The Namaste Counsel interviewed Sean Johnson who will be a guest lecturer/featured artist/yoga instructor at Bhakti Fest Midwest June 25-28, in Madison, Wis.
Q. Tell me a short story about kirtan (chanting) for newbies, or bhakti yoga (devotion) for beginners.
One of the most gratifying parts of what we do is sharing kirtan with people who’ve never experienced it before. It’s beautiful when we can somehow be a channel for folks to have an inspiring and transformative internal experience.
We have had the amazing opportunity to play a set of our kirtan music at The New Orleans Jazz Festival for three years. After our first time playing Jazz Fest a tall stoic, grey-haired man with blue jeans, t-shirt, and oil company baseball hat walked up to me, and said, “Son, I live out in the country. I work on an oil rig by day, and I have no idea what you were singing about, but I’ve got to tell you the music struck something inside me. It touched my heart, and moved me to tears, and I want to thank you for that.”
Q. A Sivananda swami once said that chanting is the most uncomfortable of yoga’s branches for newcomers, but also the hardest to walk away from. Do you agree?
I think this can be true, but the right teacher/wallah can anticipate that discomfort and defuse the resistance to chanting by introducing the practice in an accessible and educational way that can help remove the barriers one might feel.
Being a yoga teacher and kirtan artist based in the Deep South, I have loved the opportunity to share the joy of chanting and make it accessible for people, rather that a practice that might be interpreted as being esoteric, self-righteous, or dogmatic.
Three of many things I share to encourage folks to try kirtan:
- Singing simply feels good when we can let go of our judgements and inhibitions.
- Singing is healing. I like to share examples from science and medicine to support this. For example sound currents are being used at this very moment in surgeries all around the world to break up kidney stones and gall bladder stones. Given this fact, don’t you think humming an Om could break up some tension or stress in your body and mind. Then I’ll invite people to put their hand on their chest as they sing to feel the vibrations of the mantra in their own tissue.
- Singing can change our consciousness, can directly shift the way we feel. I like to guide people through some experiential practices where they can test this out for themselves.
Q. How did you get hooked on bhakti yoga?
One of the most significant and radical bhakti experiences for me, which occurred before I knew what the word meant, was falling in love for the first time, and also having my heart broken for the first time. Both experiences were deep initiations into the heart that shifted the course of my life forever.
My first yoga teacher and mentor, Doranne, also introduced me to a variety of heart-centered practices from different cultures in my intensive studies with her in college. She taught me to identify and appreciate the universal threads that tie these traditions together.
I believe that though bhakti’s origins are in the Hindu traditions of India, the word points us to the universal human experience of connecting to the mystery of life through the depths of the heart– an experience that transcends geography, history, culture, religion, philosophy and the word itself. I think we all have innate human experiences of heart-opening throughout our life that could be called bhakti.
Q. Western yoga tends to focus on asanas.
I once attended a talk with Radhanath Swami. Someone asked him what he thought of the emphasis on asana in yoga as practiced in the west. He smiled sincerely and said that he thought asanas were definitely an important component of a holistic yoga practice. Then he said, “Now, I’ll propose a scenario for you and you can draw your own conclusions…You’re on an airplane whose engines suddenly fail. How many people would be practicing asana, putting their legs around their own necks as the plane goes down, and how many people would be chanting in some form or another?”
I think that more westerners are becoming fluent in the importance of yoga’s other branches, and more people are realizing that some of the most ancient and potent of yoga practices are sonic practices, integrating mantra and deep listening.
Q. Why should chanting be a part of one’s daily practice?
I believe that kirtan and asana practice help prepare us for life’s inevitable changes and transitions. It keeps our hearts and minds supple, hopefully just as much as our bodies, so that when life stretches us, we can bend but not break.
Chanting is a form of purification and liberation. The mantras sensitize us, polish away the clutter in our heads and melt the numbness in our hearts, so we feel clear, awake, and brilliantly alive. The singing melts our inhibitions. The frozen places inside us defrost, and we start to move and play like children.
Chanting is a meditation practice. Our wandering minds have the opportunity to return again and again to the touchstone of the repeated mantra, an invitation into the present. Kirtan can be a gateway into sacred silence. The striking contrast between the dynamic energy of kirtan and the sweetness of the silence is profound. The mantras themselves are medicine, soothing the monkey mind and tuning the head to the heart.
Chanting is pranayama. The repetition of the breath regulates our breath pattern, stoking the prana.
Kirtan is good for our health— the mantras vibrate and massage our muscles, tissues, bones, and organs. The word sound is even a synonym for health, for stability.
Kirtan is therapeutic. So many people have lost touch with the power of their voice and their creative expression and kirtan is a direct path to freeing the authentic voice within. Many folks who have attended kirtans over the years have offered gratitude for the opportunity to sing without being judged, and the cathartic and liberating power that comes with that experience.
Chanting creates community. Singing together, we merge with each other, and entrain with the divine vibration. Kirtan is a most sublime form of satsang, gathering with fellow seekers and reaching deep together through song. There’s a vibrant exchange, a transmission of energy circulating back and forth from hearts to hearts.
Kirtan helps to stimulate our creative power. It gives us a direct tool to clear the channel of creativity that moves from thought to speech to action. We create our lives through repetition, patterns. Mantra practice helps us to more consciously manifest patterns of purpose in our lives.
Read more about Bhakti Fest at www.TheNamasteCounsel.com/yoga-blog/. For more information about Sean and his band, visit www.SeanJohnsonAndTheWildLotusBand.com. To view details about Sean’s full day intensive at Bhakti Fest Midwest, visit http://midwest.bhaktifest.com/intensives/. For those wanting a full eight day BHAKTImmersions in New Orleans, log on to http://wildlotusyoga.com/event/fall-8-day-bhaktimmersion/