Enchanting mantra

Practitioners of kirtan, a Hindu call-and-response ritual, find it both soothing and uplifting

On a Friday evening, a few dozen people gather in the multi-purpose room of the Westminster Housing Co-op in Winnipeg’s West End. They’ve brought yoga mats and meditation cushions, but they’re not here to work on their backbends or to sit cross-legged in silence.

They’ve come to dip into the same spiritual stream that spawned both those practices, only this time they’ll be doing it by singing in a language that none of them speaks.

At the front of the room, candles flicker and plumes of incense smoke curl toward the ceiling. There is a simple melody, the gentle strumming of a guitar and hand drums offering rhythm as the guitarist sings out a line — “Om namah shivaya shiva namah om” — and the audience echoes it back.

And on it goes, back and forth, gradually building in tempo and intensity until the room is buzzing with energy. Many people have their eyes closed; some sit with their hands on their lap, others sway and/or clap to the beat of the drums. One woman seated on the floor reaches forward and upward with her hands as if kneading the air.

After 20 minutes or so, the music slows down, the singing gets softer and the room falls into a meditative silence.

This is kirtan, the yoga of sound.

Somewhere between a Sanskrit sing-along and a musical meditation, kirtan (KEER-tun) is a devotional call-and-response practice that combines mantras with live music. It has its roots in 15th-century India, but like many Eastern traditions is becoming increasingly popular in North America as spiritual seekers and yoga enthusiasts discover its uplifting and soothing effects.

“This is why I live, to fill rooms with song,” the woman with the guitar tells the crowd before moving on to the next mantra.

She is Beth Martens, a Winnipeg singer-songwriter whose fair colouring, pixie features and Mennonite roots belie her calling as a “kirtan singing yogi” devoted to spreading the Eastern vibe.

“To me, the ultimate purpose of kirtan is to build community around things that genuinely inspire, uplift and give life energy,” says Martens, 41, who has been writing and performing devotional chants for more than a decade. Her first CD, Vijaya: Living Knowledge (1999) was recorded in India, where she studied yoga, meditation and Sanskrit poetry in the ’90s.

Kirtan is a folk form that arose from the Bhakti (devotional) movement of medieval India and involves chanting the names of Hindu deities (Krishna, Shiva, etc.) to connect with the divine. As with meditation, the purpose of chanting is to quiet and focus the mind in order to experience one’s true nature, or essence.

“Mantra just seems to clear the slate so you can tune into the frequency of your being that lies beneath all the artifices that get piled up from everyday life,” says Martens, sitting in the living room of her St. Boniface home. “They pack an unusually powerful punch when the meanings are learned.”

That power was put to the test in 1999 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, she was only a chanting yogi at night — by day she was the “totally fatigued, burned-out” vice-president of her family’s public relations firm. She practised yoga — power yoga — with the same intensity.

Eleven months of chemotherapy put her in remission — she’d already quit her job, lost her house and moved in with her parents — but 18 months later, the cancer returned and she was given a 50 per cent chance of survival.

“Now it was time to put all this into practice,” Martens recalls thinking. “It’s one thing in theory to sing ‘I am blissful, I am immortal’ (Amaram hum madhuram hum) and quite another to be facing your death and looking at the meaning of those words.”

Eventually she became too weak to pick up her guitar. As her body became immobilized, Martens says, she realized how she’d been using the practices she learned in India to disconnect from it, to the point where she didn’t notice the toll that stress was taking on her health.

It was only after she made the conscious decision to live her life motivated by love rather than fear, Martens says, that things began to improve.

“It was a beautiful thing. Even when my body wasn’t available, the mantras would keep pushing through.”

In 2002, cancer-free, Martens took up music and teaching yoga full time. Her last CD, The Yoga Lullabies (2007), recorded while she was eight months pregnant with her son, is a collection of the mantras that carried her through the darkest days. She’s currently working on her fourth album.

“Now I feel like I can sing into my body, right down to the soles of my feet,” says Martens, who leads community kirtans every couple of months at various venues around town. The next one takes place April 30 at the Yoga Centre Winnipeg (915 Grosvenor Ave.). A fireside kirtan will also be held May 28 at the St. Norbert Arts Centre.

[via Winnipeg Free Press]

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