In early August, a special group of people gathered for a week-long Summer Kirtan Camp in Fairfax, an adorable little town just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The camp is led by sacred music composer, recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, and ecstatic vocalist Jai Uttal along with Nubia Teixeira, Daniel Paul and Prajna Vieira.
Summer Kirtan Camp, which is held annually, is for those who aspire to lead Kirtan; those who wish to enhance their yoga teaching with chanting; and those who simply wish to immerse themselves in the vast ocean of Bhakti. We also learned to play the harmonium—a beautiful keyboard instrument that is like a mini organ. On one of the first days, we each shared what brought us to Kirtan camp and my heart was cracked wide open by hearing everyone’s stories of how they arrived. The openness, the vulnerability, the light that everyone showed me that I was in the right place.
What is Kirtan, you might wonder? Simply put, it’s the ancient yoga practice of chanting. Kirtan is singing the names of Gods and Goddesses over and over again and many times it is done in a call and response way, so that everyone is included. According to Jai Uttal, Kirtan is “the calling, the crying, the reaching across infinite space—digging into the heart’s deepest well to touch and be touched by the Divine Presence. These ancient chants contain a transformative power and healing energy. By singing these prayers we join a stream of consciousness and devotion that has been flowing for centuries.”
And what about Bhakti? There are many definitions for Bhakti. We learned right away from Jai, that Bhakti is something that is innate, something that is always there. It’s our relationship with God/Goddess/Spirit. It has to do with our hearts. And Bhakti Yoga is that expression of the connection to God/Goddess/Spirit. It can be through singing, chanting, dancing, love making, art, cooking, storytelling, puja and really whatever we are doing that expresses that connection.
Before even beginning Kirtan Camp we were sent beautiful writings on “Walking the path of Bhakti” and were invited to an online Facebook community so we could connect with our sangha. I felt part of this beautiful Bhakti family, before camp even started. We knew our four teachers were there for us, which felt so comforting to me, as I was very nervous about showing up to Kirtan Camp with no experience playing the harmonium. I have been around Kirtan for years and have owned my harmonium for over a year. I just have not actually learned to play it, until this summer’s camp.
Before camp started, I had envisioned the week would entail some storytelling by Jai, learning a song or two and spending most of our time just participating in Kirtan. But it was so much more and far exceeded my expectations. On many of the days Jai did tell us beautiful stories from the Ramayana as well as stories from his time in India. And some days he would have us lay down then sang us lullabies as we completely relaxed. But we also learned a tremendous amount about classical Indian music as well as western music. We learned about sargam, rasa, chords, scales, ragas, how to lead a Kirtan, how to care for our instruments just to name a few things. In a nutshell, every single part of the Kirtan Camp was done with intention.
We learned so much technical information, but Jai made it clear that it is really all about the Bhakti. He reminded us that Bhakti is that feeling in the heart and how important it was to nourish that feeling. Nourish that seed of love—diving deeper always and then sharing that with others. “It is the music that is filled with the heart, that touches us and that heals us!” Jai said.
Learning the Music
One thing I was really surprised by was that on day one we walked away knowing how to play a song on the harmonium! I chose to just focus on playing the harmonium the first day, and let the other 45 people do the chanting for me. Jai mentioned that learning an instrument was like learning a new language. Be patient, it takes time and practice, was my mantra for the week.
Learning to play the harmonium while still keeping rhythm, keeping up and then on top of it all singing was very challenging to me. It had been a long time since I have learned something completely new like this and music is truly like a foreign language to me. But the rewards have been so amazing, slowly but surely I am starting to be able to remember songs, rhythms, melodies. It truly is a discipline.
We also learned how to play the tablas from Daniel, an award winning tabla drummer and graduate of the Ali Akbar College of Music who for more than two decades has been on the front lines of the international Kirtan chanting movement as a singing tabla drummer to many of today’s top Kirtan singers. He taught us about the tablas and rhythm and held such beautiful space for all of us when we each performed our own Kirtan.
Prajna, a vocalist, composer and yogini, taught us voice exercises and instructed us how to warm up our voice and keep it healthy. Her work is truly an expression of her love and devotion to God/Goddess/Spirit and community. She taught us not only harmonium skills but also how to use our voice.
Nubia was pure love. A brazilian born yogini, she has been devoting herself to teaching yoga, in its many different aspects, for the past 27 years. She taught us about the gods and goddesses and was like the camp mom—always making sure everyone was doing well and continually giving the most amazing hugs. She even brought us a beautiful and delicious lunch one day.
Lessons in Love, Devotion and Passion
I think the most powerful part of the experience was the day where each one of us got up and led our own Kirtan. It was optional and I am pretty sure almost every single person got up in the front of the room and led a short Kirtan. Everyone sang from their hearts, and even though many were absolutely terrified to get up in front of everyone, it did not matter. Every single person sang from their heart and I was touched by each person. As Jai said to us, “Our job is to share our love and kindness,” and I truly felt that from each and every person’s performance.
In leading a Kirtan, the best advice we got is that we need to be fully present the entire time. It is not about us, it is about that connection to the divine. And because mantra is an exact science it is very important to pronounce the mantras correctly.
We were all asked to bring something to the altar for the week at Kirtan Camp. I brought a small Saraswati that I bought in India. I ended up putting it on my harmonium every time we played. Saraswati is the Goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom and learning. She is often referred to as the river of knowledge. I thought she would be perfect to bring along with me. Since being home, I still place her on my harmonium when I am practicing.
The retreat provided so many lessons in love, devotion and passion. There was a lot of frustration for me in the learning curve, but these other feelings far outweighed them. There is also something so beautiful about stretching the comfort zone in the name of devotion. We sang many different mantras to many different deities—everyone seems to have their favorite—but the cumulative effect is often life-changing. I left the retreat a different person.
I will leave you with my favorite quote from the week: “Do not overlook or ignore that music is something we have to bow to, it is about the prayer aspect. Take the music seriously.”
For more information on how you can join the next Kirtan Camp, visit jaiuttal.com.