What is Kirtan?
Kirtan is the calling, the crying, the reaching across infinite space — digging into the heart’s deepest well to touch and be touched by the Divine Presence.
Kirtan is singing over and over the many names of God and the Goddess, the multi-colored rainbow manifestations of the One. It is said that there is no difference between the name and that which is being named, and as the words roll off our lips in song, the Infinite is invoked, invited, made manifest in our hearts.
Kirtan and devotion
Kirtan is part of an ancient form of Yoga known as Bhakti, or the Yoga of Devotion. But in Bhakti we redefine “devotion”, we expand the meaning to include every shade of color in the palette of human emotion, turned towards God through song, dance, and worship. These chants have been sung for millennium by sages, sinners, devotees, and the great primordial yogi alchemists of old. And, as we sing, we touch the spirits of the millions of people across the centuries who have sung the same songs and cried the same tears. As we sing, we immerse ourselves in an endless river of prayer that has been flowing since the birth of the first human beings, longing to know their creator.
Kirtan and release
Kirtan is a vessel that can hold love, longing, union, separation, lust, despair, mourning, anger, hate, sadness, ecstasy, and oneness. Powered by the fire of these emotions, the chants of Bhakti become like a ship, singing us to the other shore. In lightness, in darkness, in despair, in joy we sing the names — The Name — and turn our human hearts toward the One, who is closer to us than our own breath. Kirtan is food for the spirit, a life raft of song.
Kirtan is for all people. There are no masters of kirtan, no experts, no teachers, no advanced students, no beginners. The practice itself is the teacher, guiding us to ourselves. Kirtan teaches itself by allowing us to enter into a mystery world — a world where all the logic of our minds, all the conditioning and learning are left outside — and we allow ourselves to expand into the mystery.
And in this mystery, we create a temple inside of our hearts, a place of refuge, a place of love, a place of being, a place of sanctity… whatever we need.
Kirtan and freedom
There is no right or wrong way to sing kirtan. Kirtan can be breathtakingly beautiful, the music can be stunning and masterful; and it can be cacophonous, dissonant, and almost painful to the ears. Aesthetics don’t matter. All that matters is the spirit, the feeling. Don’t worry about what you sound like, feel whatever you feel, have no expectations, no inhibitions. Kirtan is an oil well digging deeper and deeper into the heart. A power tool of love and longing. A train carrying us home. Make these kirtans your own prayers and use their power to set fire to your own soul. We sing together and each person has a totally unique, individual experience. Yet by singing together we give strength, safety and passion to each other, and give ourselves permission to sing and dance freely, releasing and expressing through our voices and bodies, the emotions tightly locked in our hearts. The pain of separation is one with the bliss of union.
Kirtan as an offering
And finally kirtan is an offering, a gift to the great One who has given us everything, and to whom we can give nothing in return but our loving remembrance.
Come experience the sacred transformative power of Kirtan. Jai Uttal hosts Everday Bhakti – Walk in Devotion at the Art of Living Retreat Center from March 15th-17th, 2019.
Jai Uttal is a Grammy-nominated sacred music composer, a recording artist, multi-instrumentalist and ecstatic vocalist. He blends Indian influences with American rock and jazz to create a stimulating and exotic fusion known as world spirit music. For Jai, music and spiritual practice are inextricably linked; earlier in his life he learnt the power of kirtan from the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, and he now practices, performs and teaches kirtan and sacred music around the world. Find out more at www.jaiuttal.com
This article first appeared on JaiUttal.com and is reposted with permission from the author.
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
In House: Wah & James Leary Pt. 2
This April, The Art of Living Retreat Center hosted the transformational Life Qi Renewal Retreat – a four-day journey to learn self-healing and Qi healing protocols headed by the dynamic duo of Dr. James Leary and Wah. We recently spoke to them about their experiences at the Retreat Center, the power of Kirtan, or mantra chanting, and the magic of the mountain. Read Part 1 here.
AOLRC: You’re both such extraordinary people, who happen to be teachers and great communicators and facilitators yourself – what is the experience of coming and teaching together? What’s it like to fuse each of your energies, your intellects, your spirituality?
