Friday, January 3, 2014

Day 236 - Sanskrit Chanting


I have never participated in Sanskrit chanting. Frankly, I have never had a real desire to engage in such an activity throughout my life, but I have been intrigued by the practice in the few instances I have seen footage of Hindu chanting, also known as Kirtan, on television documentaries or in movies. Although my knowledge of Sanskrit chanting and Kirtan was limited to these infrequent experiences, each time I would encounter information about the practice individuals would speak to its ability to induce a state of relaxation and, in some cases, healing. Although I was plenty skeptical a sort of verbal meditation could create such effects, the consistency of the claims in the few sources of information regarding Kirtan I have encountered made me wonder if there was truly merit behind the idea. As a result, I decided I would give Sanskrit chanting a try when, after my recent experience with Zumba, I became aware a monthly chanting session was held at the local Center for Conscious Living. In turn, I checked my calendar and set aside time to experience Sanskrit chanting at the next available opportunity, which happened to fall on today’s date.

The (snowy) center entrance
With the Kirtan session scheduled to start at 7:30 tonight, I made my way to the Center for Conscious Living after eating dinner this evening. Although I arrived more than 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the event, a band of six people was already busy playing music and performing Hindu call and response chants on the nearby stage. As to not disturb the activity, I quietly made my way to a row of seating set in front of the band as the music carried on. I listened as three of the band members lightly tapped on hand drums and the leader of the chant sang prayers over simple melodies as he played a small squeeze box piano known as a harmonium. To his right two women sat before a microphone echoing the prayers sang moments prior. The sights and sounds of the group were immediately mesmerizing, which made it easy to settle in as the scheduled start time for the Sanskrit chanting session drew near.

The room quickly began filling with people in the minutes leading up to the start of the chanting event. As the clock rolled to 7:30, the man at the center of the stage welcomed everyone with a soft greeting before asking one of the women to his right to lead the group in a quiet blessing. Calling loud over the gathering group of people, the woman sang unfamiliar words in a foreign melody. Doing my best to keep up with her voice, I looked over the few pieces of paper containing the evening’s chants that had been placed around the seating area and followed along as I found my place. Remaining silent, I listened as a few members of the crowd joined the woman in her final pass of the blessing. Once finished, the woman turned to the man at the harmonium who was quick to thank her as he slowly began squeezing air into his instrument. With a few more words he guided the crowd to one of the pieces of paper containing a list of prayers as he began to play a simple refrain on his harmonium.

The band
 After several measures of the music, the man suddenly began to sing in a fluctuating melody that carried across the room. In response, the two women sitting to his side repeated the phrase in the same melodic movement as the man played through another measure of the refrain. This continued for some time with slight variation on the lyrics and melody, which caused the group around me to join in the response phrase sang by the women following each call made by the man with the harmonium. As the participation of the group swelled the man with the harmonium signaled to the drummers around him to increase the tempo of the music, forcing the prayer into a driving, rhythmic movement. Almost subconsciously, I began tapping my toe and nodding my head with the beat.  The movement was engaging and almost hypnotizing as they played, and the evening had just begun.

 Eventually, the man with the harmonium transitioned into several other phrases of prayer as the music whipped into a faster rhythm. The change caused several people in the group to rise to their feet and dance on the edges of the seating area at the center of the room. Although I was not moved to join them, it was clear the music had a meaningful effect on those in attendance, almost serving as a sort of release for each of them. This continued for some time until the man with the harmonium directed the band to bring the music to a close, which ended suddenly and transitioned into a loop of tranquil sitar music. The man spoke a few words of perspective over the slow music and directed the group to the next prayer with a new melody on his harmonium.

The opening prayer

The Kirtan chants

As the same general pattern of actions began again with a new melody and a new prayer, I closed my eyes and listened to the soothing, quiet music as it rolled over the crowd. After a few minutes I began to feel myself drift into a state of relaxation. Although I was aware of the happenings around me, I felt an unusual state of calm consume me. My mind growing quiet, I took deep breaths and absorbed the moment as I listened to the call and response of the Kirtan. Without question, I was entering a meditative state to the sound of the music, and the peace that came with it was definitely welcomed.

My trance-like state eventually broke when the music rose once more with a gradual increase in tempo. As before, the change in the music stirred the crowd to life. As they answered each prayer call with the same response, members of the group began moving their bodies to the beat and clapping their hands. The movement between meditation and celebration was somewhat unfamiliar, but it spoke to an unstated theme of the event. The people in attendance were there to take time to center, to celebrate life, and to live in the moment. The smiles on their faces and the passion they carried as they sang made it clear their effort was to find and maintain happiness through balance and their beliefs. Frankly, the persistence of that theme was something that delighted me, which made the evening fly by in what seemed a blink of an eye.

Nearing the end
Over two hours after we began, we had worked through a series of eight repeating prayers with uniquely beautiful melodies and wide variations in rhythm that kept the night alive. With a final blessing cast over us with a small flame, the session drew to an end with light-hearted group renditions of “This Little Light of Mine” and “Amazing Grace” against the unmistakable backdrop of the harmonium. The songs evoked a final feeling of joy from those in attendance as we gathered our belongings and prepared to leave for the night. Moved by the experience, I took my time to rise from my chair before quietly making my way for the door still stuck in my state of serenity.

As I found my way back home through the frigid air and bellowing winds I took time to assess my thoughts on the experience. It took little effort to realize that my mental state was akin to that following a relaxing massage, which was somewhat of a surprise to me. While I still remain skeptical about the long-term mental and health effects of things like Kirtan, I can honestly say my first experience with the practice was very successful in helping me relax. After a busy holiday season and a hectic week of work, that proved to be just what I needed, which has me thinking there is some merit to Kirtan; even if it only serves as a temporary outlet for relaxation in an otherwise busy life. Considering its effects on my mood and the fact that it only cost me a donation of $10, I wouldn’t be surprised if I gave Sanskrit chanting a try again in the future. After all, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than most relaxation alternatives, and who knows, it might even help me lead a healthier life.

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