Messengers of Divine Sound -
Inspiring Joy, Community and Healing
Written February 2005
(To be published in YUJ magazine)
By Joelle Lazar
Thirty or more people are gathered for the weekly Friday evening
Kirtan at West Side Yoga studio. I sit on a meditation cushion.
Around me are people of all ages and all walks of life. In the
center of our circle is a puja table on which symbols of the five
elements are represented by a vase of yellow daffodils, a tray
of burning candles, a flask of pure water, incense and a crystal
bowl overflowing with plump red grapes. They are here to remind
me that I am earth, air, fire, water and ether (space) - the elements
that move me.
“If there’s someone you know who is ill or needing
some good energy, whisper their name.” says Sandra Sobstyl,
one of our two “Give Peace a Chant” guides.
The chatter in the room quickly subsides. Some people have their
eyes closed, others sit in rapt attention. We are all listening,
blanketed by a feeling of relaxed anticipation and focused attention.
As we sing our many voices blend into one and we surrender to
The “Give Peace a Chant” Kirtan gathering is only
one of several well established chanting circles in Vancouver.
These gatherings are growing in popularity and new Kirtan groups
are being created all the time.
Kirtan, the practice of devotional singing, has its roots deep
in the civilization of ancient India and continues to this day
both in India and in yoga studios all across the globe. This ancient
Vedic practice is known as ‘japa’, the repetition
of Sanskrit names of God taught in a call and response manner.
In the hands and voices of contemporary practitioners, Kirtan
is changing, often taking on the cultural and musical proclivities
of its adepts such as First Nations, Jewish, Tuvan and Christian
influences, to name a few. As it travels and evolves, the shape
that Kirtan takes is as diverse as the spiritual expression of
those who walk its path.
“The words and sounds have the power to shift our perception
of our self towards a relationship with the divine directly.”
Says David Embry, co-creator of the “Give Peace a Chant”
Kirtan is a spiritual practice to which he has been faithful
since it was imparted to him fifteen years ago by Swami Shivananda
Radha, founder of the Yasodhara Ashram on Kootenay Lake. For David
Swami Radha was the first of several inspirational teachers who
encouraged him to bring the yoga of music to people as a spiritual
“The repetition of mantras release the mind and allow for
the direct experience of union with the divine.” He says.
Maalaa Lazar, the author’s mother and partner in Kirtan,
like David and Sandra, was already a musician and singer prior
to meeting her spiritual teacher. Soon after her first trip to
India in 1976 she discovered the practice of Kirtan and has never
She described for me the technology of Kirtan and explained why
it has long been recognized as having the power to heal:
“All living cells in our body breathe. When we sing and
chant that breath merges with the vibratory frequency that is
being sung and the intent to unite with a higher energy.”
Maalaa explains that the all koshas, the levels of our consciousness
from gross to most subtle, are then bathed in that divine vibration.
“Mantras and sound vibrations chanted by the ancient mystics
thousands of years ago remain with us today and yet they do not
hold any association for us.” Says Maalaa.
She gave the example of the word “Raam”. Most of
us do not associate this word with any previous experiences that
we’ve had. The word “Love”, on the other hand,
was planted in our language lexicon very early on and has accumulated
many pre-conceptions. In this way chanting ancient mantras and
sound vibrations that are introduced to us in a sacred space allow
us to shed any pre-conceived ideas about ourselves.
What many North American Kirtan leaders such as David, Sandra
and Maalaa share is the fact that at some point they met a powerful
spiritual teacher who recognized their love of music and spirit.
Their teachers encouraged them to embrace the yogic practice of
Kirtan as a means to communicate their experience of the divine
For Jerry Devoignes his meeting with Baba Hari Dass twenty-six
years ago was such a transformational encounter:
“It was meeting him that did it. It was like walking through
the looking glass, exciting and familiar. It was the first time
I met someone who looked at me and knew me.”
When Jerry experienced Kirtan, he knew he had come home.
“Kirtan is closest to my soul.” He says.