Wah: There’s an activation that happens between us. James will open up a certain energy, and I’ll expand upon it. Someone will go through a really intense experience, and I’ll be able to work from that with questions – Where do we take it from here? How do you integrate that experience? What are you going to do? Are you going to take soothing food, soothing energy? I’ll take those questions as far as they can go, and then James will take over from there with particular techniques.
That doesn’t only happen in our teachings, but in our lives as well. It’s an activation, it’s a back-and-forth. It’s like any other good relationship: you do your part, and I’ll do my part, and that’s how community works. If you don’t do your part, then community doesn’t move forward, so it’s as though each person has a chance to add their little piece to the puzzle.
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World
AOLRC: You have a curriculum you’ve defined, but it also sounds as if within this framework, there’s an enormous expansiveness, an unpredictability, a mystery of the unfolding that you reach – ebb and flow with each other, and get into places that you might otherwise not get to, had you not been there, getting into it together.
Wah: Well, between us, we have quite the global experience – I’ve got knowledge and experience from India, and James has experience from Mongolia and China. Combining medical practices with Ayurveda and yoga from India is a fascinating thing to explore. These teachings all originated from the same places and became different over time. The foundations of these teachings are the same globally. So we take the things we know, and approach them from different disciplines, and trace them back to the common source. It’s fun! And to see where the development of these practices is going – There’s yoga for scoliosis – that’s not in the vatas. There’s yoga for addiction recovery. We treat autism, downs, et cetera – there are so many modern ways to apply ancient knowledge, and we love to explore that.
James: The basic core of many eastern teachings come from the Northern Himalayas. The teachers spread out to share this knowledge and wealth, to allow this growth of the world. And so, over the millennia, people have taken these things and done what they would with them. There is a lot of culture that we still can’t uncover about that time, but the teachings we do know stand true. Six thousand plus years later, they’re still relevant. What really gets me cracking up in the West is that we refer to it as “alternative” medicine, when modern medicine is really only a few hundred years old.
Wah: Modern medicine, really, is the alternative.
James: Of course, we’ve really increased the ability to save lives with trauma medicine, but for spirituality and natural healing, it’s these ancient practices that seem to be the most transformative for people. I think that it should be more mainstream. With a facility like this and the background of it – I love the fact that there’s no alcohol, smoking, or drug use allowed here. It sets such a beautiful energy for learning, for assimilating, for letting people take it in and make it theirs. In a lot of places you don’t find it.
AOLRC: You mentioned that in Sanskrit there are two separate words for health, and in English we have a hard time translating that because we just don’t think that way. We think of health in the singular. It’s like you used to have these two concepts – one is being alive, and another one is not being sick. The western world is happy to think of health as “not-sickness”.
James: With everything going on in the world right now, people are coming to understand, in the last 20 years especially, what’s been surrounding them. They’re opening themselves up to different spiritual and healing modalities. They’re getting back to where they’re feeling things again for the first time. Not so much just touch, or the physical aspects of healing, but also the spiritual and energetic. In western medicine and science, if you can’t produce empirical evidence; evidence you can see, smell, taste; it’s not real. But we know that there are other things in the world that are tangible that you can work with, and that many, many people, all over the world, can actually see, feel, and manipulate these energies, and use them for good and healing.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
In House: Wah & James Leary Pt. 1
This April, The Art of Living Retreat Center hosted the transformational Life Qi Renewal Retreat – a four-day journey to learn self-healing and Qi healing protocols headed by the dynamic duo of Dr. James Leary and Wah. We recently spoke to them about their experiences at the Retreat Center, the power of Kirtan, or mantra chanting, and the magic of the mountain.
Letting Go of What Isn’t Yours
AOLRC: What’s the goal that you strive to achieve while teaching?
Wah: Our goal is to generate the highest energy that we can, through the practices that we know, and then hold space for people to experience that energy and heal in that safe, protected space.
