Here’s a humble request: Get yourself to a kirtan at least once in this lifetime.
Readers, I know. Here I go again, writing these weird Sanskrit words and potentially turning you off. (My editor doesn’t like me putting them in stories either, if that makes you feel better.) But attending a kirtan (pronounced keer-TAWN) is such a life-affirming experience, and can’t we all use more of those?
Simply put, kirtan is call and response singing. I hesitate to use the word chanting, for fear that will turn people off, but that’s pretty much what it is. The leader will sing the ancient phrase, and everybody will mimic it back, on repeat. You can follow along on the sheets of lyrics often provided while the kirtan leader plays guitar or the harmonium or gently keeps the rhythm on a percussive instrument.
“It’s the intersection of music and yoga,” says Suzanne Mariska, a yoga teacher, musician and kirtan leader. “It’s using Sanskrit mantras to clear the mind and open the heart.”
Mariska, co-founder of Matrika Kirtan, regularly leads kirtans around the city, including at Colorado College’s Shove Chapel and Pranava Yoga Center. Your next opportunity is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Yoga Studio Satya. It’s by donation.
I last attended a kirtan in the fall at Shove, my first in a number of years, and I felt hesitant and out of place as I sat cross-legged on a meditation cushion. There weren’t a ton of people, so I worried about my out-of-key voice and mangling the mantras, as lyrics weren’t provided on this occasion. But then we began, and the anxiety fell away. The disparate group of singers — old, young, male, female — warmed up and found its collective voice. We sang our little hearts out, and my fear of judgment slipped away. I closed my eyes and let the sound and vibration sweep through me. Kirtan was as I remembered it — uplifting and invigorating.
Here’s what you already know: It will feel uncomfortable going into a new space and doing this new, potentially odd thing. But don’t many things feel like that the first time you do them? Tying shoelaces. Riding a bike. Driving a car. Yoga. Especially yoga. Some of those shapes we contort our bodies into during class are plain weird and hard to hold. But you lean into the discomfort and, over time, they begin to feel like home.
Kirtan isn’t for people with amazing singing voices. (I’m living proof, people.) All you do is show up with your dusty, neglected vocal chords and follow along. Singing opens your chakras, says Mariska, through the movement of air and the vibrations of the sound. (I know, another weird woo-woo word. Stick with me.) Chakras are said to be invisible energy centers that run throughout your body. There are seven major ones, one of them near your throat.
But don’t take this from me or Mariska. Think of your own experience and how good it feels to sing along to a song on the radio, in the shower or in a choir. There’s something about that particular vocalization that increases your endorphins and makes you feel better about pretty much everything.
“There’s some science to it,” says Mariska. “Mantras have been used for thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. They do have a lot of power behind them.”
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