By Dennis Chernin, M.D., M.P.H. and Glenn Burdick, M.A.
It’s Friday evening, 7:25 p.m. Across the front of the Friends Meeting House chapel are seven individuals, a cello, two harmoniums, kohl and tabla drums, and a guitar. By the time a short cello invocation is finished, anywhere from 40–90 people have arrived for the monthly Friday evening kirtan, a local tradition that just crossed the ten year mark.
The lights dim and we begin to leave the world of time and tasks, roles and responsibilities behind us. Over the next two hours we become increasingly immersed in call and response chanting. Some of us sing with a full voice, others sing quietly or sit silently. There is a powerful resonance in the chorus of voices, expressions of the collective intention to dive deeper into the Inner Self.
We find ourselves in the company of individuals of many religious and philosophical persuasions. There are old timers and newcomers to the practice, and individuals with every possible quality of voice. Rather than a performance, it’s a timeless evening for releasing our limited sense of self, for feeling and expressing our spiritual heart.
Together we are engaged in an ancient yogic spiritual practice that is both heart opening and meditative. Supported by inspiring music and the chant leaders’ voices we are singing ancient Sanskrit mantras. The chants vary from slow and hypnotic to sweet and plaintiff, and at times build up to ecstatic abandon. Over the course of the evening, we find ourselves feeling calm and centered, joyous, even ecstatic.
Two hours pass timelessly and the evening resolves into a few minutes of meditation. We silently savor the soulful effects of the evening. The participants, chant leaders, response singers, and musicians slowly move toward the lobby. We share homemade chai and our appreciation for the gift of an evening so lived. This is Ann Arbor Kirtan.
With much joy and gratitude Ann Arbor Kirtan recently celebrated its ten year anniversary. Over ninety participants partook in a potluck and shared strong, heart-full chanting.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since we, two long-time friends, decided to share our common interest in meditation, mantra, and chanting in Sanskrit with the local community. Out of this intention, Ann Arbor Kirtan was born. Ann Arbor has had a long tradition of kirtan practiced by various local spiritual groups. Our vision was to bring together people who love chanting in a setting that is not affiliated with any particular spiritual tradition. Our hope was that new and experienced chanters would feel welcome and participate wholeheartedly. This hope has come to fruition.
The contemporary form of kirtan in the West has been popularized by the music of Jai Uttal, Krishna Das, Ragani, Snatam Kaur, and Deva Premal. It is a call-and-response practice that has become a cross-cultural musical experience. Ann Arbor Kirtan combines Indian and Western melodies and instruments, including cello, guitar, harmonium, cymbals, tabla, and kohl drum. Remarkably, over the past ten years the interest in kirtan has grown, and Jai Uttal and Krishna Das, two of the most popular kirtan singers in the West, were nominated for Grammy Awards in the New Age and World Music categories, respectfully. To meet the growing interest in the community for more opportunities to chant collectively, we initiated a kirtan on the first Wednesday of the month at one of our member’s homes. On a more limited basis, Ann Arbor Kirtan has accepted invitations to participate at yoga festivals and in yoga studios. It has been a delight to be intimately involved in a growing community of chanters. Increasingly, the music lover and the spiritual seeker have come together in the soulful experience of group chanting. Within this community, we experience the profound joy of contributing to the peace and wellbeing of others and ourselves through chanting.
Kirtan (pronounced key-r-tahn) comes to us from India. An ancient yogic practice that is over 5,000 years old, it is one of the oldest sacred music traditions in the world. Chaitanya Mahaprabu (1486–1533) began spreading congregational call-and-response chanting of the holy names of universal consciousness throughout India and started the Sankirtana movement that continues worldwide today. He brought chanting to the streets, to the temples, and to communities.
Kirtan uses mantras that have a healing and soothing effect on the body and mind. Attention to the rhythms during mantra recitation, coordinated with gentle breathing, can create a calming effect and act as a natural tranquilizer. While chanting, one learns to surrender the ego and be totally present in the moment. Singing and breathing with others makes a powerful connection with the sangha, or community, while also putting us in touch with our own divine nature. The chanting is quieting, meditative, and at the same time, moving and exhilarating. The chants call upon universal energies that serve to quiet the mind and bring us back to the center of our being. Although the language of kirtan is typically Sanskrit, on another level, it is the universal language of the heart. Thus, kirtan is part mantra and nada yoga (yoga of vibratory frequency and sound) and also bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion and the heart).
