Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast in Queensland have become the Mecca of Kirtan meditation in Australia. The skeptical mind tends to dominate and inhibit the emotional/spiritual mind. Kirtan is the yoga par excellence for reversing this process through blocking and dissolving such patterns of consciousness. Hence, Kirtan lives up to Patanjali’s definition of Yoga: ‘Yogaschitta vritti nirodha’ — ‘To block the patterns of consciousness is yoga’.
Kirtan does this through bypassing the intellect and directly opening and filling the hearts of the kirtanists with love. Kirtan is musical meditation involving the repetition of melodic mantras designed to evoke devotion to and identification with higher consciousness. It takes the form of a caller-responder approach to chanting, melody, mantras and rhythm. The caller leads the chant, by typically playing the Kirtan on a harmonium and the group participants respond to the caller collectively by echoing back the chant.
My experience of Kirtan began in 1976 in a Sydney Yoga Ashram. I fell in love with Kirtan instantly. As I participated in it, I became aware of my emotions. They started to flow, swell, become increasingly positive, balanced and blissful. I soon bought a harmonium and have played Kirtan on it for the last 42 years. Kirtan tunes me up emotionally and spiritually, energises and focuses me and makes me feel cheerful. Kirtan is now my meditation practice of choice.
I’ve learned that Kirtan’s power stems from its seamless integration in itself of the most important elements of numerous branches of yoga, the eight steps of progression into Samadhi of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, its use of music, with its melody, beats and mantras and the immense energy stemming from the collective communion in the Kirtan process. Patanjali’s eight-fold path (or limbs, as they are often commonly known) act as guidelines on how you can live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a moral and ethical compass, directing attention towards the individual’s health.
The first branch, yama, addresses your ethical standards and your sense of integrity. Through this I have been able to focus on my behaviour and how to conduct myself in life. There are five yamas — ahimsa (nonviolence); satya (truthfulness); asteya (nonstealing); brachmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (noncovetousness). In short these are the ‘do unto others…’ principles for which you should live your life.
The second branch, niyama, is that which promotes faith; getting you to develop a sense of spirit and encouraging you to make a habit out of personal meditation practices. Just like the yamas, there are five niyamas helping you tap your higher power.
If you’re familiar with yoga you know of the asanas — the postures practised. These comprise the third branch, and in Kirtain the participants chant while sitting in a meditation posture, or stretch their bodies through dancing. The abdominal muscles and the vocal cords also receive a good hatha yoga workout. Which leads you into the fourth branch, the pranayama — generally translated as breath control. In this stage you will engage in deep breathing exercises for the diaphragm, lungs and the heart. You learn how to take deep, yogic breaths involving abdominal and thoracic breathing.
The detachment and withdrawal of the senses and the expansion of consciousness into the realm of subtler higher stages as it progressively brings the singers under its enchanting spell, is what makes up the fifth branch known as pratyahara. If you’ve ever wanted to take a step back and look at yourself, this level of withdrawal will allow you to do so objectively. The practise of pratyahara creates the perfect platform for the sixth branch, dharana. This is where you will hold your mind at one point, as the kirtanists get absorbed in the process of listening to and singing the mantras according to the tune and rhythm of the particular chant.
Dhyana or meditation, is the seventh stage, and the singers attain an unbroken flow of concentration on the singing and the listening to the mantras. By the time you reach this stage, your mind has been quieted to such a point you will have few or no thoughts at all.
Kirtan reaches the peak experience, samadhi, at step eight, when the kirtanists’ consciousness merges with the object of meditation: singing. There is no longer awareness of the I and the you, just the whole group’s merging into the singular consciousness of the chanting itself, beyond the limited selves.
Kirtan has been scientifically shown to stimulate the production of telomerase enzymes, which are responsible for replenishing the chemical substance that is necessary for healthy chromosome divisions in order to avoid cancerous divisions, a host of chronic diseases and the ravages of ageing. Thus Kirtan is a vital scientifically proven rejuvenating practice.
It is a communal, mutually interconnected, democratic and egalitarian process (the callers alternate) rather than just being a one way, downward teaching. Maybe this is why it appeals to me, and maybe it is the perfect yoga for the over-60s.