A few years ago, I was asked by a friend to help lead a kirtan in a popular yoga space in town. My friend is an ex-rock musician, Krishna Das style kind of guy, who leads kirtan with western guitar. When he lived in Baltimore, he frequently asked me to sing with him at kirtans or at his house for practice. Although my path has always been to study music more traditionally, with careful consideration of the meaning of the words, for the purpose of devotion, and in North Indian classical compositions, I appreciated his heart and intention and most of all his dedication to going deeper into the practice of devotional yoga. Sometimes he was so blissed out singing, that I thought a song would never end. He was really into it and I truly wanted to support him.
A few years ago, he asked me to help lead the response, so that his raspy vocals could be well understood and that his audience/participants, who would be new to kirtan, could had some support in the pronunciation of the words. I usually agreed, though I remember feeling apprehensive on the day he asked me to go to this one particular space. First I said no, and then after much persuasion, said yes I would join him.
In kirtan, people gather together to sing divine names, often in the ancient language of Sanskrit, in order to unify with the divine within themselves or to forget their worries, channel their emotional energies toward God, and feel uplifted in Spirit. It is like the gospel music of yogis. Usually a leader calls and the “audience” responds back with the same line, and this goes on repetitively until everyone’s chattering minds quiet down and the community sings in unison from the Heart.
When we got to this particular space, we walked through a gym to a heated yoga studio which the owners were cooling down and airing out from the earlier hot yoga class. Lined up along side a wall was high quality sound equipment and on the floor some candles. I was unaware that others would be with us leading the kirtan but it so turned out that there were three others; the sporty studio owner would drum, his girlfriend sporting a tiny tank top and indian-ish skirt would sing, and another long haired man in a tye dyed shirt would play a combination of instruments alongside us. And then to my suprise, in bounded the studio owner’s dog who we all lovingly greeted, though I was a little shocked to realize he was a studio regular and to hear his name was that of a Hindu God. Bold, I thought. To nearly 1/5 of the world’s population, that dog’s name has a very deep and significant meaning.
As the handful of yogis and the dog settled down on the mats, and the loud music began, I closed my eyes ignoring the material world of the gym, the sweaty smell, tangled wires from all the equipment, and focused inward as I would do before singing anywhere on earth. I realized that my purpose there would be to answer questions about the meaning of the words, should anyone ask, as I was not sure if anyone knew them.
No one asked any questions that night, but my friend and I sang with our whole hearts as that was our committment. The music was loud, the percussion overwhelmeing like a competition of vocals and instruments. I remembered a lovely yoga teacher who I had met in another gym saying to me “I want to teach my yoga students to meditate with boulders falling on their heads”. I remembered this with love and used the kirtan as a challenge to meditate in a noisy space.
I did not open my eyes until I started to hear chuckles coming through the speakers. The studio owner was laughing in his microphone as his dog had just finished urinating on a yoga mat… at which I point I could not deny that this whole production was way too far out for me.
Although I am not a Hindu per say, I told my friend that I would never attend that place again and that knowing my profound respect for kirtan he probably could have guessed that I would not have been interested in such a venue. He was quite offended by my seeming negativity and gave me a speech about how yoga is for everyone and that I was judgemental.
But then I ask you: Would any priest dare to name a dog Jesus, take it to church, and laugh when it pees on the alter?
I agree that yoga is for everyone. But like all things that one loves and respects, the more one learns, the more one is humbled. The less performative and sloppy their work becomes. Scientists make discoveries only to be filled with more and more questions. Artists dive deeply into their art and lose themselves in it. Having studied privately under a master of Indian Classical Music, I feel so touched and humbled, that I myself am yet to ever lead a kirtan alone. I feel I have hardly brushed the surface. It will be an honor the day I do.
If someone is a teacher of yoga, and takes on the duty of sharing devotional yoga with others, in which Divine names of all religions are sung, would a teacher not have some reverence for the divine names? Would anyone even think to treat devotional music in English with arrogance? I’m not saying everyone has to be interested in North Indian Classical composition of music, but are these words in Sanskrit just in fact just gibberish syllables, like two year olds singing the ABCs, and are the names no more meaningful that Spot, Fluffy, or Tony the Tiger?
Kirtan is all the rage in California and from there it has spread across the United States. It’s become a popular thing for yoga studios to do.
But USA, all I’m asking for is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.