What is kirtan? Kirtan is a call-and-response type of singing that is performed in certain devotional traditions.
Lots of kirtans in the West are performed in yoga studios. I have been searching for a good kirtan class for most of the year. Finally the stars aligned and my chance to experience one became reality. A yogi friend named Sal let me know about a kirtan that was taking place at a local yoga studio with Shubalananda! He went on to tell me Shubal (as they call him) is a rare old-school kirtan wallah who has studied for over 30 years with many masters. A wallah is the leader of the kirtan.
Before attending I Facebooked Sal to inquire about what I should bring. A mat, blanket, water, etc? He replied with, “Bring only your soul.” I thought to myself, Wow this is going to be an experience, to say the least.
I don’t think of myself as a good singer. I love to sing more than anything in the world, but I certainly am not comfortable singing in front of others. Though I knew I had to do this; I had to step outside of my comfort zone and take this class.
When I arrived at the kirtan, Sal told me to grab some blankets and have a seat on the floor. In the front of the class sat Shubal and his band. One girl was playing drums (tablas) while another was playing the keyboard (harmonium). Shubal started with some instructions, just explaining that what we were about to experience was call and response, and we would just be repeating what he said. The first few songs took some getting used to but 15 minutes into the class, I was clapping, singing, swaying and actually feeling mindless.
Between each song Shubal would speak of spiritual lessons and experiences from his intriguing life. During this time, I learned from Shubal that kirtan is a spiritual practice similar to meditation but considered by some to be much more enjoyable because it involves singing, and singing, he says, makes you thoughtless. This is such a profound thing! This is probably why music has such a huge and powerful impact on our lives. He went on to explain that when you are singing you are unable to think. During the kirtan I tried to think my normal crazy stream of thoughts and I WAS unable. Shubal was right!
My favorite part of the kirtan was when the music would build with intensity and everyone in the room would become very animated and loud. At one point a girl got up and started spinning around the room! Just then I thought to myself that music really is all about the magic!