By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Ancient practice of kirtan enjoys global renaissance and local recognition

Photos by Dana Rene Bowler / Star staff: Jordan Moore, 8, right, helps Stewart Sinclair and his "Science Posse," from right, Luke Zucker, Kevin Meek and Dwight Beavers, with a dry-ice science demonstration at the Boys & Girls Club of Ventura.

Saturday, April 5, 2008/Ventura County Star

When a film editing book project took Dave Stringer to an ashram in India in the early 1990s, he didn't understand the Sanskrit they were chanting.

"But the sound of it had a powerful effect on me," recalled Stringer, who knew very little about Eastern spiritual traditions at the time.

"At first I didn't participate directly in the chants; I would sit and listen to people chant from across the road," he said. "I had no intention or idea that chanting would ever be more than an avocation."

Today, the 49-year-old Los Angeles resident is a sacred kirtan artist known throughout the world for the call-and-response form of mantra chanting — a consciousness-transforming practice that originated in India and is currently experiencing a global renaissance as a participatory live music experience.

Stringer is among a number of world-class kirtan artists who will come to Ventura County in the coming days to celebrate the spirit of kirtan.

"Humans have been singing together for a very, very long time; the most fundamental human pursuit is to make music together," Stringer said. "There is something beautiful about singing with other people. It's not intellectual; it's spiritual. It's a way for people to lose themselves into something bigger."

The community is invited to share the experience of kirtan — pronounced KEER-tahn — when Stringer performs live at 7 Sunday evening at Bell Arts Factory in downtown Ventura.

An upcoming kirtan event April 13 features Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band performing at Lulu Bandha's in Ojai.

"I feel most free when I'm singing kirtan," said Johnson, a New Orleans resident who leads kirtan at the studio he founded, Wild Lotus Yoga in New Orleans, and travels around the country and abroad leading kirtan sessions.

"For me, it's a form of deep emotional expression, meditation and spiritual celebration," Johnson said. "And it's a joy to share this experience with people around the country on our tours."

The singing, particularly in the months right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, allowed Johnson to channel a lot of emotion and, he said, kindle his relationship with the divine.

For his appearance in Ojai, the night will begin with a short educational presentation on kirtan, "and then we'll dive into the experience of singing the mantras in a call-and-response fashion, accompanied by the global grooves of the band," Johnson said.

"Our intention is to create a comfortable, sacred space for people to experience the liberating, therapeutic, spiritually uplifting effects of singing mantras," he said. "We especially encourage people to come who feel shy or uncomfortable with singing, because this practice has the potential to joyfully heal that inhibition and wash away fear of self-expression."

Happy birthday, Yoga Jones

Stringer's show, part of his world tour celebrating the release of his new album, "Divas and Devas," also will celebrate the five-year anniversary of Yoga Jones in downtown Ventura.

For folks who have never experienced kirtan, the way it works is simple: "The musician calls a line out in Sanskrit and the audience responds in the same Sanskrit," explained Tina Chappel, owner of Yoga Jones, which hosts kirtan sessions.

The chanting usually is accompanied by exotic traditional Indian instruments such as the harmonium, tablas, caratals, tamboura and sitar.

The results are not mysterious — but rather, scientific.

Kirtan, from the Sanskrit word for singing, is an excellent workout for the fifth chakra — the center of communication positioned within the throat — as well as the entire chakra energy system. A chakra — a Sanskrit term meaning circle or wheel — is a center of activity that receives, assimilates and expresses life force energy; the word chakra refers to a spinning sphere of bioenergetic activity emanating from the major nerve ganglia branching forward from the spinal column.

Weaving the audience into the performance, kirtan uses holy names, aspects of these names and ragas — melodic structures — in order to open hearts and awaken the divinity within. By chanting these holy names of God, the dormant love of God that lies in our own hearts is awakened and brings a deeper realization of the divine with it, Chappel said.

"Kirtan is singing the name of the divine over and over again," she said. "So essentially, you're getting higher than a kite, because you're opening the heart center and bypassing the mental chatter."

Mother tongue

Sanskrit is the mother tongue of many modern languages — including German and English — and therefore is a point of linguistic unity, Stringer said.

"For most people in both Europe and America, Sanskrit is experienced as an oddly familiar kind of nonsense," Stringer said. "But since one of the aims of chanting is to stop the mind's identification with thinking, this nonsense turns out to be very useful."

If you deprive the mind of the babble of pictures and words it usually is focused on, "you become aware of an expansive and joyful silence that seems to hold the mind within itself," Stringer said. "In this state of awareness, there is no sense of separation or difference."

Science aside, that's why people enjoy going to concerts and dancing so much: It allows the chakra system to flow nicely with the music.

When we chant together, we breathe together, and when we breathe together, we begin to resonate with one another and come into harmony together, said Sarah Garney, Stringer's manager and kirtan coordinator at Yoga Soup in Santa Barbara.

"The vibrations associated with the Sanskrit mantras correspond to their meaning," Garney said. "And when you chant the names of the Hindu gods and goddesses, such as Krishna, Shiva, Saraswati or Durga, you are chanting the names of the divine; essentially you are singing, Love, love love ,' which fills you with the vibration of love, love, love."

