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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Take Your Soul on a Great Night Out

Apr 29, 2011 02:13PM

Sacred Chanting is Right in Your Neighborhood

You may know about big events like the Ecstatic Chant weekends at the Omega Institute, or you may have attended a sold-out Krishna Das concert, but did you know that there is probably a sacred chanting session happening in your area this very week? Kirtan is a form of "bhakti" (devotional) yoga that involves the singing of the Divine Names and mantras, usually in Sanskrit. It’s a wonderful and enjoyable way to worship that’s been steadily growing in popularity—both internationally and right here in Fairfield County.

 "Kirtan is opera on a grand cosmic scale that you can sing with your whole heart and being."

   The word kirtan comes from the Sanskrit language and means devotional chanting or singing. The word Sanskrit itself means "language brought to formal perfection." Over the millennia, Sanskrit sages who understood the power of words continued to develop and refine this language in the hope of discovering their own divine nature. "They selected only those sounds which had the greatest clarity, purity, and power of resonance," says Vyaas Houston from the American Sanskrit Institute. "The vibrational purity and resonating power of Sanskrit is above all an opera on a grand cosmic scale that you can sing with your whole heart and being."

  During the 1980's, kirtan became a regular practice in many yoga ashram communities throughout the West. By the end of the 20th century, the experience of kirtan had expanded beyond these traditional ashram communities and into the larger public sphere. Today, kirtan continues to grow rapidly along with increasing interest in the world’s sacred traditions and the vibrant yoga movement in the West. It extends across cultures, races and religions and offers a profound experience of an ancient sacred tradition to the greater human community. Kirtan is a means to connect to the heart and divinity that lies within, as expressed by some of the tens of thousands of people who participate in these sacred chanting events around the world.

  "The first time I went to a kirtan, I felt good that night," says Dennis Winge, a full-time musician who fell in love with this form of spiritual practice a year ago. "The next time, I felt good the whole next day. The third time, I felt good for two whole days and I thought ‘Wait, there’s something going on here!’" Believing that there should be a kirtan, "on every block in every town every night of the week," Winge took it upon himself to learn the art of leading kirtan at a week-long Omega course last spring. In Connecticut, Winge helped organize the 2nd annual New Year's Eve 2010 Kirtan Extravaganza at the Redding Meditation Center, along with 'Sita' Miriam Zernis, who was also instrumental in organizing the first event in 2009. Winge credits her as "perhaps the strongest proponent of kirtan in Fairfield County".

  Zernis offers kirtan at yoga studios and spiritual centers around the county with her ensemble, Sita's Light, and also teaches "Art and Practice of Kirtan" workshops and harmonium. "If anyone would have ever told me a few years ago when I was an ABC News editor, that I would become a kirtan wallah, I wouldn't have believed it! Now I can't imagine anything else I'd rather do with my life than to facilitate a beautiful musical prayer experience for others to feel the power of the Divine at whatever level they are ready to do so." Zernis also holds a monthly "satsang" or a gathering of good spiritual companions in her hometown of Ridgefield where she says many first timers have found the joy of kirtan in a small and intimate setting. "Our hearts and our minds just have to be open enough to access the joy kirtan brings. Negative thoughts are actually transformed and we are changed for the better by the practice."

  Additional opportunities for kirtan in Fairfield County and the surrounding areas abound. Satya Franche Carlson, who’s been leading her ensemble, Ma Kirtan, since 2006 holds regular kirtans at Touch of Sedona in Ridgefield, Pymander in Norwalk, and Dew Yoga in Stamford. Satya, whose name means truth in Sanskrit, says she is very grateful to have a leading role in the rising popularity of kirtan throughout the region. "It has become so popular in the last few years," says Satya. "People are really starting to feel the benefits of this heart opening meditation."

  Kirtan chants are most often sung in call and response fashion, and chant sheets that list the mantras are provided at most sessions. The Sanskrit word "mantra" can be broken etymologically into the root words "mana" (mind) and "tra" (deliver). Mantras thus have the power to deliver the mind from material consciousness or perception to spiritual consciousness or enlightenment. The mantras are generally short and easy to learn, and they may be recited a few times for practice before each chant begins.

  Traditionally, instruments such as a harmonium, tabla, gorong and other percussion instruments are used, although kirtan can be easily adapted to many Western instruments such as violin, guitar, bass, and keyboard.
"The Divine Names we sing come from a place that’s deeper than our thoughts or our minds," says Winge, "In fact, at our deepest level, they are us." The spiritual practice of kirtan, although largely taken from the Hindu tradition, is not about belonging to a religion or having any particular set of belief systems. Winge says that’s one of the reasons he loves it so much. "There’s nothing to debate or discuss," he says. "You just sit down and sing!"

For more information about Dennis Winge visit For more information on 'Sita' Miriam Zernis' kirtan and workshops visit To join the Satya Franche and Ma Kirtan mailing list email [email protected].