Jerry has always loved music. His earliest music experiences
were in the church where he was a choir boy and aqua lighter.
He loved hymns and even contemplated becoming a minister.
“Either a minister or an FBI detective who got paid to
solve crimes,” He says.
Fourteen years ago Jerry suffered a brain injury as a result
of being hit by a car. In addition to other difficulties, the
devastating collision left Jerry unable to sing in pitch or maintain
Shortly after, Jerry met a Sufi throat singer. Throat singing,
also referred to as “Harmonic Singing”, “Sound
Healing” and “Overtone singing” is a technique
in which up to three sounds can be produced at the same time.
Jerry immediately recognized its benefits for his healing process
and now teaches this practice and uses it in his healing work.
Jerry shares his time between the Maantravaani Orchestra, One
Voice Harmonic Choir, Bhakti Night, a once a month Kirtan gathering
at the Yoga West Studio in Kitsilano, as well as his workshops
The Maantravaani Orchestra is a five member ensemble that he
created twelve years ago and has performed fifty Kirtan events
since. The One Voice Harmonic Choir is a six member all men’s
choir that has spent the last five years refining its harmonies,
throat singing and use of diverse percussive instruments.
For increasing numbers of people, Kirtan is a powerful tool to
reconnect with sacred space. This practice is also being revitalized
by members of other spiritual traditions.
Lorne Mallin, a long time Kirtan lover, has returned to his Jewish
roots. After a ten year sojourn with the Arica Institute in New
York City where he embraced many mystical modalities, Lorne is
completing a two year Chant Leader training in the Jewish tradition.
His teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, herself was influenced by a Sufi
As Lorne describes,
“Rabbi Gold creates beautiful melodies from phrases of
liturgy as well as from the Torah.”
Lorne says that the popularity of Jewish chanting is a combination
of a few different influences. One is the current popularity of
Indian Kirtan, Buddhist and Sufi chanting. Second, is the development
of Hasidism which began in the late 18th Century and its practice
of Niggunim. Niggunim are wordless chants that can be spontaneous
or composed. They are distinguished by the Hasidic masters who
composed them and then passed on through the generations.
Whether our devotion is offered to a deity, a living Guru or
is expressed through the spiritual tradition we were born into,
is a personal choice. For the Contemporary Kirtan leaders I spoke
with, it doesn’t quite matter. Their love of sound and one
pointed attention on the divine inspire them to share this practice
“Somehow it brings me to the eye of the storm” says
Maria Foster, veteran Kirtan participant. “Life has a way
of spinning around us. Kirtan helps us to find and stay in the
centre which is peace and trust instead of spinning out of control.”
Novice Kirtan participant Jim Blair, a consultant in the fuel
cell technology industry, concurs:
“Kirtan gives me the opportunity to get out of my head
and into my body.” Says Jim.
“At first I felt nervous about singing. I thought that
because I didn’t know the words, I should keep quiet. But
the repetition of the mantras made it easy to learn.” He
Maalaa sums up the effect of the potent alchemy of mantra, sound
and spiritual community that Kirtan provides in this way:
“The power of unity that is generated through the chant
is such that people can transcend their ideas about whether they
can or can’t sing and get carried on the wave of bliss as
everyone starts to sing.”
Jerry describes this experience like a womb in which people who
chant have the direct experience of being loved, cradled and held
as if back in their mother’s belly.
Sandra Sobstyl plays the mridungam, a native Indian drum. She
wears an anklet of bells that make a ‘ching ching’
sound as she taps her foot and beats the mridungam. The chant
is Jai Ganesha, in praise of the Indian deity represented by the
form of an elephant, the symbol of wisdom.
As I sing these ancient mantras my mind dances around the idea
How can I imbibe wisdom in my everyday life?
I ponder this question as I look around the room at the trans-splendent
faces of the chanters. Certainly I am wise to be here, allied
with others who wish to plant the seed of joy within themselves.
As we sing together we nurture the divine spirit in us all as
well as the community which supports us to carry this joy into
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