What is Kirtan all about?
Last Saturday, July 21st, our friends Stephen Law and Mountain Wind hosted a beautiful Kirtan at the Mystic Yoga Shala. Perhaps you were one of the fortunate people to attend; but, if like most students you did not attend because you have no idea how a Kirtan is co-created or what to expect, the passage below written by Bonnie Pezzolesi, could encourage you to come in and join us for the next one scheduled on August 18th at 7:30pm. Enjoy!

Like so many other Westerners, my first experience with the practice of Kirtan was at a local yoga studio. I really had no idea what to expect, other than I was certain the evening would be something I could check off as another life experience that had yet taken its place of distinction on my personal bucket list. I had some trepidation about participating in a religious ceremony that was foreign to my family’s faith; but as a whole I was very curious about what the evening had in store for me. Upon sheepishly entering the studio, my senses were stimulated and engaged. The sound of bare feet scampering across the bamboo floor as participants took their seats was pleasing to my ears and somehow soothing to my “being”. The sound was authentic and natural in pitch and tone - earthy in essence. Even the vividly painted walls of deep purple and sunset orange adorned with statues of Hindu deities – Ganesha, Shiva, and Parvati -- were a welcome sight for my inquisitive eyes.
The musical group, Stephen Law and Mountain Wind, were settling in for their electric tamboura; which replicates the pitch of the “stringed drone instrument from the Middle East” (Law). Behind her was a drummer perched on top of a wooden box drum surrounded by chimes, cymbals, and multiple handheld drums and tambourines; varying in size and ethnic origin. The leader of the trio wore a free flowing white cotton tunic with matching loose fitting drawstring pants. He had two upright stands holding different stringed instruments; one was a traditional acoustic guitar and the other was a mandolin.
The audience of approximately thirty multicultural devotees was a mix of young and old participants, predominately Caucasian. There was one nursing mother with an infant, a few children, a group of soon-to-be yoga instructors in training, and a handful of wide-eyed novices like myself. I followed everyone’s lead; grabbed a cushion and a blanket then made my way to a spot directly in front of the musicians. I wanted a front row seat to the spiritual action. The venue owner placed two bowls of nuts, seeds and dehydrated fruit at the center of the performers’ make shift stage and explained that everyone could partake in the sharing of her prasad after it had been blessed with our communal energy. Prasad is “food offered to a deity or to a spiritual teacher; this same food [can be] distributed to devotees as a blessing” (The Integral Yoga Web Site ).
The leader, Stephen Lloyd Law, welcomed us by stating that this was our safe place and expressed his gratitude for being able to share his love of Kirtan and the Bhakti yoga practice. The musicians started with a few very simple call and response mantras and encouraged us to join, observe, or dance if the spirit so moved us. I was thankful that they had provided a chant sheet to assist with the pronunciation of the ancient Sanskrit words and the vocalist gave a brief explanation of each mantra before she began. The chants started off softly, sweetly and slowly. Then the volume would grow and the tempo would quickened as participants became more comfortable with the words and the melody. I felt very much at ease after only the second chant. The call and response format really lends itself well to outsiders who are unfamiliar with the ritual.
Just when I thought I knew what to expect from Kirtan, Mountain Wind introduced the purpose of calling out to the Hindu deity, Shiva. Shiva is the God of Destruction, but not necessarily the destruction that we are accustomed to as Westerners. The vocalist paused to provide more background for us and asked that we each try to focus on letting go of something personal that no longer served us. She further explained that Shiva’s powers of destruction are more aligned with clearing out any negative thoughts, actions, or painful memories in our lives and allowing room for more positive things to take their place. A metaphysical spring cleaning was the mental image I instantly conjured up in my mind.
As I methodically and without mindful thought repeated the Sanskrit words over and over again: “Om Namah Shivaya, Shivaya Namah Om Namah Shivaya”, something unexpected happened. I began to openly weep. At first I couldn’t stop singing or crying; then as if I became “aware” of my involuntary emotion, I consciously resisted the tears and wiped my face dry. Clearly something had moved me, but I was too hesitant to let Shiva finish what he had started. In the past, I’ve often cried while singing religious hymns during Christmas mass and I had always thought it was some manifestation of guilt or shame for my self-perceived shortcomings as a Christian. Now it appears that my first analysis was flawed and it was more likely that the spirit of something, someone, or some divine universal energy had been trying to make its existence known to me on a personal level.
Each chant ended with a collective silence rather than an applause; allowing the individuals to absorb the newly honed frequency still reverberating in the studio or a chance to completely digest the room’s positive energy in a moment of self reflection. During the last chant some devotees got up and danced together, while others watched from their floor cushions and continued to chant at a fevered pitch. At the closing of the Kirtan, our host doled out a spoonful of the now blessed prasad to each participant who offered up their cupped hands to receive the organic raw food mixture. This struck me as the equivalent of the religious practice of Catholic communion, without the ordained piety or the sacred confessional requirement. All that was required was the acceptance of unity and gratitude for the Kirtan ritual that had just taken place.
A Baptiste certified yoga instructor described her first Kirtan experience in this way, “I was at first kind of feeling like a 5th grader, self conscious, then I found myself swept up and wanting to sing as loud as I could” (Thomas). After attending a Kirtan in New York, another yoga enthusiast’s depicted it as, “…a definite scene — a mix of a religious revival meeting, a Grateful Dead concert, and summer camp. And it could certainly challenge many comfort zones” (Eckel). Unfortunately many Americansassociate the chant ‘Hare Krishna’ with people who begged on the streets and danced in airports in the 1970s” (Eckel)The practice of mantra chanting is now shared by multiple religions across the globe and has gained popularity and exposure in America through the 70s music scene, yoga studios, and expanding world tourism.
Unlike other major world religions where members have many sanctioned duties to perform, Skanda Purana states that: “By once chanting the holy name of the Lord, which consists of the two syllables ha-ri, one guarantees his path to liberation” ( Meditation through chanting can be challenging to the beginner, but the joyous supportive setting of a group Kirtan can be a rewarding and cleansing experience for even the greenest student. The Brhad-vishnu Purana affirms that “simply by chanting one holy name of Hari, a sinful man can counteract the reactions to more sins than he is able to commit” (  This belief of instant penance alone could launch thousands of interfaith Kirtan Centers across the United States faster than every citizen successfully singing our national anthem on key.
To say that there is only one absolute path to God is like saying there is only one road to travel between New York and California. If an individual can remain open minded to the many paths trekked on the journey towards spirituality and enlightenment, that same individual can then make an informed assessment of the road paved by the rhythmic and melodic mantras of Kirtan. For me, the sound of divinity and salvation was music to my ears; as echoed in the classic lyrics by George Harrison (Harrison).
If you open up your heart
You know what I mean
You’ve been polluted so long
But here’s a way for you to get clean
By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free
The Lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see...

You don’t need no church house
And you don’t need no temple
You don’t need no rosary beads or them books to read
To see that you have fallen
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean…

After attending only one local event, I can attest that the practice of religious meditation has a living and breathing soundtrack called Kirtan and its heavenly theme song, “God dwells within me, as me” (Gilbert), now resonates in my soul.
Special thanks to Stephen Lloyd Law and the Mountain Wind for making this project so personally enjoyable and kindly answering all my research questions.
I’d like to also express my gratitude to Amy Dechen Zezulka, owner of Mystic Yoga Shala, for providing so many spiritual and culturally diverse events in our community.  May her studio continue to thrive and prosper. ~ Namaste ~