At Yoga Nook in Simi Valley, Jeannette Hutton recently experienced kirtan for the first time during a workshop for yoga teachers in training. While Yoga Nook does not offer kirtan on a regular basis, the studio hosts kirtan events from time to time, she said.

"I found the music itself to be just beautiful; it was joyous," Hutton recalled. "This morning, I found myself humming. The chants just sort of stay with you. Subconsciously, the chants kept coming back into my mind. They really connect and unify you with the higher spirit, the higher universe."

There are 52 sounds in the alphabet of Sanskrit, and each of these sounds is like a wheel in the subjective body that originates from the spokes of the chakras, said Adam Danikiewicz of Ventura, a yoga teacher who also leads kirtan sessions occasionally at Yoga Jones, where he goes by the spiritual name Vishnuprem.

"This is how the ancient yogis have discovered levels of vibration in their bodies," Danikiewicz said.

People throughout the world are seeking kirtan experiences more now than ever, he said.

"For the past 10 years, there has been a shift in human consciousness, so people are attracted to this naturally," he said. "People are waking up to their true nature, so they need tools for it."

Photos by Richard Quinn / Special to The Star: Kira Ryder, center, teaching a yoga class at Lulu Bandha's, was named one of 21 teachers "shaping the future of yoga" by Yoga Journal magazine. At top, she shows a pose to students.

Kira Ryder, center, teaching a yoga class at Lulu Bandha's, was named one of 21 teachers "shaping the future of yoga" by Yoga Journal magazine. At top, she shows a pose to students.
Yoga teacher earns recognition as leader in cultivating awareness

Monday, April 28, 2008

Diagnosed with endometriosis, Kira Ryder was seeking a solution for the pain when she first tried yoga at age 21.

Now the owner of Lulu Bandha's in Ojai, the 34-year-old was featured in the March issue of Yoga Journal as one of 21 teachers "shaping the future of yoga."

The article recognizes Ryder's gift for teaching compassion, especially toward oneself, and notes the increasing number of students from across the country enrolled at her studio.

"Personally, the recognition exposed two deep conflicting knots for me: my need for approval and my rejection of authority," said Ryder of Ojai, who has been teaching yoga since 1995. "So while I felt a bit mixed up about it, I was incredibly grateful ultimately delighted and honored to be included. And since then, I have been asked to write for the magazine, which has been an incredible learning process."

Ryder's style emphasizes cultivating awareness and "finding your own groove," but the method taught depends on who shows up for yoga class on any given day, she said.

"Possibly what is unique about this is that we are not committed to a particular style but to doing our best to offer what is appropriate for each person," said Ryder, whose main influence is Erich Schiffmann, a world-renowned yoga teacher and author of "Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness."

"The tradition of yoga is a living, breathing tradition that is blossoming within each of us," Ryder said. "The various styles simply offer different containers in which to explore and learn how to listen inwardly and eventually, as my teacher Erich Schiffmann says, dare to follow the guidance you receive."

Learning to listen

Ryder is passionate about helping her students get in touch with what is in their hearts and letting that guide both their yoga practice and their lives, said student Ashley Lowe of Ojai.

"Since I first started going to her classes two years ago, I've learned to listen to my inner guidance more than ever," Lowe said.

"I always think of a phrase she repeats in class: It takes so little to feel better,'" Lowe said. "She teaches that just the tiniest bit of awareness and compassion for yourself can make such a huge difference in how you feel. In her classes, she creates an atmosphere where internal listening is encouraged so that the subtle becomes big and the heart can be heard."

For the article in Yoga Journal, the teachers were asked to name their particular styles.

"This was almost impossible for me to do, as I teach a variety of classes and what ultimately gets taught depends on who shows up for class," Ryder explained.

Nevertheless, the article notes her style as vinyasa — formless.

"Generally, in the vinyasa style, a sequence of related postures are linked together with the breath," Ryder explained. "The rhythmic movement deepens an understanding of and connection to the breath.

"The connection to the breath leads to a relationship with one's prana, or life force; the connection to one's life force, or prana, draws us into the deepest part of ourselves."

About vinyasa

When appropriate for the person, the freedom of the vinyasa practice supplies the undercurrent for the yogini — female yogi — to start to feel her own flow, Ryder continued.

"The vinyasa form helps you find a rhythm with the class," she said. "The cadence of the breath provides an underlying beat that holds the space for a teacher and students to get into the groove and out of their mind chatter."

Vinyasa flow is commonly a rigorous practice with lots of repetitive sun salutations and yoga push-ups, "but," Lowe said, "Kira offers a more introspective type of vinyasa that can be found only at Lulu's, where the flow comes from tuning into your own energy and breath."

The recent honor in Yoga Journal will bring broader attention to Ryder's powerful teachings, Lowe added.

"This honor means that a new generation of yoga teachers is gaining prestige, and Kira is on the list of teachers that the yoga community can look to for inspiration and teachings."

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