words and the melody of the phrase. This allows the kirtan wallah to vary the melody or change some of the words in an improvisational style, keeping everyone connected to the present moment. The energy of the chant builds up over time by increasing the tempo into what can become an ecstatic frenzy; then it drops back to a very slow tempo and eases into silence at the end.
The vibrational energy of the sacred names being sung can have profound effects on the psyche and facilitate an expansion of consciousnessThe combination of focused spiritual intent, repetitive phrases, melodious and mesmerizing music, open hearts and the swell of multiple voices seems to transform people in a unique way.
Many participants experience a feeling of ananda, or transcendental bliss, from kirtan. It comes from a sense of great connection with all the other people who are present, and it extends outward from there to include a connection to all of humanity and the planet itself. From ananda emerges prema, a feeling of universal and unconditional love for everyone and everything. It is where the true nature of the self as infinite consciousness can be rediscovered. Some people experience healing on an even deeper, emotional level. It is not uncommon to see tears streaming down people’s faces at a kirtan event, first as an expression of uncovered trauma and pain, and then as joy and laughter, all during the course of a single chant.
Starting a revolutionThe origins of kirtan, as we know it today, go back to the 15th century in India and the great saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Chaitanya started a revolution in the religious culture of India by teaching people to chant the Mahamantra, the Hare Krishna mantra, as a personal method of achieving enlightenment that bypassed the existing power structure of the priest caste. Kirtan arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s, when Swami Prabhupada, Chaitanya’s spiritual descendant, arrived in New York City and began chanting the Mahamantra under a tree in Central Park. He attracted a following that eventually grew to become a worldwide organization: the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
The kirtan community in the U.S. was also profoundly influenced by another Indian saint, Neem Karoli Baba, and his disciple Ram Dass, an American formerly known as Richard Alpert. Many of the first wave of kirtan wallahs—including Krishna Das, Shyam Das, and Jai Uttal—were inspired by Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass.
As a form of yoga practice, kirtan owes much of its popularity to its simplicity. While many types of yoga require physical effort or focused concentration that can be difficult for some, kirtan only asks of us a willingness to open our hearts and let our voices ring out. The vibrational energy of the sacred names being sung can have profound effects on the psyche and facilitate an expansion of consciousness that brings greater depth to virtually all aspects of life.
Kirtan has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the United States. Communities across the nation have local groups that meet regularly, dedicated artists travel on tours to spread the practice far and wide, and festivals such as Atlanta’s own ChantLanta Sacred Music Festival, bring hundreds, or even thousands, together to co-create this evolution of consciousness. It is an experience that is not soon forgotten.
Ian Boccio has been a central figure in the Atlanta chant community for more than a decade through his band, Blue Spirit Wheel, and as director of the ChantLanta Sacred Music Festival. He teaches mantra meditation workshops and Yoga Teacher Training modules on a variety of topics around the U.S. He has been a professional musician for more than 30 years.