One of my most favorite things about going to church is singing. Whether it's belting out a hymn or the softer sounds of the liturgy, raising my voice in praise to the divine is pure, unadulterated joy. I might not have the best voice, but my enthusiasm makes up for an occasional wrong note. It's the spirit that counts, right?
Recently, I've discovered the joys of chanting through the practice of yoga. Chanting is common to many spiritual practices, from Gregorian Christians to Buddhists. Yogis say that "Om" is the perfect sound, containing all other sounds of the universe, and scholars believe "Om" is the basis for the Hebrew word "Amen", used to end a prayer or statement of faith and affirm its truth. But regardless of its etymology, combining deep breathing with chanting "Om," settles and focuses my mind in preparation for meditation or the often demanding postures of yoga.
Kirtan, part of the "yoga of devotion," is the practice of sacred call-and-repeat chanting. The word kirtan means to glorify. Usually performed in Sanskrit, kirtan sets phrases and poems of devotion to music, which the chant leader sings. The audience then repeats the chants.
"That's for me," I said to myself when I learned that the duo Shantala would be performing and holding a workshop in Jackson. Like all devotional music, kirtan carries "participants into heightened states of awareness, bliss and devotion," I read on the Shantala Web site.
Could I stand a few hours of bliss?
The stage was set at the Lemuria.com building, where authors hold readings and book signings. The lights low, the air was fragrant with sage and exotic incense. Barkly, the mellowest dog I've ever met, padded softly among the participants as we took our seats. Instruments and drums, exotic and familiar, filled the stage, and ShantalaHeather and Benjy Wertheimerseated themselves on cushions. Benjy preceded each chant with a story, one from his personal experiences, a story about a Hindu deity, or he described and translated the next chant.
Then Heather's crystalline soprano filled the air. We began by simply singing "Om," described by Benjy as, "the primordial sound of creation," and then moved into "Om Namah Shivaya," which roughly translates as, "Salutations to that which I am capable of becoming," or "I offer myself to the Light." Not a bad way to begin. The instruments and voices wove through and around the space, entwining the otherworldly scale, harmonies and words.
What followed was, as advertised, a couple of hours of bliss, each chant repeated many times, allowing my constantly-in-motion mind to calm and empty as I closed my eyes to concentrate on the music I was hearing and singing. I couldn't help but grin when we chanted, "Because the one I love lives inside of you, I lean as close to you as I can." The time flew by.
The Wertheimers have been playing together as Shantala for a little over nine years, Benjy told me the following day, but his interest in Indian music goes back to when he was in high school in the '70s. His "long, convoluted path," to kirtan includes stints writing music for soap operas and developing software, while hers includes many years of teaching yoga, playing guitar, singing and writing music.
"In the music world, especially in the L.A. scene and the soap-opera world, it's so much about getting noticed," Benjy said, which began to run counter to what they wanted to do with their music. Kirtan is about creating harmony and community, and their practicealong with their intimate knowledge of Indian musichas brought them international celebrity both as a duo and individually. Shantala's 2004 CD "Church of Sky," was a top-10 new-age album, and Benjy's "Circle of Fire" reached No. 1 on the New Age radio charts in 2002. Both have toured extensively as Shantala, and individually with superstars of the New Age and Indian music genres.
The practice of Kirtan is certainly spiritual, though it is not what the practitioners consider religious. "Religion has to do with the dogmatic explanations about the nature of the cosmos," Benjy said, "whereas spiritual is much more oriented toward the mystical ends of things, where you attempt to make direct contact with that divine energy, however you personally define it. Whether you're coming from a Christian perspective, a Jewish perspective, a Hindu perspective, a Buddhist perspective, a Muslim perspective, it doesn't matter." His studies of world religions has convinced Benjy that mystics in the various traditions are much closer in their thinking than many would believe. "They have so much about connecting with the divine," he said.
Both Benjy and Heather have family members who are born-again Christians, they told me, and they are able to connect, Heather says, "on a love level."
"Kirtan means celebration," Benjy says, "and that's really what it's all about."
Learn more about kirtan and Shantala on shantalamusic.com.