This is Your Brain on Kirtan
Personal Kirtan Story
The first time I walked into a Kirtan (call-and-response devotional singing originating in India), Dave Stringer and a band of 8 were sitting on stage at a Yoga conference being held at Arizona State University. The sounds in the room were quite foreign to me; instruments I had never seen or heard and words in an ancient tongue. It was early 2001 and I had just started my Yoga practice. I was very enthusiastic about this new life technology that I had stumbled upon, though when I walked into the Kirtan and saw the band, heard the sounds and noticed it was the “audience” making the most sound, I was stunned and startled. The first thing I recall was looking for the nearest exit.
Despite my emotionally reactive state, I stayed, sat down, and started to feel into what was going on. The melodies were beautiful and simple enough to follow. The rhythms were groovy and elegant. The mood seemed to permeate through the room, waxing and waning on the interplay between the band and the audience. The words were projected on the wall and though foriegn, I could start to see and hear how the sounds produced the words. I noticed that of the 150 or so attendees at this mystifying event, most were quite comfortable to sing, dance, relax, express themselves, and feel together with the band. Within a song or two, I noticed that my experience was shifting. My mind’s arguments and reactions were lessening and I started to see and feel the room in a different light.
Singing in groups is observable in all cultures worldwide, regardless of religion, race, culture, relief, etc. From the perspective of Yoga, singing with other humans activates a power of recognition in us, of our interconnection at the most subtle and intrinsic level of being. The context of the singing can be explicit or implicit, it does not matter. Group singing helps people feel connected to others, to be more energetic, more sparky and delighted.
One of my Yoga students grew up in a Western religious context. She shares with me that though she is not a practicing member of the religion any longer, she still attends a weekly church choir. She goes every week, she says, not because of the religious fervor one might experience when singing to and about the Divine, but the human connection shared through voice, rhythm, melody, and beauty. Now this is no infringement on religious or spiritual intention in group singing. It is a welcoming to the secular view that sharing a human experience such as music and song is significant, even spiritually significant, outside of religious dogma.
Simply being together and singing creates intimacy, breaks down boundaries imposed by differences, and allows people to have an expression of their self that feeds not only their own life, but the lives of others.
Yoga teaches that we have organs of hearing and communication precisely because the Universe itself has the same power as its nature and expression. That as we sense, we ‘hear’ the ‘thought’ of the Universe; and as we ‘think’, we ‘hear’ the sensation of the Universe. Opening the faculty of ‘hearing’ puts the practitioner in contact with eternal impressions; from formlessness and the substance of space to the entire creatrix of all matter and energy. Through a lens of Yoga, group singing can be viewed as the harmonious movement of Universal forces, co-created by individuals, each of whom are themselves a co-created event of Universal and individual forces. Whoa… Cosmic.
Effects on Brain and Body
Your energetic state is directly proportional to conductivity in the brain. When conductivity in your brain goes up, your energy goes up, and vice versa. The outer layer of the brain (the cortical layer) is connected directly to the inner ear. This positions the ear as an apparatus that can affect a cortical charge and increase the electrical potential of the brain. When sound reaches the inner ear, it is transformed into nervous impulse. When the electrical energy obtained from the influx of nervous impulses reaches the cortex, it is then distributed throughout the body. This effect can be felt even after only 10 minutes of singing.
Singing also tones the vagus nerve, which is in charge of regulating sensory input and managing the stress response. The Vagus nerve is a master nerve of the human body and is connected to the autonomic nervous system, which governs the unconscious actions of the body.
Singing helps just about every body system in a positive way and when done in a group the effects are amplified exponentially.
Singing and Pranayama
At the end of the day, Pranayama (conscious breathing practice) aims at the balancing or harmonizing of two primary flows of prana (prana vayu & apana vayu); resulting in prana [energy] moving into the central channel (sushumna) and moving from the base to crown. Kirtan is a pranayama by its very nature. When we sing in a smooth and regulated way, our breath tends to become smooth and regulated as well, and there is less interference of the distribution of prana throughout the body systems. This is not saying that singing by itself will send someone into a spiritual experience, and it is not not saying that as well. When our exhale breath lengthens and slows down by singing long passages, our parasympathetic nervous system activates. When we build a cortical charge in the brain by singing, and the energy gets transmitted to the body, our sympathetic nervous system activates. I know this is way over simplifying. However, when these two systems balance or harmonize, we experience euphoria. Having a balanced charge in the system makes it magnetic. People will say funny things to you like, “where have you been and what have you been doing?!”
Imagine Bliss as a substance. Like small, iridescent, nearly invisible specs of liquid light. Then imagine that this substance has a charge, like one end of a magnet, and that these charged bits of bliss are more abundant in the Universe than any other ‘particle’ known and unknown. This ‘substance’ is not bound by normal laws, and does not seem to have an ‘on’ or an ‘off’ button. It seems to behave randomly or whimsically with one exception. Wherever there is a sufficient charge attractive to these bits of bliss, they appear to coagulate and animate most unusual and wonderful events.
I am not saying that if you sing you are guaranteed eternal bliss and self knowledge. I am saying that if you never sing, you will never know what you are missing, and it is nearly guaranteed that whatever results might arise in your specific life situation from starting a singing practice and especially a group singing practice (religious or not) will be as left to cosmic chance as World Peace.
Kirtan Story cont.
I grew up with feedback about my singing that I should, “stop singing”, or “can’t sing”. If I would have listened to these very narrow bands of communication, I most likely would never have started the process of opening up my faculty of hearing and refining my singing and speaking. I surely would not sit down in a group of people and sing aloud.
As it turns out, some of my most wonderful and deep experiences have been while singing and chanting, particularly in groups. That first experience imprinted well on me and I have played in Kirtan bands since 2002, including Dave Stringer’s band. I have been through every kind of emotional and cosmic experience high and low while singing. Still to this day I sense and feel that there is no quicker way to recognize our interconnection, build a bodily charge magnetic to bliss, and improve our processing and digestion of daily life.
By: Brent Kuecker – Yogi. Musician. Educator.
Join us at Udaya Live, Yoga and Music Festival this August 16-21! in Bulgaria for a full magnetizing charge from skin to bone. World class Yoga and music, all inclusive retreat style festival and Kirtan every night!