Urban Bliss

by Elissa Stein


Last night I went to my very first kirtan. From what I’d heard about them—hours of hot, sweaty ecstatic chanting and dancing, I never felt compelled to attend one. I’m far too cynical to let go and get swept away in those kinds of moments. But, Laughing Lotus was hosting a big summer solstice celebration and I replied yes to my facebook invite mostly to be polite, not really planning on attending. After several people mentioned they were excited I’d said yes, surprisingly, shockingly, there I was stressing about what to wear. Note: I ended up in a lilac tank top, long swirly brown skirt, and smoky quartz beads which was perfectly appropriate although I learned less is more when it comes to kirtan wear.
As we approached the relatively nondescript office building the studio’s in, we found the stunning sand art creation by Joe Mangrum pictured above , radiant colors lighting up the concrete and gritty metal doors, pink, yellow and rich red rose petals strewn in front of the doorway, more petals creating a path down the hall, into the elevator and towards the studio front door. Inside the reception area was packed with people in sundresses, or yoga gear, the larger studio itself had dozens of yoga blankets neatly placed in a semi-circle, ropes of multi-colored lights wrapped around the instruments and chairs where the musicians would be.
The lotus chandeliers above were dim. The walls glowed with the warm orange pink of sunset.
People packed in tight and I was overcome by claustrophobia for a moment as the temperature rose and there was no discernible path to the door from where I was sitting. But, I took a deep breath, willing myself to stay in the moment.
The three members of Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band quietly took their seats—Sean spoke for a few moments and then taught us the first song. Turns out a kirtan is basically a call and response. He sings, we sing back. He chants, we repeat. Some songs were in English, most were in sanskrit. I was prepared to sit through 2 to 3 songs tops and then sneak out quietly.
I had no idea that chanting “Maha Deva” and “Kali Ma” over and over (and over) could be so beautiful. That simple words and melodies could become so layered, so complex, so intense with voices and instruments weaving beat and rhythm and energy together. The band started slow and sweet, masterfully constructing ebbs and flows that had people quietly swaying and then leaping to their feet. As the pace picked up more and more got up and started moving, clapping, at times jumping up and down like happy 5 year olds in a bouncy castle.
I didn’t jump. But, I did dance. And I even sang, getting past the fact that I actually can’t sing.
It didn’t matter.
I smiled at people I didn’t know. I wrapped my arms around those I did, and hugged hard, drenched in sweat, at the thrill of sharing these moments.
I saw rapture. Celebration. A community building of people who never met and those who knew each other well all joining together through sound and creativity and presence.
And at times the silence between the songs was more powerful than the music itself.
As the last note slipped away, and Sean chanted “om” I found my hands automatically folded at my heart, then my forehead, my head dipping, as we shared a final moment of thanks, love and togetherness.
Much to my surprise, the jaded part of me was silenced for awhile.
I’ve already been invited to my next kirtan. I’m pretty sure I’ll mean it when I respond yes.


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