Spa Junkie on… kirtan by Bhavana

Our columnist rings the yoga changes and breaks into song at a Sanskrit chanting class

Image: Jan Yeo

Some call kirtan the yoga of emotions. It’s the name given to call-and-response group-chanting in Sanskrit, with musical accompaniment, and is akin to a sung-mass meditation. Traditionally, hatha yoga’s physical poses were the warm-up to hours of meditation, and kirtan is seen as one of those meditative paths to peace. Sessions promise to release emotional blockages and calm or uplift.

I’m at the Life Centre in Islington for a two-hour class with kirtan teacher Narayani Baker. When I arrive, she is sitting with her harmonium (a small portable organ), beside her husband Mat and his Indian drums. Together they tour the world as Bhavana, leading chanting sessions.

With around 20 others, we sit in a circle, ready for some “voice yoga”. “You may have come in feeling angry, but you’ll leave feeling peaceful,” says Brighton-based Baker. “There’s a point where you’ll stop singing and listen, and be taken to a higher place. That space is where you want to be.”

We begin our chanting – slowly, our eyes stuck to our chant sheets as we repeat after Baker. Soon, due to the repetitive nature of the words, I feel confident enough to close my eyes. The call-and-response chants are not dissimilar to those at the start of some yoga classes, but here the emphasis is on singing loud and proud. “When you lose your voice in a group you stop worrying how you sound,” says Baker, and she’s right. Although there are written translations of the chants, not understanding the language I’m singing means there are no meanings to distract me and I am truly in the moment.

According to Baker, it doesn’t really matter if we get the words wrong, or if we understand their meaning; we’ll still be able to feel their power. “The vibrations are one way we connect and can be affected.” I have meditated a fair amount, so find it fairly easy to lose myself in the chanting. It’s like my brain has switched off: I can no longer hear the white noise of daily worries whirring round my brain and feel myself relax into a sense of calm.

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When the class is over, I ask who the devotional singing is to. “Traditionally you would be singing to an Indian god or goddess, but kirtan can be seen as invoking a certain strength that each deity may represent, such as confidence or kindness.” Bhavana sing to the divine mother figure; someone else might sing to Lord Vishnu for peace. “When we sing ‘Shiva’ we are not speaking to Shiva but invoking Shiva, whose qualities are as much human as they are divine. We’re connecting to creativity.”

Baker encourages practising kirtan at home. She and Mat have made recordings of their chants, to play in your own space – just shut the door, turn up the volume and join in, says Baker. “Do this every day; it only has to be for five minutes – it’s here that transformation happens.”

The Bottom Line

Whereas in a yoga class, the only vibrations I can tune into are those of late people thumping along the floor as they scuttle in, the kirtan class gave me a real buzz – of connection and calm. I left feeling very happy and renewed. Those new to meditating might find it hard to reach that sense of calm at first, but it’s worth persevering. When you reach that higher place, it’s like switching off and rebooting for a fresh start. While voice yoga is no substitute for hatha or vinyassa, it’s a wonderful addition to those more physical disciplines.

Spa Junkie is the founder of FaceGym. She pays for all her own travel, accommodation and therapies. Follow her on Instagram@spajunkiechronicles.

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