Learning Kirtan PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Felicia M. Tomasko, RN   

The tradition of kirtan was brought to these shores by gurus, saints, devotees and musicians as the kirtan scene seems to explode exponentially, the call-and-response form of participatory chant continues its democratic ascendancy into Yoga studios, living rooms and thousand-plus seat theaters. Along this trajectory, audience members,Yoga teachers, professional musicians and novices are all learning chords and actively demystifying the secrets of sacred chant.

Studying music, mantra, chant and even the intricacies of creating and holding the ritual space of the energetic art of kirtan is not necessarily new, but there is currently an increase in the kirtan wallah passing the baton – or the harmonium, as it were – to invite a deeper level of participation in the community. Judging by the weekly classes, one-on-one tutorials, group sleep-over experiences in retreat centers immersing oneself in the kirtan experience and even forming full-on kirtan bands with new friends, learning kirtan is the new Yoga. We’ve asked some community members to describe their experience with the genre.

Flight Flava
By April Martin

i board.
baggage securely stowed.
seatbelt fastened.
electronic devices in the off position.
i am ready for takeoff.
externally rotated.
where is my complementary beverage?

one mantra in and a kartal explosion.
airborne. eyes wide. darting.
judgment and assumptions exploding sporadically.
Holy sheeeeiiiiiii*********
i look around.

17 people.
2 wingmen.
1 Dave Stringer.
5 days.

eyes wide. climbing in altitude. climbing in speed. i chant and i chant.
3 mantras. 6 hours a day. eyes wide.
i chant to i. i chant for i.

eyes wide.
climbing and chanting.

17 souls.
2 wings.
1 Dave Stringer.
2 days.

Eyes wide. At cruising speed.
At cruising altitude.

I chant to I. I chant for I. I hit the One.
I wake up to the One. I am the One.

17 Stars. Shining.
2 Golden Wings.
1 Dave Stringer.
Destination complete.

I deplane. No baggage. No beverage.
Heart chakra in its upright and on position. Internally motivated.
I sing for I. I sing for i.
I sing for All.

April Martin is a co-owner of Om Shala Yoga in Arcata, California: omshalayoga.com.


Dave Stringer's Flight School
Dave Stringer's Flight School

Cleared For Takeoff: Dave Stringer
By Tim Cannon

I first met Dave Stringer while on retreat at Esalen where he was collaborating with Dr. Lorin Roche in the spontaneous musical recitation of the poetry of the Radiance Sutras. The Yoga retreat I was attending merged with theirs in an ecstatic melding of body movement, sound, meditation and free-form in-the-moment spirit-filled bliss.

When I heard Dave was heading back to Esalen to hold a Kirtan Flight School, my heart burst with excitement. By virtue of being an airline pilot, I feel that Dave and I have a lot in common through the function of our roles in our chosen careers: There is a mysticism in flying, one of ecstatic bliss which also requires the knowledge of navigating the landscape in which we operate mindfully and intuitively. While the rules of commercial aviation don’t necessarily encourage creative expression to enhance added excitement, Captain Dave skillfully defies the laws of physics through expression of surprise, excitement and joy.

We arrived back at Esalen for Flight School with Dave and his Chesire Cat grin. Dave unloaded a trunk full of percussion instruments and were each given a set of kartals. Within minutes he had us keeping time. Using these instruments, he taught us a variety of tempos and the art of using these small hand cymbals to bring energy to the chant.

Throughout the retreat, we were organized into four groups, giving us the opportunity to experiment with new instruments, expanding our potential world of kirtan as we knew it. After trading instruments among ourselves a few times, each group worked up a few chants, giving us the freedom of expression under the guidance of our loving teacher.

The final night was an opportunity for each group to share their translation of Dave’s chants. What ensued was another time warp eruption of spontaneous spirit and bhakti bliss. The message in Dave’s ready smile was that the gift is in giving itself.

Tim Cannon is a commercial airline pilot for SkyWest Airlines. Through his journey in Yoga, he has found his heart as his center and the best way to expand this is through the path of bhakti.

Prachi Dixit
Prachi Dixit

Devotional Music: Prachi Dixit
By Arvind Chittumalla

Kirtan and bhajan were first introduced to the Western hemisphere in the twentieth century, by many Indian gurus including Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Muktananda and Swami Rama. As defined in Vedanta, a mantra is “a sacred word, verse, or Vedic hymn. The concept of Mantra Yoga is the use of vibration to open and stimulate the energy centers of the body, and connect the yogi with that subtle, universal vibration.