James: I try to explore how we connect to spirituality, and how we connect to nature. Society really drives us away from that kind of reflection these days. Everything is so fast, but coming up here to the Retreat Center is so powerful, because it’s a place where you can let go, regroup, and grasp the spirituality of nature and of the self. With our program, we try to get people to look at themselves, to see what’s truly theirs and what’s not theirs, and learn how to let go of the things that aren’t for them. It’s like any kind of program – it takes time, effort, and space to make it yours.
Being up here, even for the short program, is fantastic. It’s a place where you’re being held by the mountain, by the energy here, and by the wonderful staff and environment. That’s what we do. We hold this space for you to allow that developmental energy to come out in a way that is wholly yours.
AOLRC: Can you speak more about recognizing what is ours and not ours, and letting go of that?
James: Everything we do has an emotional undercurrent to it, whether we like it or not. Whether we’re able to see it or not, everything has emotion attached to it – good, bad, or indifferent. In our practice and in our work, we deal with the energies that our ours. What are the things that we take on, even in the womb, that aren’t ours? We try to take on how these energies are affecting us and what it means to raise your vibration and consciousness above that, how to let go in a way that you can begin to breathe. It’s a powerful thing to identify what truly is yours, and to realize that no one can take that away from you. It’s all about recognizing who you are in any given moment, and your connection to that greater Source.
The Power of Kirtan
AOLRC: Can you speak about the Kirtan, the chanting of mantra? What drew you to this approach?
Wah: It’s a mild engagement of the mind. If you generate a lot of higher energy, things inside of you start to shift, including your beliefs. In our workshop, people are practically popping with emotion – there are tears and openings and pain, there’s so many realizations that are happening, and it’s very intense.
Mantra chanting can be a nice way to assimilate. In other words, you do your work, and something inside of you transforms, and suddenly you’re like “uh-oh! I have no idea who I am right now. This is not my normal. How do I put myself back together?” But you don’t want to force something back together – you want to allow yourself to float, and to find new, better, healthier ways to connect. The mantra-chanting comes in here – it’s a mild engagement, you just begin chanting, and there’s no storyline to it. It’s just words of praise, a positive affirmation, and so you keep it running through your system. We call it spiritual dialysis.
My own first experience with mantra chanting came at a vulnerable time in my life – I was 16 and traveling all over the world. I’m empathic, so I was feeling all of these feelings that weren’t mine, and then I found mantra and immediately I was like “Ah! This is it! This is good!” I have a lot of longing for God, and I was witnessing people singing to God. I grew up in the South, in a Baptist Church, and you know, singing is how you express wonderment. Mantra was the Indian version of that. Chanting mantra is a way into meditation. I always say to do yoga until you’re tired, and then start singing. Chant mantra and sing, and keep singing until you lose your voice, and then sit in silence.
AOLRC: After you discovered mantra, is that when silence came?
Wah: I’m not a silent person. I love silence, but if it gets too quiet or too somber, I get nervous. I go into cancer wards or into a hospital and people are very careful or fearful or they don’t want to talk too loud or disturb anyone. But my teachers, in mantra, made a lot of noise. And that was vibrant and exciting – this exuberance for God, exuberance for a higher energy, for freedom, for kindness, for compassion, for helping others. I think there should be more enthusiasm for that.
Mantra is for Everyone
AOLRC: Do you feel that there’s an audience that relates more to this approach, or do you feel that it’s a universal approach that anyone can connect to?
James: There are many ways to look at mantra. I share a lot of mantra in my work, and there are certain words, or ideas of focus. What can we use to bring us to a certain focus? The Kirtan, with music, with mantras, is an idea of focus. You might not understand what the words are, but you’re going to feel them.
It’s a cross-cultural thing – we’ve worked all across the globe and we’ve never really found people who haven’t connected to that in some way. If you’re willing to sit through your preconceived notions and open up a little, it’s a powerful experience. Everyone is searching for a higher level, and trying to find something with truth in it. Something that’s going to be lasting. Mantra is that, for us.
The first mantra is typically “Out with the old, in with the new.” Getting the old out is really not that difficult. It can be a lot of fun, or it can be really intense, but it’s totally doable. What kind of new do we want to replace it with? That’s the exciting part. It makes you want to think about what your dreams really are. What never came to fruition? Allowing this to come through now and get us more into our different paths opens up to the art of personal spirituality with the universe. That’s where the magic happens. There is no such thing as white or black magic – everything is magic in the universe. The only difference is intention.
