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How Kirtan Chants Changed My Yoga and My Mind

Call-and-response Hindu mantras relieve stress and anxiety

Emily Perry hosts monthly kirtan events alongside her weekly yoga classes. PHOTO: NICO NELSON

When I first walked into Emily Perry’s yoga class, I wasn’t sure that I was in the right place. A few years back, she was teaching Thursday evening classes at Divinitree Yoga, and I had opted to try a free week—and showed up embarrassingly late.  

I walked in, mat in hand, to a room filled to the brim with people chanting. Perry sat on one side with an odd-looking, accordion-type instrument, smiling and singing some kind of tantric verse. She beckoned with a smile, and I realized that I’d either taken a wrong turn and wandered into some sacred cult-like ceremony, or that this was my yoga class.

Fast forward five years, uncountable yoga classes and a teacher training later, and I now know that the instrument is called a harmonium, and all of Emily’s classes begin and end with a few minutes of kirtan, or call-and-response chanting. At first, the repetition of what I learned were the names or mantras of Hindu gods and goddesses seemed bizarre for me to try to mimic, but I kept coming back for more.

Kirtan is a simple, repetitive process once you get the hang of it. It’s known to help relieve stress and anxiety and promote a sense of euphoria similar to meditation. About 99 percent of the time, I still have no idea what I am saying—I could be cursing all of my loved ones for all I know—and that’s OK, because I still enjoy it for some reason.

“When I first started chanting, I felt a connection,” Perry says. “I used to go to a Gateways Books in downtown Santa Cruz and listen to chanting music. I had no idea why I was drawn to it at the time, but I was.”

Kirtan comes from Bhakti yoga, also known as yoga of devotion. Just like physical postures or meditation, kirtan is a component of yoga practice. Bhakti, to over-simplify, is about more than just the physical practice of yoga. It’s based on spirituality, cultivating love and appreciation, and kirtan is one way to express that. Despite the divine connotations with kirtan, Perry says it’s non-denominational.

“When I started incorporating kirtan, it was the first time that I felt like I was using my whole heart,” Perry says. “It felt like I had a more holistic practice, as opposed to just a physical practice. It brought everything together, including pain, revelation, the yearning, and the joy.”

Perry says using kirtan in her yoga classes was intimidating at first, since she wasn’t a professional singer or musician. She bought a harmonium and didn’t use it for three years.

“Kirtan and chanting is a street practice in India. It can be literally anywhere,” she says. “When you chant, you start to tap into these deeper aspects of yourself and connect with people in the room. I think eventually my love of the experience trumped the lack of skill.”

It’s nice to know in retrospect that I wasn’t the only one caught off guard by kirtan. Perry says it happens all the time. Some people don’t understand it or think it’s weird, but a lot of people keep coming back.

“It’s about a connection to the heart and intention more than saying things correctly or being musically gifted,” Perry says. “Once people get that it’s about how they feel, they are able to drop concerns about being self conscious.”

The more I practiced with Emily, the more comfortable I got with the kirtan practice. It became part of my routine. I even found myself listening to it and singing along in the car or in the shower. I still can’t explain why I’m drawn to it, or why once at the end of a yoga class I started crying for no apparent reason in the middle of a song.

Perry says that she notices when people chant, they have more compassion and empathy for others—a brief reprieve for those who lead stressful lives or seek focus. Some people just come to listen, which is fine with Perry. The hardest part, she says, is showing up.

Perry hosts kirtan at 7:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at Pleasure Point Yoga. emilyperry.co.

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