FSYC Teacher Dani Leah Strauss
I started singing at a very young age, and much of this was in the form of chanting Hebrew prayers in synagogue. As an anxious young child, I loved the hypnotic way that the repetitive melodies and phrases lulled me into a cocoon of comfort, warmth, and ease. When I heart Sanskrit chanting and kirtan for the first time, it was like a rediscovery of truth. After years of feeling disconnected to my spiritual life, I suddenly felt a direct, heartfelt connection to nature, my community, and my yoga practice through the simple act of chanting for a few minutes each day.
During the winter of 2011, I spent a week at the beach with my family. I was in the salt air a great deal, chanting and cleansing my malas in the ocean water and just praying with all my heart to the sea and the stars for a way to find a harmonium. I had heard this instrument used to accompany chanting, and the melodic drone sounded just perfect to me. It resonated in a place deep within, and awakened a spaciousness and clarity around my heart.
When I got home from that trip, a teacher friend miraculously showed up in the FSYC lobby. He had just arrived back from a trip to India and had a spare harmonium in tow that he wanted to sell. It felt like the universe sent that instrument across the world as an answer to my call. The beautiful synchronicity of my dreams and reality confirmed that I was meant to walk the bhakti path, and from that day on I have played my harmonium and chanted every single day.
No matter how hectic and frazzled my life and my mind may seem, it all dissolves as soon as I open the billows on this instrument. The mantras that I chant at my home altar are mostly devoted to Saraswati, the goddess of creativity, wisdom, and the Sanskrit language. Her name means “the flowing one”, and each mantra I sing is for her, with the direct intention of inviting her ease and calm into my life. When my eyes are closed and I’m playing and singing, I feel like I become an open channel that she is flowing through. It allows me the chance to put my ego and small problems in the back seat, and just ride the wave of spirit.
I chant in the Sanskrit language, which is particularly unique in its internal resonance and ability to clarify the energetic body. The words are designed to echo back into the body and amplify the vibrations within. When I pay close attention, I can feel and hear a humming throughout my body after chanting and devotional practices. The yogic term for this is nadam – the mystical sound that resonates within every being. This is also the sound of Om that starts and finishes our yoga practice, as a reminder that we are all linked together through a sacred pulsation, the rhythm of the universe. In kirtan when we call out various names of gods and goddesses, we acknowledge that these are simply different manifestations of the same cosmic creative energy that animates and connects us all. Every mantra is a variation of Om.
Kirtan is a practice of devotion and offering from the deepest place within. It is gleaned from the branch of yoga known as Bhakti, or the yoga of devotion and love. In this tradition, we use call and response chanting to connect to the ancient wisdom of the yogis and sages of the past. The mantras we chant hold the light of all the beings who have thought, whispered, spoken, sung, and wailed them for centuries. Kirtan is designed for every emotion – we can practice in joy, in sadness, in success, and in struggle. We offer all these feelings to the universe and in doing so, we clear out our internal cobwebs and create a sanctuary of peace inside the heart. I return to this refuge again and again when I am looking for answers or feeling disconnected. We live in a fast-paced world now that does not put much value on self-care, nurturing, and selfless action. In my opinion, devotional practices that allow us to both offer and receive what we need are extremely valuable.
Kirtan is a safe space for all beings - the practice itself guides and instructs us all, leading us back to the heart. We repeat these ancient sounds and melodies again and again, and find our way home to ourselves. When we surrender our efforts to something greater, a deep release of old wounds and stagnant energy is possible. This clears the way for spiritual opening and exploration. I see it happen when I lead a group in chanting – there is always the initial feeling of hesitancy, followed by a softening, and then a vibrant infusion of joy in the room. We are all on our own journey as we sing, each person lifting their voice with unique prayers and hopes. But by singing together, we support and strengthen each other and give one another permission to release and relax.
Chanting allows me to speak heart to heart with the members of our community, and extends far beyond my altar and the yoga room. These bhakti practices are a recipe for a conscious, connected experience on this earth, and they provide me with deep purpose and joy.
I am so grateful to the bhaktas (Allison Dennis Collins, Govind Das, Michael Johnson, Amanda Hale, each one such a bright light in the world) who have shown me this path, and given me the sweet nudges I needed to keep on walking.