During the practice of nada yoga, mantras are chanted and activate the inner chakras, the subtle energy centers within the body where physical, psychological, and spiritual forces intersect and interact. A chakra, which means wheel or circle, is seen in a deep meditative state and is experienced as an energy field. Each of the seven major chakras is associated with different parts of the body and controls and activates specific physical, emotional, and spiritual functions and attributes. For example, when chanting the names of Ganesh, the elephant deity and remover of obstacles, the first chakra is activated. On an emotional side, one can experience a greater sense of feeling grounded, stable, and connected with family and culture. When chanting the names of Krishna, the fourth chakra is stimulated, resulting in better lung and heart functioning and a greater sense of love, compassion, nurturance of one’s self and others, generosity of spirit, and loving kindness.
The meaning of mantra is “an instrument to free us from the constraints of our mind.” Its roots are deep and lie in the ancient Indian philosophical systems of Vedanta and Tantra, which hold that consciousness is intelligent, single, and complete, and the first manifestation of this unity is vibration. Human beings can experience this primal vibration in the form of the subtle sounds of mantra. Being expressions of a more complete, unified state, mantras are uniquely linked to an expanded level of consciousness. Mantra repetition can help people experience this unified state and focus the mind, making it clearer and more single pointed.
Kirtan also has a relationship with Ayurveda, the ancient medical system of India, which is used to describe unique constitutional types and diagnose imbalances, which lead to illness. These qualities, called doshas, are vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water and earth). These subtle aspects of nature have a vibratory quality and can be influenced by the foods we eat, our lifestyles, and our mental activity. These patterns of life force can be modulated by meditation and by chanting or repetition of mantras. Yoga, meditation, mantra recitation, and kirtan can help realign the doshas, as can the invocation of certain deities. For example, kirtans for Durga, Rama, and Kali activate and balance the fire element and can thus decrease the pitta, or fire-related illnesses such as ulcers and hypertension. Chants to Hanuman, Shiva, and Saraswati rebalance vata, or the air element, and can help with problems like nervousness or tremors. Chants to Lakshmi, Vishnu, Krishna, or Ganesha can activate and balance kapha, or the water element, and can help with problems such as lethargy, fatigue, constipation, and obesity. Mantras to deities should be chanted with reverence, devotion, and intentionality.
At a deeper level, an understanding of mantra chanting as an esoteric practice relates to how primal sounds affect the cells in the physical body, the breath, and the subtle qualities of the mind. In kirtan we chant the names of deities (such as Krishna or Kali), archetypal forces that represent different aspects of the consciousness that pervade our inner psyche. The deities represent the symbolic language of our collective unconscious mind and endow universal energies and forces with voices, faces, and personalities that touch us personally. These forces are symbolic and mirror the diverse attributes and functions of the seen and unseen universe. We can experience them through their different personalities, gifts, powers, and weaknesses that reflect our own qualities. When we develop a personal relationship with the deity energies, we bring forth the qualities of that deity. For example, singing to Saraswati invites greater wisdom and learning; to Lakshmi, good fortune; and to Kali, strength of character and will power. It is said that with devotion, attention, and intention, we are graced with the blessings of that deity.
Ann Arbor Kirtan is a nonprofit organization of musicians who volunteer their time, come from different yogic traditions, and engage in chanting as a spiritual practice. Below, we introduce you to the chant leaders and musicians of Ann Arbor Kirtan in their own words. Each of us has had a personal experience with the power of mantra and chanting, which has led to our commitment to include chanting sacred music as part of our regular spiritual practice.
Glenn Burdick – Guitar
I first experienced kirtan when I met the esteemed Indian holy man named Swami Muktananda, in 1976. We would chant for several hours each day in his ashram. One day I rushed into the noon chant and took a seat. The holiness of the chant struck me immediately and an extraordinary energy began moving up my back and spine and up through my head. My whole body was vibrating, the chant was inside of me and it opened my spiritual heart. I felt ecstatic, yet humble and profoundly grateful. From that point on, chanting or repeating the mantra effortlessly brought me into a state of complete relaxation, inner stillness, and gratitude. This experience significantly changed my life and profoundly influenced my work as a psychotherapist and teacher of meditation.
