for The New York Times on March 7, 2009
ON one of her regular visits to New York from Virginia, Christine Breighner told Rebecca Damon, a longtime friend, that she didn’t want to visit the tourist sites she’d seen before. She wanted to extend her horizons beyond the latest Broadway show or exhibit at the Met. Not too long before, Ms. Damon had received a brochure advertising a call-and-response chanting session called kirtan after a yoga class. Now she passed it along.
“I read the brochure and said, ‘Oh, that might challenge my comfort zone, so we should do it,’ ” said Mrs. Breighner.
Recently, Mrs. Breighner and Ms. Damon attended a Friday night kirtan at the Integral Yoga Institute. The two friends, along with about 60 participants, sat on cushions facing a group of musicians who wore traditional Indian kurtas — collarless cotton tunics — and played a variety of instruments, including bongos, a wooden flute and harmonium, an accordion-like organ.
For about two hours, the musicians played and chanted in Sanskrit while the audience responded when moved. Some clapped and swayed as they repeated the words; others simply listened with closed eyes and beatific smiles. The mood became more festive as the evening wore on, with many participants jumping up to dance: springing straight up and down, making chorus-line kicks and even walking on their hands.
It was a definite scene — a mix of a religious revival meeting, a Grateful Dead concert, and summer camp. And it could certainly challenge many comfort zones. But if you can adjust your comfort level to include white people in dreadlocks and saris, if you can roll with belting out several rounds of “Hare Krishna” and “Om Nama Shivaya,” then you might just enjoy yourself.
And with the average kirtan in New York requesting a donation of $10 to $15, it’s a relatively inexpensive route to bliss in difficult times.
As with meditation, the intent of chanting is to calm and focus the mind, relieving it from its usual chatter — grocery lists, money worries, petty arguments. “Chanting works well because it engages the mind and because it’s musical,” said Mitra Somerville, 49, who leads Integral’s community kirtan. “The melody and the vibration of the words are very soothing and uplifting so people can really connect with it.”
And an increasing number of Americans seem to be connecting with kirtan. At the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., attendance to its Ecstatic Chant festival has doubled over the last five years. The numbers are also up at Integral. Jo Sgammato, 57, the center’s general manager, said the Friday-night kirtan would have about 25 participants 10 years ago; now the center will sometimes host 400 in a single weekend when kirtan stars like Krishna Das, Jai Uttal and Wah! perform. At the Jivamukti Yoga School in Manhattan, 700 people came last September to see Krishna Das, setting a record for kirtan at the center.
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class where a rich, sonorous voice chanted on CD, chances are it was Krishna Das, who has become so popular over the last five years that he now performs at mainstream venues like the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles, the Berklee Performance Center in Boston and last month at Town Hall in Manhattan.
“It has left the churches and the yoga studios because it’s such a simple practice,” said Krishna Das, 61, who grew up on Long Island as Jeff Kagel and traveled to India in the early 1970s. “It’s not about belief in any religions, so people are coming from all walks of life. You give it a try and if it works, you’re in fat city. If not, you do something else.”
Although kirtan is rooted in India’s devotional religions and involves chanting the names of God, Krishna Das says the practice requires no allegiance to any deity or set of beliefs, and he is dismayed that many associate the chant “Hare Krishna” with people who begged on the streets and danced in airports in the 1970s.
He recalled the chant he led at a medium-security prison in Virginia. “The group was pretty into it,” he said. “They were clapping and chanting along, and then as soon as I sang ‘Hare Krishna’ they all looked at each other and went, Oh, that’s what he is. And they just stopped singing and stopped participating. That was just terrible.”
But as more Americans are introduced to chanting through yoga classes, they’re warming up to the practice. Take Dennis Antrobus, 56, a programmer/analyst for Société Générale bank. Mr. Antrobus checked out Jivamukti’s kirtan after chanting in his yoga classes at the center. “At first it felt really weird doing these chants, but after awhile I realized, ‘Oh, I like this,’ ” said Mr. Antrobus, who has been attending kirtan in New York for four years.
He occasionally takes along bank colleagues, with mixed results. “It’s the kind of thing that you have to find your own way to,” he said.
Yoga centers report an increase in the number of people who wish to lead the chants, though only a handful of kirtan artists earn a living at their craft. On a recent Wednesday night at Jivamukti, Sruti Ram and Ishwari played for about 30 people, who each presumably put $10 in the suggested donation basket. Not enough to quit a day job, but Ishwari, a k a Lynn Keller, said she netted more in suggested donations and CD sales than she did when she performs pop music in clubs like CBGB’s Gallery.
This is because the people who come to kirtan participate in the event, rather than simply pay the two-drink minimum and watch, she said. “There’s kind of a bad attitude in regular music,” said Ms. Keller, 48, an interfaith minister and real-estate agent. “People have this idea that they shouldn’t have to pay for things. But in kirtan there’s more to it. You take more responsibility for your actions.”
After the chanting was over and participants had neatly stashed their pillows and blankets on the shelf in back at the Integral institute, Mrs. Breighner’s face glowed liked she had had a massage. “I didn’t realize it would be so energizing and that the chanting would be so rich,” she said. “You could just sit and let it just wash over you or you could really take part in it.”
Ms. Damon, who declined to give her age because she is an actor, agreed. “It was really exciting to watch how the group had such different reactions, from being still to bouncing off the walls, and that was it was O.K. for everyone,” she said. “There was no judgment,”
When asked if they were compelled to jump up and dance, Mrs. Breighner, who also declined to give her age, looked pensive.
“I’m a foot-tapper,” she said.