Joelle's Yoga

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 chant.

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.

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 practice.

“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 looked back.

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 through music.

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 rhythm.

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 and trainings.

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 with others.

“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 says.

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 of wisdom.

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 our lives.


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