Atmaram Chaitanya – Chant leader, harmonium, kartals
The first time I experienced the power of kirtan was at a Swami Satchidananda center in the 70’s. That’s where I first chanted “Om Namah Shivaya” and it felt like I was having a déjà vu of the soul. I was overwhelmed by feelings of contentment and joy and spontaneously began meditating on the mantra. I met Swami Muktananda and moved into the Ann Arbor Siddha Yoga Dham ashram where I learned to play the harmonium, tambura, and kartals. I became immersed in the practice of daily meditation, mantra repetition, and chanting. As co-director of the nonprofit Kashi Nivas Meditation Center, I continue to support the practice of kirtan in the community.
Dennis Chernin – Chant leader, harmonium
As a young physician, I lived in a yoga ashram at the Himalayan Institute in the late 70’s and early 80’s and we would chant late at night with our spiritual teacher, Swami Rama. While I didn’t know it at the time, kirtan would become a major meditation practice for me many years later. On my spiritual journey, I have embraced raja yoga, the eight-fold path of meditation, as well as jnana yoga, the path of knowledge, and karma yoga, the practice of selfless service. What I felt was missing in my spiritual practice was relating in a heart-centered way to the divine and to the world around me with greater love, gratitude, and compassion. Through kirtan and bhakti yoga, I have found this connection to my heart.
John Churchville – Tabla drums
I have been playing the tabla drums in Ann Arbor Kirtan since its first gathering. Musically speaking, kirtan at its best is a beautiful blend of Indian light classical and folk with Western music. The sound of the Indian instruments like tabla, harmonium, and other instruments is what makes this style of kirtan so inviting. The music provides the support for the singers and helps lift the chanting to very powerful levels. I personally love to be involved with kirtan for the sense of community it creates. When the chants pick up momentum, the music follows and helps push it forward. When this is done well, there is an energy that fills the room like no other I have experienced.
Krishnamoyee (Cori Churdar) – Chant leader, kohl drum
I began to chant Hare Krishna on beads almost immediately after hearing my first kirtan at a Hare Krishna temple 25 years ago, and have continued to balance my spiritual life with a combination of personal mantra repetition on japamala beads and group chanting in kirtan. They are both important to expanding one's spiritual journey, but chanting in congregation with others is a very powerful experience because the focus and intent of sincere practitioners enhances the experience of others. In this way, one may experience more deeply in an assembly of chanters than they might on their own. I lived in Vrindavan, India, for about eight years where I studied the kohl drum, which is a major instrument in Bengali kirtan.
Alice Greminger – Cello
My first kirtan experience was an Ann Arbor Kirtan evening. Beautiful sounds and energy filled the room, and then me, with wonder. How could simple ancient melodies and Sanskrit words give me such a deep sense of connection and peace with people I'd never met? When I started playing my cello with Ann Arbor Kirtan these experiences deepened, and kirtan gave me another gift. Our emphasis on music opening our hearts and spirits to love and connecting with each other and God, freed me from a limiting over-concern with playing perfectly. Now all the music I play as a professional cellist has the spirit of kirtan.
Karen Levin – Response singer, tambourine
I first experienced kirtan at a kundalini yoga class in the early 1970s when I was in college and we chanted a lot of sacred Sanskrit sounds following the yoga postures. I was amazed at how joyful and yet calm it would make me feel, and I was very drawn to this practice. About five years later, I was introduced to siddha yoga and Swami Muktananda, and chanting took on a whole new meaning. I experienced it as a way to connect with the Divine, or Inner Self. It was a very powerful experience for me. Sometimes chanting can be easier than meditation, to focus on the sound, open the heart, and drop into the experience.
The monthly kirtan continues to be free of charge, as it has for the past ten years. We do welcome donations to help offset some of the overhead costs. We would love to have you join us! Our next kirtan events are on May 15, June 19, July10, and August 21, 2015. We meet from 7:30–9:30 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House located at 1420 Hill Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. We invite you to visit our website where you can learn more about us, check out the events calendar, and listen to some of our recorded chants at your leisure: kirtanannarbor.org.