At the end of last year I was fortunate enough to have a long chat with Swansea based yoga teacher Louise Thorndycraft. This blog has excerpts from that interview, which is part of a bigger research project on bhakti yoga. This is the yoga of the heart and devotion which includes kirtan.
I started by asking Louise about her early experiences of kirtan. “I didn’t really connect with the devotional aspect of chanting straight away. Kirtan just immediately felt like coming home for me. The feeling of being in a room full of people, with my eyes closed, just singing – it felt such a natural way to be with people. That’s what hooked me in – that sense of sangha.
There was a bhakti gathering about six years ago – a long weekend festival, which was like an immersion. The friends I went with were really into kirtan too, but I literally couldn’t drag myself away from the chanting. We were all hanging out together as well, but I was pretty much chanting the whole time. My friends were saying, ‘you’ve been in there all day’! surprised at how deeply I dived in. There was a real sense of belonging and being at one with myself. That was probably the turning point when I realised Bhakti had to be a bigger part of my life.”
When we chant often it is directed towards different gods and goddess – this can be a challenge when people first try chanting. They may feel uncertain about what the chants mean or how they feel participating in devotional music. Louise described how she felt drawn to the music and the practice before the idea of devotion.
“I suppose, for me, the feeling of love and devotion is as much for the music, the joy of chanting and singing, as it is for guru or deity. What has grown out of my initial love of the process of chanting is a deep connection with goddess Kali, as a representation of mother earth’s never-ending cycle of birth, growth, destruction and rebirth. Kali is the one who has grabbed hold of me because it feels that, in these days, we really need to deepen our connection with the divine feminine. This connection was unexpected for me though, because I wasn’t in it for the devotional aspect originally. Devotion just naturally grew out of my love of the mantras and the practice.”
Often when students approach yoga they have a particular aspiration in mind – to become more flexible, work with back pain or reduce stress levels. Perhaps the same can be said for kirtan. “I don’t chant to achieve anything. I chant just for the sake of chanting – I enjoy the simple process of repeating mantras. Having said that, I always feel better after chanting than I do before. I generally feel more relaxed and open and more energised, so I can certainly feel the positive impacts of kirtan, but that’s not the reason why I do it.”
We discussed the emotional element of the practice – that often people can experience a bubbling up of unexpected emotions during the practice be that tears and sadness or joy. “It happens a lot during my public kirtans and I like to encourage that – the moving through and processing of emotions. I think it’s important to remind people that it’s okay to feel sad and angry – any one of the whole range of human emotions. That’s why I don’t like to emphasis the bliss aspect of Bhakti, because that might not be your experience. It’s more important for us to be with what IS than it is to conform to what we think is expected of us in a given situation.”
I asked Louise about the emotions and how it feels when she is leading the practice. “There is that question of surrender then, the feeling that I am surrendering to this practice, whatever happens. On the other hand, I’m aware that taking off can be another subtle form of dissociation. Particularly now I’ve completed some trauma sensitive yoga training, I realise that a lot of people have some level of emotional trauma and some people dissociate on a regular basis. Aware of my own history, I don’t want to lead kirtan in a dissociated state. I want to make sure I’m in my body: grounded and centred, because I feel a sense of responsibility when leading.”
We also discussed the UK bhakti scene and whether there is growing interest in this form of yoga. Louise suggested that there is a great community who are regularly putting on workshops, events and training which is supporting people to access kirtan – http://www.ukbhakti.org is a great resource for events around the country.
“The interesting thing about bhakti is a lot of people don’t realise that it’s yoga. So I’ve had people come to kirtan a few times, who have then asked me ‘oh is chanting yoga?’. They know they enjoy it and they come and take part without really analyzing what they are doing, which is great. In the west, yoga equals asana in most people’s eyes. The public perception of yoga is that it’s about touching your toes, so I can see why people are confused. I want to be part of the movement that reverses this misunderstanding – to spread awareness that yoga is about much more than just physical postures.”
Louise runs fortnightly kirtan in Swansea and regularly travels to events around the UK to lead Kirtan. Last year she released her first album of kirtan music – find out more on her website here. I will be posting more on kirtan and some of the other elements of bhakti yoga over the next few months.