That thought of “why are we here? why do I exist?” is present in so many people’s minds. We have jobs, lives, families, but we’re always still searching. There’s something else that we’re grasping for. It’s really unique to be able to bring people closer to their dreams and hold space for them. That’s one of the things that I share and that Wah shares with people – “make it yours”. When you make it yours, that’s when magic really takes off, and it’s so much fun. We call it the Work, and when the Work really happens, it’s magic, because it’s about everybody.
Wah: Everybody. Every person of every age. Everyone has a dream or a hope that they want to come forward, and there’s usually something blocking it. That’s part of being alive. So, when you come and you are part of this retreat, you get support and courage to drop the old way of doing things and learn to move into the new.
AOLRC: How would you guide someone who wanted to set out to learn mantra chanting and to learn to sing, to be part of this practice? What would you say to someone who was sitting at home, who didn’t have this environment around them, on how to get started?
Wah: One of James’ favourite mantras is “Show me”. It’s a prayer. If you want to go in a certain direction, you know you want to get there, so you ask the universe – “show me.” Show me how to get there. Show me what I need to now. Show me what I can learn next. And then, a door opens. That’s how you start.
The Magic of the Mountain
AOLRC: How is teaching at the Art of Living Retreat Center different from your previous courses?
James: The mountain is very energetic – and that energy is something that anybody can come and experience. The energy of the nature here has this way of bringing people into it and awakening so much inside of you.
Wah: We do teach at a lot of retreat centers. Some are more intellectually-focused, offering a lot of learning materials and nurturing that side of the practice. I found the Art of Living to be a really heart-centered retreat center; it’s a place that welcomes you wholly. The wisdom here doesn’t necessarily come from books or scholarly discussion of spiritual concepts – it comes from the Earth itself. There is magic here. It was used as a meditation center before it’s current incarnation, so you can feel a lot of beautiful meditative energy here, an energy that is easy to tap into for support for transformation.
The Art of Living Retreat Center is a beautiful place to reset and renew. Everybody here is so welcoming, and the food is lovely and Ayurvedic, soothing to the system. People love the spa, too – you can have an oil massage, an Ayurvedic treatment or consultation – pottery, different things you can do. You can come just for R&R or you can come to study with people like us, and the place is big enough to accommodate all of it.
James: It’s a hidden jewel up here, you know. It’s about the mountain – because everything sits on it, there’s an incredible energy here. It’s expansive. There’s just so much life here.
Wah: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar did something very kind and noble with rescuing this place. By recognizing that this place needed to be saved and rekindled, and putting his glance on this land and his intention, that it should be used to help people.
James: On a fun note, at a recent Kirtan, a number of people were saying that you could actually feel Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s energy. You could feel his presence, and it was something that was incredibly beautiful. It was just great – everyone smiling. People were coming up and giving hugs. It was a blessed event. It’s so beautiful to have a living master that blesses this facility and the people and programs and the future.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
Exploring Wisdom: Wah! on Developing Energetic Resonance
Last week, Wah!, musician, leader, healer, and Art of Living Retreat Center workshop host, shared her thoughts on energy and healing. Today, she shares three ways that you can develop and hone your own energetic resonance so that you, too, can begin to experience healing from within.
Give and you shall receive. The Universe is a living, breathing, evolving entity, which can and will respond to any energy you initiate. If you put out bad energy, the Universe will respond and magnify it. If you share good energy, the Universe will respond and magnify it. Knowing how to magnify and build energy is something we call building energetic resonance. It’s like stretching dough at a pizza pie factory. Like pushing waves of water. It’s like the wax-on, wax-off practices in the Karate Kid movie. If you can move and build physical things, you will learn how to move and build energetic substances, which is the whole idea behind healing.
Here are three suggestions to help you learn and develop energetic resonance.
