The Joy of Chanting

Go vocal and get your inner groove back

The auditorium crackles with excitement as people take their seats. On the stage, a harmonium inscribed with om symbols glows in the spotlight. Dressed in everything from business casual to skin-hugging yoga ensembles, the diverse crowd of yoga moms, middle-aged meditators and aspiring young renunciates are ready to get their bliss on.

We are in for a night of kirtan and chanting — devotional singing based on ancient Sanskrit mantras, which is often accompanied by the rhythmic drumming of the tablas and the distinct timbre of the harmonium, a reed organ that uses hand-pumped bellows to create its plaintive drone.
 
The formality of seats comes as a surprise, as before chanting ascended to its new heights of popularity, kirtan venues were often scruffy affairs with hardwood floors and ample floor seating, with some folding chairs ringing the perimeter for the lotus-challenged. But now that devotional singing is the new ecstasy, mantra masters have achieved semi-rock-star status.
 
Krishna Das — or K.D., as he is often referred to — is the headliner for tonight, and has almost 40 years of chanting experience. Inspired by Ram Dass, K.D. went to India in 1970 to meet the man who would change his life forever: Neem Karoli Baba, a spiritual guru whose essential teaching can be expressed as “Love all, serve all.” In 1997, K.D. realized his service was to travel around to chant with people, and has since released 12 albums.
 
Taking his seat behind his harmonium, wearing his customary red T-shirt, K.D. sets the tone for the concert by sharing his experience with Grace. “Grace removes obstacles you didn’t even know were obstructing you,” he says. “Grace arranges your lives and Grace forces you to look within.” That’s exactly what chanting invites: an opportunity to look within and express, through melody, the hidden rapture, which underlies everyday experience.
 
Why chant?
 
Unbeknownst to many, people long to be absorbed into a sacred world of vibration, reverence and, ultimately, love. “Chanting puts us in touch with the well-being inside that’s happy,” K.D. says in an interview. Part of that happiness is giving a public voice to our yearning for the sacred. In its purest form, Hindu-inspired chanting simply repeats the names of God, most notably Krishna (as in Hari), Ram, Hanuman, Shiva, Shakti, Sita, Gopala and Radha.
 
While K.D.’s signature style is kirtan, which follows a call-and-response format, other leading spiritual singers, such as Deva Premal, prefer chanting in unison. But the commonality of the two methods is a seemingly endless repetition of the words, a repetition actually designed to slow down both the mind and the breathing. In a recent 2010 study at the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Ariz., researchers found that chanting increases the blood flow to the brain, improving memory and enhancing brain function. Other studies suggest that chanting creates a state of mind similar to that of deep meditation, and comes with the same bevy of bennies: a decrease in stress, anxiety and depression. When you sing in this way, it’s the equivalent of imprinting the brain with new code — a code the brain associates with happiness and positive thought. Not a bad payback for an hour of rocking out with the divine.
 
Growing in leaps and oms
 
Why is chanting suddenly so popular? These days, you can barely go to a yoga class that doesn’t come with a soundtrack of chants, mantras and ragas. It’s crossed over to the mainstream as well, with plenty of kirtan artists, including Snatam Kaur and Jai Uttal, being nominated for Grammy Awards.
 
“When we started touring in America 12 years ago, group chanting was just starting,” says Premal. “Now everyone does it.” Miten, her singing and life partner, adds, “People have a real thirst for it now. They are waking up to the realization that there are other values besides the ones we were raised in.” Attendance figures attest to kirtan’s growing popularity — concerts that had about 25 participants 10 years ago now average between 300 and 700.
 
In a society where our understanding of the mystical dimensions of the human voice has become diminished by technology and celebrity, chanting’s ability to transmit presence comes as nothing short of revelatory. K.D. recalls that a Buddhist lama once told him, “Don’t belittle what you do. People come to sing with you and their hearts open. It may be the only time in their lives that that happens.” Associations, alignment, breath, vibration and intention all converge in the simple rhythms and melodies, bypassing the mind’s clutter and allowing direct access to the present moment. “You're not thinking about it; it just happens,” K.D. explains. “The power of the practice is in the doing.”
 
Chanting as shortcut
 
There’s also a certain equal-opportunity element that adds to kirtan’s appeal. Despite appearances, it’s not religious in any orthodox sense. It doesn’t preach or exclude, nor does it take years to master. “Chanting is a universal language that transcends all cultures and religions,” says Miten.
 
More prosaically, K.D. likes to point out that chanting is not exactly rocket science. “Whereas a meditation practice may take years to bear fruit, chanting offers immediate enjoyment,” he says. “The enjoyment is the secret that’s in plain view.”
 
This pleasure, known in chant circles as “bhav,” serves as a compeling hook. “Music is a shortcut, because most people rarely sit in silence,” says Miten. “But by coming together to sing, with everyone breathing with the same rhythm, a feeling of peace permeates.” Each chant is rewarded not with applause, but rather with an almost incandescent silence. No other form of music rejoices quite so much in its own absence or can make silence sound like the most exquisite song of all.
 
Getting started: 5 for the journey
 
Want to follow the bliss? Here is a sampling of some of what I consider the best chant music to get your inner groove back:
 

 

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