In December 2013, my sister and I decided to go on a meditation retreat for New Year's. Disclaimer: I had never meditated before in my life.
I was pretty worried that I wasn't going to be able to sit still, and that my mind would be consumed by constant anxiety and frustration. Honestly, I was freaked out. But after a lot of convincing on the part of my dear sis, we took the long bus ride up north to a Buddhist retreat center, nestled in the snowy Catskill Mountains.
On my first day there I felt like the new kid at school. During the long, very intense day of lectures and guided meditations, my sister and I decided to go to an optional "Kirtan" gathering — a call-and-response style of chanting, typically with ancient Sanskrit mantras often accompanied by a harmonium and other classical Indian instruments.
Kirtan was derived from the spiritual path of Bhakti in Hinduism — a practice that cultivates divine devotion and love. The chanting in Kirtan is a call to connect with (and become one with) the divine.
I wasn't expecting much from Kirtan — I thought it might serve as a nice distraction from the deafening silence of the mountains.
Little did I know that Kirtan would become literally one of my favorite things to do in the world — for both good old fashioned fun, not to mention deep emotional and spiritual healing. I am now a daily meditator, an avid Kirtan-goer and a much happier person.
I was (and still am) totally baffled by how Kirtan is able to help open up and balance the Heart Chakra — the loving energy center located in the heart center. The Heart Chakra (Anahata) is the place of love, compassion and connection. When this chakra is blocked, we find it difficult to connect to others and can feel withdrawn and fundamentally separate from other beings. When I first tried Kirtan, I was deep in a bout of depression, anxiety and antisocial tendencies. My Heart Chakra was definitely blocked and needed some serious healing.
There are plenty of ways to begin healing your Heart Chakra so that you can tap into your ability to give and receive love. The positive vibes of a Kirtan community allows you to feel safe enough to literally let your heart sing.
Here are five ways Kirtan will heal your Heart Chakra and help you find more love and connection in your life.
1. It's actually a form of meditation.
Meditating is hard and I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. There is an unarguable solitary element to most meditation practices that can feel really scary!
Kirtan presents an alternative — either for those who want to "work up to" meditating in a more traditional sense, or for those who simply want to feel the joy, sense of community and spiritual energy generated by devotional chanting.
Like the practice of silently repeating a phrase or visualization to oneself during meditation, Kirtan involves the repetition of simple mantras. For instance, the well-known Tibetan Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is said to contain all of the teachings of the Buddha in a single utterance. Repeating these phrases is a way of "quieting the mind."
In Kirtan however, the challenge of meditating solo is mitigated by the fact that you are surrounded by loving, welcoming people. The healing power of the music will also help you to be fully present and aware.
It may sound ironic — given that Kirtan sessions can be really crowded and loud — but Kirtan is indeed a meditation. It will inevitably connect you to your present experience (and even offer a kind of transcendence) and that connection is essential for an opening of the Heart Chakra.
2. There's an opportunity for free expression.
Kirtan can heal more than just the heart — the Throat Chakra (Vishuddha) is also opened up during the repetitive singing and chanting. As the energy center for communication, self-expression and speaking the truth, Kirtan is therapy for our Throat Chakra and therefore, our ability to speak directly from the heart.
During one chant in particular, I realized that I was actually yelling at the top of my lungs, without even realizing it. That's when my sister tapped my shoulder and laughed at me. To my amazement, I was not embarrassed in the least. I was so in the zone that I just kept on chanting and having the time of my life.
At Kirtan, you get the chance to get your vocal chords moving, to feel super excited and energetic with other people you probably haven't met before, and may not ever see again. It's a chance to connect with what "oneness" means and sometimes, even a "divine presence."
Kirtan can mean something different to everyone. And inviting yourself into the present moment with open, accepting arms will no doubt heal your heart center.
3. It is insanely fun and social.
Kirtan involves but is not limited to: singing, swaying, dancing, clapping and snapping.
I promise that if you try Kirtan you will smile at least once — and most likely will smile and/or make eye contact with a fellow chanter. Kirtan almost always feels like a giant party. What better way to overcome separation, anxiety, or depression and experience a greater sense of unity, than to attend a spiritual party?
In other words, you can meditate while you party.
4. You are shown how to give and receive.
The Heart Chakra governs our ability to give love and receive love in a healthy, balanced way that doesn't feel toxic. The Law of Giving and Receiving instructs that in order to receive love, we need to be able to give love.
Kirtan provides an amazing opportunity to see this law in action — and I'm not trying to be too New Age-y or "quacky" as my sister often likes to say — the immediate sense of community that is established in the call-and-response of Kirtan is transformative. So in order to receive that energy, every participant needs to bring in their energy first. This can take place in the form of simply showing up or expressing a genuine smile.
5. You will learn to be open and embrace vulnerability.
That first time I went to Kirtan, I was preemptively mortified — even before it began — about my lack of musical abilities and unfamiliarity with Sanskrit. But I was totally misguided ... all that was required of me was to be open to the experience.
You can go to Kirtan and quietly say the mantras to yourself if you are feeling shy, and still pick up on the powerful vibes from around the room. Or, you can scream at the top of your lungs like I did! You can dance during some parts of the chant, clap at others and of course, sing your heart out when you want to.
If you allow yourself to experiment — to try Kirtan with an open mind (even if it's just somewhat) — you will unblock that Heart Chakra of yours, for sure.
The word "ecstasy" etymologically means exiting from a state of stasis — the very basis of Kirtan. We are lifted out of our routines and invited into a world of greater energy, community, fun, inspiration, mindfulness and presence. It creates a space of safety and ecstasy. How often is it that those two qualities coexist?