Before I got into it, Kirtan was my idea of a personal nightmare. Holding hands and singing with strangers? No thanks. Off-key, offbeat, and uncomfortable were three words I would use to describe the experience. After a while, though, Kirtan became one of my favorite parts of the several months I spent at a yoga teacher training center in New Zealand. I never thought I’d say it, but it’s one of the things I miss most from that experience.
Kirtan, as I practiced it, is a call-and-response song or chant. We would all sit in a circle with one song leader at the front playing the harmonium. Each time the leader sang a phrase in Sanskrit, the rest of the circle would repeat it back to her, building in volume and tempo each time around.
Members of the circle were encouraged to play shakers, drums, tambourines, and any number of other small instruments lying around. Some people got up and danced in the middle of the circle. Some clapped. Some silently swayed back and forth. Kirtan is a deeply personal experience.
Similar to how I learned to like yoga, my journey to appreciating Kirtan was slow and steady. It started reluctantly and tentatively, and before I knew it I was looking forward to evening Kirtan almost as much as I looked forward to breakfast the next morning. By the end of my time at the yoga center, Kirtan was one of my favorite parts of the entire program.
Introverts & Events
Events like Kirtan sessions can be stressful for anyone new to the practice — but perhaps especially for introverts, who are often uncomfortable in social situations that require participation and have the possibility of attracting attention to them. During Kirtan, it’s kind of unavoidable that you make yourself at least a little bit vulnerable. By participating in the singing and beat making, you put yourself out there and make your presence known.
For introverts, it can be tempting to recede into the shadows and not sing or participate at all. During my first few Kirtan sessions, which were required for my teacher training certificate, I wished to be anywhere else — “Give me goat yoga,” I thought, “Give me anything else.” I even considered faking illness to get out of it.
As an introvert, I had to take a critical look at how introverts experience events like Kirtan to figure out how I could come to love it. What was it that made me so averse to the idea? I found that the turning point came once I had the courage to develop a role for myself. Once I had a role, I had an extra reason to go and found the confidence to have fun with it.
Finding a Role
My role came in the form of a hand drum. I had taken a few drum lessons years before but didn’t remember much. Luckily, I have always had a pretty good sense of rhythm. So one night at Kirtan, I picked up the hand drum and started banging away. “I’m just going to go for it,” I thought.
Apparently it worked, because after that night I became the designated drummer of the group. People asked me to show them how to play, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to pick up the drum in the first place. I think the change was when I decided to focus on myself and my own personal fulfillment rather than what other people were doing or thinking. I never led a song myself, but I went to every session and found great enjoyment in it.
I ended up loving Kirtan, and even entertained the idea of starting a local group now that I’m back home. Given how yoga affects the brain, it should have been no surprise that something related like Kirtan could leave me feeling energized and invigorated. I was happier when I participated. It was a good lesson for me to learn to not just let life pass by as I sit on the sidelines, even if it means enduring a period of discomfort.
Giving Kirtan a chance also made me realize that stress isn’t always bad. Sometimes, a bit of stress is the catalyst you need to elevate yourself to the next level. In my case, I was able to transform myself into a Kirtan-loving hand drummer. You never know how something will impact you until you give it a try.
Lettie Stratton is a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID. A Vermont native, she is a lover of travel, tea, bicycles, plants, cooperative board games, and the outdoors. She’s still waiting for a letter from Hogwarts.