The Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting

By Steven J. Rosen

Book Review by

Swami Veda Bharati

Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama


20th November 2008

In the search for in-depth knowledge of yoga, one comes across hundreds of volumes that “grind the already ground,” as the Sanskrit proverb has it. It is seldom that one comes upon a groundbreaking work that brings to focus an aspect of yoga heretofore not widely realized.

Although kirtana is of course widely known, it is not often thought of as a yoga practice. Steve Rosen, through his in-depth interviews with  twenty-one established kirtana-karas of today, has shown how kirtana is to be understood fully only in the context of yoga.

One of the beauties of this work is that it establishes connections that one may have subconsciously known but had not consciously articulated even to oneself. To connect Master Yogis like Neem Karoli Baba and Swami Rama to steel band players of the West Indies, and these to a Jewish kirtana-kara like Yofiyah, and all these to New Orleans jazz, calls for a unique combination of penetrating intelligence as well as a deep sentiment of devotion to recognize the underlying unity in them all.

In this book, the scholar-devotee (an ancient paradigm in Indian traditions) turned interviewer Rosen has strung together these many styles of self-expression on the connecting thread of kirtana, a practice which one may call a sung form of yogic japa performed with love (prema bhakti).

Yoga is often thought of as a set of inward turning practices. To an uninitiated viewer, kirtana may appear to be an outward flow of a certain sentiment bursting into spontaneous dance. In fact, kirtana can be understood fully only as a bridge between the outward flow, which is in fact an inward turning gaze of the senses.

Look at the eyes of those who are rapt and immersed in this external expression of what is flowing forth from an inner stream and you will see how the senses are being returned to a state of pratyahara. In yogis performing kirtana, the voice takes on a deep sonorous inner quality as though a completely different set of vocal chords were being used.

A yogi kirtana-kara so turns inwards that at a certain point he falls silent. This point needs to be brought into greater focus in a  study of the yoga of kirtana : japa bursting out of its inner layers and becoming a song, and then returning into an ecstasy of  silence again.

I look forward to seeing a second volume of the same work, which will grant us darshana of some of the kirtana-karas of India, their interpretations of the traditions, training methods and ‘stage techniques’. Even more so, we need to learn of the mystery of ways of involving the participants, not just in chanting and singing, but in the process of what philosophers of Natya-shastra term sadharani-karana. It is in this collective experience of minds’ unity that the sentiments of the performer become the sentiments of the audience and members of the audience lose their individuality and respond as a collective soul. That is where kirtana gives another meaning to true yoga, union.

Yoga of Kirtana is not for cursory reading. It is an excellent guide for one’s own spiritual journey as one reads, nay, listens, to the narratives of the stations covered in the life pilgrimages these kirtana-karas have taken They have all started from different places, traversed many different paths and then become immersed in this special ecstasy of the love of God in Her (is not Radha sung to as one Divinity?) multifarious forms.

The accompanying CD with eleven tracks renders an experiential dimension to the work, enhancing its value a hundredfold.