This connection can be achieved only when the mantras are pronounced correctly. Prachi Dixit comes to Venice from Torrance to share her knowledge; she is a classical Indian music and dance instructor who is the founder of Nupur Dance and Music Academy. With training in both Sanskrit and Hindi and two decades of experience teaching. After two years of training, Prachi recently taught me a simple four-line song celebrating a guru. Before I could start singing, I spent three classes reading the words out loud so I could master the pronunciation. I now sing this song during my meditation classes and it instantaneously transports me and my students to a different plane of consciousness.

The variety of kirtan music comes from the singer’s ability to overlay the same mantras over different raagas, the building blocks of Indian devotion music. Prachi teaches us scores of raagas to assist us in developing our devotional music practice. We recently performed a Hanuman puja at Aanand Saagar where we sang the Hunuman Chalisa. With Prachi’s help, we could sing the Chalisa in three different raagas. Raagas have many functions beyond their ability to provide musical variations. They can invoke emotions and also offer healing when sung during specific times of the day or night.

As Prachi’s student, I am constantly reminded about the concept of surrender, the fundamental principle of Bhakti Yoga. Prachi never gave me a formal introduction to Indian classical music, its history and evolution. In our first class she asked me to repeat a few lines of a song; she knew precisely where I should begin. I rarely ask what my next steps are; she takes me to the next steps in my practice when she knows I am ready to perform, technically and emotionally. Invariably she is always right.

Arvind Chittumalla is the owner of Aanand Saagar, a group of wellness sanctuaries in Venice and Santa Monica: aanandsagaar.com.

Jai Uttal Kirtan Camp
Jai Uttal Kirtan Camp

Sargam Transformation: Jai Uttal
By Ceceilia Fuentes

It was the summer of 2006; I was a recent escapee from corporate life with some savings and time to spare, so I embarked on a year of living expansively. Within days, I was sitting in a circle with about thirty others to begin an intensive week of chanting with kirtan master Jai Uttal. Here, I would be initiated into the deeper meaning and joys of Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of devotion and compassionate love. One aspect of this path is a type of call-and-response chanting, often in Sanskrit, of the many names of the divine. Deeply practiced, it is a meditation leading to oneness and spiritual ecstasy.

Bhakti Yoga, now so familiar to me, hadn’t yet registered. I enjoyed Jai Uttal’s music and appreciated its soothing influence in my life. I loved the unique sound of his voice and of his musical styling with its power and grace. His music possesses the joyous discovery of a life quickening in spirit. As a fan, I hadn’t crossed the invisible divide that opened the door to a deeper understanding of bhakti which he learned at the feet of his guru Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji). For me, Kirtan Camp was the key.

Each day there were lessons through stories and songs from the sacred Indian Vedas. Interspersed with chanting, we learned of the gods and goddesses and why their spirits are revered, we learned of Jai’s time with Maharaji and how his path developed and we began to practice for our own debut as a kirtan leader which was to take place on the last day in a twelve-hour marathon kirtan session.

Daniel Paul, master tabla player and Jai Uttal’s principal accompanist, taught the basics of harmonium playing and sargam, the Indian musical note structure. Nubia Texeira, Jai’s wife, whose support was constant, demonstrated the Odissi style dance of which she is a master. We chanted together and ate delicious healthy food, we laughed and practiced and made new friends. A few of my campmates are now touring regularly as kirtan wallahs including Nick Giacomini aka MC Yogi, Keshavacharya Das and Mike Cohen.

Every moment was a beautiful prayer. From my spot near the back of the group, I mused about how for centuries, students learned like this from their teachers, not just lessons of things to do, but actually how to be present in this moment. I got up and danced through much of the chanting because Jai Uttal’s palpable vibrancy made me feel light and happy. For me, dance and movement is a natural way to connect with the divine.

I led kirtan; it was a blissful and sweet moment and it transformed my life, although I didn’t realize it at the time. That year off led to an expansiveness that I couldn’t have guessed. My work life offered an opening to create events that now include a monthly conscious nightclub called Kali Klub, a place to dance and sing kirtan where Jai Uttal was our opening night kirtan wallah.

Ceceila Fuentes is producing the next installment of Kirtan Klub on Saturday, May 8 in Culver City: kaliklub.com.

Learning Kirtan

Dave Stringer accepts passengers in kirtan flight schools held worldwide: davestringer.com.

Jai Uttal gathers campers for a nonresidential summer kirtan camp in Northern California in July and a New Year’s residential kirtan camp retreat: jaiuttal.com.

Girish teaches workshops, retreats and private students: girishmusic.com.

Prachi Dixit teaches on Saturday mornings at Aanand Saagar in Venice: aanandsagaar.com. She also teaches in Torrance: (310) 872 - 7061; nupurdanceacademy.com.

Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band are based in New Orleans, where they are part of a burgeoning kirtan scene when they’re not traveling: seanjohnsonkirtan.com.