Sit idle for 5 minutes during the day, and allow your mind to slow down. You can watch nature, watch a fish tank, lie on a hammock and allow yourself to space out or daydream – in other words, allow yourself to move into alpha brainwaves. This is healthy for the brain. This is not walking the dog or reading a magazine. Find neutral, be idle, body relaxed, eyes open. You can watch birds and trees, wait for a bus, or even do this on public transportation.
Being idle is the brainwave state that leads to meditation, and allows the body to rejuvenate, repair the immune system, and release healthy hormones. Knowing how to relax and move into slower brainwaves is essential in healing practices.
Resonance needs space to expand into, and patience to give it time to build. Energy won’t flow in places of congestion. When you begin something, learn to guide, breathe, and love it into existence. This is homework – I call it ‘Zen and the Art of Living Happily With Your Own Energy’. There are many tools for mental relaxation; if you need more tools, just ask! If you have a meditation practice, feel free to discuss the feelings resulting from that practice and ways to improve it with either myself or Dr. Leary – that’s what our class is for! I’ve created many guided visualizations you can listen to on a regular basis for assistance with relaxation.
Make it bigger and better. Ask the Universe for more of the good stuff. If you are praising food, go into more detail. If you want to appreciate your partner, elaborate! Go on, tell them all about it – every detail you love and appreciate about them. Use repetition and add extra words, energy, and feeling to fill the space around the idea. Do it with words and conversation first, and later on, you’ll learn how to do it with energy.
Like the pizza pie maker, stretch your Qi. Take longer steps when you walk (really, it’s not as easy as you think!). Listen to someone without interrupting, giving advice, or commentary. Hold space so they can feel their energy. Stretch your arms overhead and say “Ahhhh!” Do it right now! “Ahhhhhh!”
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
Exploring Wisdom: Wah! on Energy & Healing
Wah!, musician, leader, healer, and Art of Living Retreat Center workshop host, knows that in order to heal the world, you must first learn to heal yourself. In this first of two posts, she shares her wisdom and strategies for amplifying your own energy and healing yourself.
When you learn about healing, your first job is to learn to heal yourself. Through yoga, meditation, and other practices, you come to understand that you have the ability to summon beautiful healing energy and direct it to different parts of the body.
In meditation, you learn to breathe, cleanse the mind, visualize light, and feel loving emotions of compassion and caring for yourself and others. In yoga, you activate the life force (prana) by chanting Om, and doing breathing practices (pranayama) and postures to move the energy through the body. You can further add to the fun by engaging energy locks (bandhas), and sealed energy postures (mudras).
Creating Space & Finding Energy
Whatever way you explore healing, the first step is learning how to find the energy. When you’re tired, you know you need energy, but you don’t know where to find it. I’ve got news for you: it’s everywhere. All the time. Mother Nature is always renewing herself, and that flowing energy is always available. You have to focus your mind and relax to find it. That’s the whole purpose of a daily spiritual practice; you have to find the good energy regardless of the mood you’re in.
How can you engage this energy? The first ingredient for any healing method is creating space. You create space inside of the body, openness in your mind, trust and innocence in your heart. You wholeheartedly welcome the new way. This is how energy begins, so make space for it – clean your closets, your brain, your heart, and shine your inner light. It’s out with the old, and in with the new, all the time.
Magnifying Your Flow
When energy starts to flow, you can use it, amplify it, build it, direct it. You can tap into the energy of creation and start learning how to flow with it. It’s as easy as doing something you like, and then doing more of it. The more you do, the more you like, the better it gets. It’s just like falling in love. When you add to it, it magnifies, and more of it comes back to you.
When you use energy flow to magnify substance, you build more of what you want. Building energetic resonance is not adding new flows of energy, but simply expanding the energy you already have. You can compare it to a bank account – you’re not opening a new one, but just expanding the one that you have. Like making a pizza pie. Like whipping egg whites. Something is added to create more substance. You might call it air; we call it Qi – it’s your energy that makes the difference.
Let your energy flow in your body like a river. Let the energy flow through your house. Make it beautiful. Make it spacious, and move within your body like it’s your home. It’s your energy; call it in, direct, build, and amplify it.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.