Other Teachers & Beyond Kirtan

Kirtan College with David Newman and Mira includes hands-on instruction open to anyone and will be held this summer at the Omega Institute and Yogaville: davidnewmanmusic.com.

Sheela Bringi teaches ongoing harmonium classes on Sundays at Aanand Sagaar: aanandsagaar.com.

Sura Das and the Temple Bhajan Band teach chant and music in praise of kirtan. Their new DVD provides a tutorial for those who want to practice at home: templebhajanband.com.

Vijay Krsna of the Kirtaniyas teaches kirtan lessons that cover tabla, mrdanga drum, harmonium, chants and the stories behind the bhakti chant. Call (310) 866 – 3139 or visit: kirtaniyas.com.

Govindas teaches the art of bhakti in his teacher training at Bhakti Yoga Shala: bhaktiyogashala.com.

Kirtan wallah and Yoga teacher Travis Eliot teaches harmonium and chant: traviseliot.com.

Marla Leigh teaches workshops for drumming in Yoga studios and beyond: marlaleigh.com.

Percussionist and sound healer Christine Stevens leads drum circles and teaches transformative drumming for peace: ubdrumcircles.com.

Sound healer Christina Grimm teaches holistic voice classes for singers and non-singers: tuneyourvoice.com.

Maestro Montino Bourbon del Monte studied for twelve years with the late master Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He teaches world and sacred music on a variety of instruments: montinobourbon.com.

Any time we attempt to compile a list of resources at LA YOGA, we invariably leave someone out. If you teach sacred music or kirtan, or know someone who does, please feel free to email us at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , subject line: sacred music and we’ll continue to gather and disseminate information.

Dance, Yoga, Meditation, Love, & Joy: Sean Johnson
By Hemalayaa

When Sean Johnston and The Wild Lotus Band played at the Ojai Yoga Crib in the fall of 2009, their devotional music re-sparked my desire to sing more. I signed up the moment I learned they were offering a weekend retreat.

The weekend began with the band playing “Aum Hari Aum,” and then leading us into a series of opening mantras to clear the space and bring us into our bodies. We all shared why we were there. My fear of singing in front of people has been a challenge; the Wild Lotuses were the perfect teachers to inspire me (and everyone else) to love singing rather than continually fear being imperfect. They did this through practices utilizing our voices, introducing us to the basics of the harmonium and then inspiring us all to play embodied drum rhythms. They gave me the courage to sing out loud, to lead and be led.

Being an Indo-Canadian, I would have never imagined learning kirtan music from Westerners, and I have to say: Sean Johnson, Gwendolyn and Alvin live, breathe, play music and sing with their whole hearts in a mesmerizing manner that sends chills all over my body and soul. The experience of learning from them far exceeded my expectations. We learned the bhakti path of singing and playing music to share out in the world and for our own devotional practice. I haven’t stopped singing since!

Hemalayaa is a joyous teacher of Yoga and Indian dance can be found teaching Monday nights in Ojai as well as leading immersions, retreats and workshops around the world: hemalayaa.com.


Mantra Music: Girish
By Erika Burkhalter

Like a diamond in the sun, Girish shines brightly in the world of kirtan. His music, rich with rhythm and full of heart makes you want to sing…and play. Three times now, Girish has graced my class at Yoga Works, Costa Mesa, with his music, invoking what one of my students described as a “spiritual experience” to be able to practice asana and feel the beat of the tablas while Girish weaves mantras such as the Gayatri and my personal favorite, the Maha Mritryunjaya Mantra, as well as his more rockin’ version of the Hanuman Chaleesa into the very air, enveloping you with song .

Inspired by my experience with Girish, I attended his chanting workshop this past February and purchased a harmonium from the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas. During his three-hour workshop, he brought such a natural ease to the chants, allowing them to be accessible to everybody by playing them in different keys for different voices. Although the traditional Sanskrit wording of the chants is said to carry its own essence, most people find more meaning in the chants when they understand the translation, which Girish thoroughly explains, often accompanying the translation with a story or two illustrating the historical or mythological significance of the mantra. After class, Girish patiently instructed me on a few simple chords for the harmonium and, although I am only proficient at three or four chants, the Maha Mritryunjaya Mantra and the Gayatri among them, I have been playing the harmonium in all of my classes ever since and my students report that they love the musical addition to the class.

Erika Burkhalter is a Yoga teacher and an increasingly more skillful harmonium player when she teaches at Yoga Works in Costa Mesa and on the Yoga Trek Adventure retreats and workshops she leads both locally and internationally: erikaburkhalter.com. Both Erika and Girish will be at Bhakti Fest 2010: bhaktifest.com.



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